Dave Rimington noticed who led the way as Alabama players filed out of the locker room right before the college football national championship game Monday night.
It was Ryan Kelly, the Crimson Tide's senior center and winner of the 17th Rimington Trophy.
As one of the team's four permanent captains, Kelly was mindful of the importance of strong leadership. And effective leadership — as is the case with almost any championship team — was crucial for the Tide as it earned the program's 16th national crown by defeating Clemson 45-40.
Alabama's cohesion was stronger than in recent seasons, and core leadership had a lot to do with it, said Kelly, who Saturday night in Lincoln will be presented with the trophy that annually goes to the nation's top collegiate center.
"I think it started with our leadership group really pushing the envelope and developing guys and controlling the attitude," Kelly said in a phone interview. "In years past, negative attitudes from some guys really brought down other guys."
Tailback Derrick Henry wouldn't allow such negativity this season. Nor would linebacker Reggie Ragland. Kelly mentioned those two as being among about a dozen in the main leadership group.
The younger players bought in, said Kelly, his words perhaps reminding Nebraska fans of the 1990s Husker national championship teams that were largely defined by strong cohesion and brotherhood — and like Alabama, an enormous wealth of talent.
In the 1990s, much of Nebraska's leadership emanated from the Unity Council. Unity Councils at NU once featured eight players apiece from offense and defense, plus a kicker. Unity Council members, elected by their peers, typically met on Tuesdays and dealt with a variety of issues. If a player missed class or was slacking in practice, the Unity Council might issue a stern reprimand.
At Alabama, coach Nick Saban prefers to have at least one defined leader from each position group. He runs a program that is very structured, Kelly said.
That doesn't mean things always go smoothly.
"Our leadership group really drove the season, whereas in years past, the coaches had to really kind of get us going," Kelly said. "So that really made a difference for us."
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Kelly, of West Chester, Ohio, gave his team both sound leadership and a consistently strong presence in the middle of the offense. In fact, Henry described Kelly as "the heart and soul of the offense."
Wait a minute. Wasn't it Henry who won the Heisman Trophy? Wasn't it the powerful Henry who led the nation with 2,219 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns? Wasn't he the heart of the offense?
"Ryan has to make sure everybody has the right calls (on the offensive line), everybody's doing the right thing," Henry told reporters last month. "He does great at his job, but he also has to make sure other guys are doing their jobs, so that's why I call him the heart of the offense."
Their respect is mutual. Kelly described the 6-3, 242-pound Henry as "one of the hardest-working guys we had on offense."
"That certainly picked us up when we were down as an offensive line," Kelly said. "I think there were a lot of unsung heroes on offense throughout the year. I'm just a small part of a national championship offense."
His humility is endearing, but he had an incredible year. He didn't commit a single penalty — not one holding call. He admits he's "a little amazed" by that stat. He never allowed a sack in helping pave the way for an offense that was defined by balance and its ability to possess the ball — it ranked eighth nationally in time of possession with an average of 33 minutes, 35 seconds per game.
Bear in mind, Alabama's offense returned only two starters from last season: Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson. That made the leadership aspect that much more important.
In talking to Kelly, his level of maturity becomes evident. To wit: He feels that with winning the Rimington Trophy "comes a lot of responsibility." He said he tries to conduct himself in a manner that honors Rimington, the two-time Husker All-America center (1981-82), as well as the 16 previous winners of the award.
"I have a responsibility to uphold the values and standards that Dave Rimington played with and carries himself with," Kelly said.