Tide talented, but concerns remain

With veterans set to report Wednesday, fall practice is almost here. And for Tide fans frankly sick of the lingering memory from last year's 3-8 debacle, kickoff against UCLA simply can't get here fast enough. <p>New year, new coach, new staff and a new team…it all adds up to a fresh start for Alabama football. But without throwing too much cold water on the building optimism, some lingering concerns about the present squad remain.

Certainly there are plenty of reasons for Tide fans to feel better about this year--beginning and ending with their new head coach. But questions remain. And on that list of serious concerns, the play of the Tide quarterbacks is right up there near the top.

As Alabama's Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach Les Koenning is fond of saying, quarterbacks receive too much credit when their team wins--and too much blame for the losses. But the hard fact remains that production last season from the Tide QBs ranged from average to poor. And the school that produced the likes of Jay Barker and Kenny Stabler finished dead last in the SEC--in both passing offense and passing efficiency.

16:7 is the ratio, representing interceptions to touchdowns by Alabama passers in 2000. And the figure tells fans all they need to know about the effectiveness of Bama's once-proud quarterback position. Coach Franchione is quick to point out that more games are lost than won, and it falls to the Tide offensive coaches to make certain that lesson is taught to Andrew Zow, Tyler Watts and the rest of Bama's signal callers.

Shown coaching Lannis Baxley last spring, line coach Jim Bob Helduser has the difficult task of somehow accelerating the normally slow process of developing a cohesive offensive front.

On the positive side, early indications are that the point is getting through. After a turnover-marred first spring scrimmage both Zow and Watts were dropped down the depth chart--and each improved significantly in protecting the football the rest of the way. But bad habits have a way of cropping back up at the worst times. And if Alabama is to achieve anywhere close to the lofty goals of its fans, then those interceptions-to-touchdowns numbers must be reversed.

The second major worry (on offense) focuses along the offensive line. Counted on as a strength in 2000, the big guys up front frankly underachieved for most of the season. Obviously Tide fans are hoping that new O-Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser can work some magic and achieve an immediate turnaround, but that's frankly hard to do with inexperienced players.

Dante Ellington returns as a third-year starter at one tackle position, and strong guard Dennis Alexander, who started seven games last year, also has good experience. But the rest of the top players--though talented--are as green as grass. Junior Marico Portis did have two starts way back as a freshman, but since then he's been a little-used backup. And Alonzo Ephraim has also seen duty as a reserve center. But Evan Mathis (redshirt freshman), Atlas Herrion (junior college transfer), Justin Smiley (redshirt freshman) and Wesley Britt (redshirt freshman) have never played a down of SEC football.

No matter how talented your skill players are, it's axiomatic that an offense is only as effective as the ‘Big Uglies' up front. All of Helduser's linemen have worked hard in the off-season, shedding excess weight while also gaining strength. But the veteran coach frankly admits that it can take as long as a year for a group of individual athletes to develop into a cohesive unit.

Combine talent, effective coaching and hard work, and Alabama's future along the offensive line looks bright. But with a talented UCLA squad arriving in less than a month, the learning curve for this group of youngsters will have to be incredibly steep.

Pictured here coaching Reggie Myles, Ron Case has his work cut out for him at Alabama developing talented but inexperienced athletes into big-time performers at safety.

Along with the young offensive line, Franchione frankly admits his worries about the Tide secondary. After a better-than-expected spring, the defensive coaches were encouraged about the number of athletes that Chris Thurmond has to work with at corner. But at safety Bama is both inexperienced and thin.

Obviously everyone is hoping that senior strong safety Shontua Ray has finally found his position. And with Tony Dixon's departure to the NFL, the talented but too-often volatile Reggie Myles is back starting at free safety. But both athletes need to step up their play considerably if they are to finally fulfill the hype that accompanied their arrival on campus as freshmen.

Reserves Waine Bacon, Charles Jones, Chris James and Tyler Harris all show promise; and true freshmen Juke King and Charlie Peprah are also talented. But only Harris has even stepped on the field wearing the Crimson jersey--and that in spot duty as freshman.

With over 30 years of coaching behind him, Ron Case is the senior member of Franchione's staff--and he arrives in Tuscaloosa with a solid reputation for coaching defensive backs. But there is little question that Case will need every bit of his experience as he works to develop the Tide safeties.

Shown imparting some ‘wisdom' to Jarrett Johnson last spring, Coach Eggen is still searching for some big bodies to plug in at defensive tackle.

Perhaps last--but not even close to being least--the fourth major worry headed into the season can be found in the middle of the defensive line. There's no doubt that the Tide is talented up front. When Aries Monroe (maybe the best all-around athlete on the squad) and super-sophs Antwan Odom and Nautyn McKay-Loescher can do no better than second-string--you KNOW your defensive line is both gifted and deep. But it's in the center at the critical tackle slots where a lack of bodies could spell trouble.

After sitting out his first year as a partial qualifier, powerful Anthony Bryant is set to finally make his much-anticipated debut. And after working furiously in the off-season strength program, ‘Bear' is easily in the best shape of his life--which is frankly scary. Bryant may or may not start against UCLA, but there's little doubt that the 6-2, 330-pound ‘man-child' represents the Tide future at nose tackle. And next to him, junior Jarrett Johnson should be very good at left tackle.

But Defensive Line Coach Stan Eggen needs five athletes to rotate at the two tackle slots. And though sometime starter David Daniel pushes his total up one, that still leaves Bama two big bodies short.

Can Alabama slide ends Kindal Moorehead (down to a ‘svelte' 280 pounds) and Kenny King inside to provide some minutes at tackle? Of course. In fact, Tide fans are frankly salivating at the idea of Moorehead, King, Monroe, Odom and McKay-Loescher terrorizing opposing quarterbacks on passing downs.

But what happens when Mississippi State with its two-headed tailback and mammoth offensive line comes to town? Are there enough wide bodies to hold up against the always-brutal Southeastern Conference schedule?

And don't even think about what might happen if the wrong athlete gets injured.

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