- Associated Press - Thursday, January 5, 2017

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Reuben Foster arrived at Alabama as a coveted prospect with an Auburn tattoo. He’ll leave having made another kind of mark.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide middle linebacker worked his way up gradually from hard-hitting special teamer to starting inside linebacker and now to a unanimous All-American , Butkus Award winner and highly regarded NFL prospect.

It’s not the easiest or quickest path to stardom for one of the nation’s top recruits, who has become one of the Tide’s biggest stars heading into Monday night’s national championship game against No. 3 Clemson in Tampa, Florida.

Even his own teammates seem impressed by the hard-hitting Foster, whose 103 tackles is 27 more than anybody else on the nation’s top defense.

“A true beast,” said Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley, adding that he wouldn’t want to get hit by him.

“Everybody’s running to the ball but you just see him like flying past everybody,” defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne said.

Foster had to battle his way to this point after arriving from Auburn High School, where he had once committed to Tide rival Auburn.

He had the Auburn tattoo on his right forearm changed to honor his cousin, former Auburn player Ladarious Phillips, who died after being shot at an off-campus apartment.

Predictably, the college switch drew some heat from folks in Auburn, especially when it took Foster two seasons to work his way into the starting lineup. Now, he’s the primary play caller and joins defensive end Jonathan Allen as Alabama’s biggest defensive stars.

Foster said he got serious about mastering the defense after joining the fraternity Omega Psi Phi in 2015.

“Everything changed when I pledged Omega,” Foster said. “I had to learn about all the history of Omega Psi Phi. I was like, ‘Dang, I’m learning all this but I can’t learn this defense.’ I said I might as well go ahead and take the chance and really learn this, the ins and outs of the defense.”

The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder also dropped some 20 pounds during the offseason with the help of team nutritionist Amy Bragg. Bragg would send him daily text messages and gave him a list of things not to eat but she also took a more hands-on role during some mealtimes.

“She’d fix my plate for me,” Foster said. “She knows I’m a momma’s boy. If I fix my plate, I won’t eat it. But if she fixes up my plate, she’ll fix it up nice.”

He has followed in a succession of star middle linebackers from Rolando McClain and Dont’a Hightower to C.J. Mosley and Reggie Ragland, three NFL first-round picks and a second-rounder.

Foster returned for his senior season with designs on graduating - he got his degree in December - along with improving on the field and becoming a first-round pick. Now, he’s regarded as a likely high first-rounder who figures to go 3 for 3 in checking off those goals.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I never knew that a middle linebacker can be in that conversation. (Top 5) that’s outstanding. I’m blessed. It’s crazy. I still think about it and I still don’t believe it.”

Foster played a big role in probably Alabama’s biggest play in the 24-7 semifinal victory over Washington. He was closing in on Huskies quarterback Jake Browning, whose swiftly unloaded pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown by Ryan Anderson.

The oft-smiling Foster is also one of the team’s more popular players, well-liked by teammates and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

“Because he’s real,” Pruitt said. “What you see is what you get. He’s my kind of guy. I like Reuben a lot. If he tells you he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it.”

Tide coach Nick Saban said one thing that makes Foster so well liked is that “in the day and age of everybody’s into selfies and what about me, he’s a guy that’s pretty interested in the relationships that he has and how it affects people …”

“He’s got a great personality,” Saban said. “I think a lot of people are attracted to him because of that, but I also think he’s very caring in terms of what he’s willing to do to help someone out.”

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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