Athletes poised to step up

No one doubts the talent. On offense the Tide returns starters at eight of eleven starting positions, but for Alabama to be successful in 2003 several key players need to take their game to the next level.

(Above left) Brodie Croyle looks to pass versus Vanderbilt.

It might sound odd to include Zach Fletcher (pictured above versus LSU) in this category, but his total production last year bears it out. Despite averaging 27.6 yards per catch including two touchdowns, Fletcher totaled only seven receptions on the year. Former receivers coach Kennith Pope admitted that he didn't use Fletcher enough, which was definitely an understatement.

According to scouts, Fletcher has NFL talent, and he's definitely hoping to use his final season at Alabama as a springboard into the draft.

Given the dearth of proven (and enrolled) players at fullback, Greg McLain (pictured above versus Vanderbilt) is probably one of the most valuable offensive athletes heading into the season. He worked exclusively at tight end during the spring, but Mike Shula believes in running football, making McLain's position move a good bet.

J.B. Closner

As one of only two true freshmen to see action last season, McLain started slowly but was a starter by the end. He saw action in 12 games, starting six. He totaled 19 rushes for 81 yards with a long of 25 yards versus Ole Miss.

But McLain's skill as a blocker was his main contribution to the offense, and that should also be true in 2003.

Neither center J.B. Closner nor right guard Dennis Alexander are green when it comes to experience.

Closner saw action in six games last season, including a season-high 22 snaps against Arkansas.

Dennis Alexander

For his part Alexander started seven games as a true freshman, though he's worked in a back-up role since.

Both players have talent, but if Alabama's offensive line is to take up where it left off last season the pressure will be on Closner and Alexander to perform. Bama's other O-Line starters are very good, but one of Coach Bobby Connelly's favorite sayings is "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link." There really isn't an option. Alexander and Closner have to step up in 2003.

No one disputes that Brodie Croyle (pictured above versus Georgia) had a solid first season at quarterback. He worked mostly as a back-up, but when Tyler Watts was injured Croyle started versus Arkansas and Georgia, playing well in both games. For the year Croyle completed 123 passes for 1,046 yards and five touchdowns.

Croyle's physical talent isn't in question. To the contrary, many Tide fans have already annointed him Bama's next great passing quarterback.

But despite his obvious potential, Croyle has to prove he can perform week in and week out as a starter against always tough--and sometimes brutal--SEC competition.

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