Light at the end of the tunnel

Since being introduced as the new head coach at Alabama, Mike Shula has made relatively few public appearances. But he has a good excuse. <br><br>While the other coaches in the SEC were able to take their time developing and tweaking their offensive schemes, Shula and his staff have been forced to cram eight months work into barely two.

For the past several weeks Shula and new Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader have barely had time to come up for air, much less take a summer vacation. Arriving early in the morning and working through till evening, the two have worked to create Alabama's 2003 offense from scratch.

"We were talking about it just the other day," Mike Shula said. "For the staff the past several weeks have felt like training camp."

Shula and Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader spent the first several weeks developing Alabama's offensive schemes.

Taken together, Alabama's coaches have decades of experience coaching offensive football. But except for Shula and Rader back in the mid-80s, none of them have worked together on the same staff. So meshing the various ideas into a coherent scheme was a real challenge.

Shula and Rader began by deciding on a general philosophy. But beyond Rader's cryptic explanation that "we want to score more points every game than our opponent," for the time being they're keeping the details to themselves.

Their second task involved fitting that overall philosophy with the available talent. Since only line coach Bobby Connelly was on hand for spring drills, that involved a lot of self-scouting. Shula and Rader spent hours going through tapes of last season and spring practice, assessing who were their playmakers on offense.

With an audible sigh of relief, Shula reports progress. "I think we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "It may be a small bit of light right now, but it's there."

It's not that Shula and his coaches have been reinventing the wheel, to the contrary. After all one off-tackle run looks very much like another. But if your players don't recognize both the play and which direction to block, then the runner isn't likely to gain any yardage.

As Rader pointed out a "rose is still a rose," but the problem is "What do you call it?"

Seeking to minimize the confusion for the Tide players, Shula tried to incorporate as much of last spring's terminology as possible. But it wasn't always easy.

Recently Alabama's new head coach presided over a "practice session" involving some decidedly older "players." He and his staff, including the graduate assistants, trekked out to the Drew-Thomas practice fields for a walk-through session.

"It was an interesting walk-through," Shula acknowledged with a laugh. "When the players mess up and go the wrong way we get on them in practice. But I had forgotten how easy it was to get mixed up."

Shula hopes to keep Bama's early opponents guessing about the specifics of the Tide offense.

Rader called the plays and the various coaches (players) shifted the formation. More than once the "quarterback" had to check with Shula to make sure the play was correct. "We just adjourned our staff meeting to the practice field," Shula related. "It was a walk-through session except the coaches were the players."

Shula explains that the 2003 offense will remain a work in progress for awhile. The season will begin with relatively fewer plays, but "what we do we want to make sure we do right." From week to week new plays will be added, according to the upcoming opponent's defensive schemes.

One interesting part of Shula's plan is emerging. Talk from the Tide Football Complex indicates that far less access to this year's fall practice will be allowed than normal. Philosophically Shula believes in (mostly) open practices. But the 2003 season presents a unique opportunity.

Turning a problem into an advantage, Shula notes that right now no one knows what Alabama's offense will look like--and that includes early Tide opponents. By the time the third or fourth week rolls around, the specifics of how Shula plans to attack opposing defenses will be better known. But South Florida's coaches (AND Oklahoma's), will be left to guess.

Which from Shula's point of view, ain't all that bad.

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