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David Boyce | | December 16, 2016

North Alabama's senior class going out with a bang

DII Football: North Alabama tops Shepherd

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When North Alabama coach Bobby Wallace returned to the school he enjoyed national championship success in the mid-1990s, he recognized he had precious little time to recruit for the 2012 season.

Wallace basically had the month of January to reload the North Alabama football program with players.

“With coach [Terry] Bowden leaving, a lot of guys transferred and left the program. We signed 41 true freshmen that year,” said fifth-year senior quarterback Jacob Tucker, who was part of Wallace’s first recruiting class.

Tucker figures 17 true freshmen saw significant playing time in 2012. Senior corner back Khyle Jackson was one of the true freshmen who played in 2012. Jackson took his redshirt season in 2015.

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For Tucker, he redshirted in 2012 and then played behind starting quarterback Luke Wingo the next three seasons.

“It was just remarkable we were able to sign Luke Wingo and Jacob Tucker in that class and all the great guys that went with them,” Wallace said.

Despite the youth, the Lions went 5-5, and that is when Wallace new he brought in a special group.

“I could see after the 2012 year,” Wallace said. “A bunch of them were thrown into the fire. We survived. We didn’t have a losing season. The next year we shared a conference championship. That was the point I went, ‘Man, we got these guys for two and three more years.’ Sure enough, they haven’t disappointed me.”

Indeed. The remaining players from the 2012 class have guided the Lions to their first NCAA Division II Football Championship game since 1995 when North Alabama won its third straight title.

RELATED: North Alabama vs. Northwest Missouri State game preview

North Alabama (11-1) takes on defending national champion Northwest Missouri State (14-0) at 4 p.m. ET Saturday at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas, for the Division II title.

“This class,” Wallace said, “has accomplished so much. Obviously, the classes we had in the '90s that won three national championships accomplished a lot. But this class has won four straight conference championships and now got us to the national championship game. The seniors from last year and the seniors from this year were all part of that recruiting class.”

Jackson said when he arrived at North Alabama in 2012, he wasn’t thinking about playing in a national championship game. He was one of many true freshmen going up against juniors and seniors in the rugged Gulf South Conference. He saw action in eight of the 10 games.

Soon after the first season, Jackson saw the talent was there for the Lions to one day reach the pinnacle of Division II football.

“Throughout the years, I saw the talent we had and the way we grew together,” Jackson said. “I knew that someday we had the ability to get there. It was just a matter of playing well enough together to get there.

“Coach Wallace recruited all of us and built us up to get to this point. We have all grown together. We are like brothers now.”

In the previous three years, all the Lions needed to do to understand sacrifice for the betterment of the team was to look at Tucker. He played behind Wingo even though he had talent to start for most teams.

In 2013, Tucker passed for 457 yards and rushed for 403, and last season he saw action in 10 games, rushing for 303 yards and five touchdowns. As the starter this season, Tucker has passed for 2,661 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for 902 yards and 16 touchdowns, and is a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist.

“What Jacob has done the last four or five years, to me, is one of the greatest stories I have been around in my 40 years of college coaching,” Wallace said. “He has been unselfish. He was Luke Wingo’s biggest supporter. It was eating him inside because he wants to play. He is such a great competitor. He is a great leader off the field. He was a leader when he wasn’t the starting quarterback. The way he handled that situation was remarkable. It is something I could talk about for a long time.”

Because the Lions grew and developed together, they are experiencing something few teams get to experience.

“It was amazing,” Jackson said of flying into Kansas City. “The wind was blowing and it was cold, but it was amazing to know we get to play in the championship game.”

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