Watts pushing for the starting job

It's an axiom of college football. Consistency goes hand-in-hand with success. Hire too many different position coaches, and you'll quickly find yourself with mixed-up players--and that's especially true with quarterbacks. But according to junior Tyler Watts, there's no room for doubt about what the current coaches are after. "They're making it very clear what they want from us. They want me to take care of the ball."

"Be conservative with it, but also move the team. The coaches point out exactly what they want from us, and if we're ever short of that, we find out."

Protect the football, and don't give up field position. Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione makes things crystal clear. "They have several rules," Watts explained. "When we get inside the 30- or 25-yardline, no sacks and no interceptions. We'll take a field goal, because those are points. But we're not going to beat ourselves. We're not going to give up an opportunity to score when we're down there. You really have to be conservative with the ball when you're close."

Quarterbacks Coach Les Koenning (far right) has the primary responsibility for teaching Watts and Zow that protecting the football is always the primary goal.

So much takes place at practice with multiple drills happening at the same time, that even careful observers can miss things. But one vignette from earlier in the week illustrates the point. During a goal-line drill, starting from the 5-yardline in, Watts rolled to his left and missed his read before dumping the ball long into the parking lot. Disgusted with himself, he turned quickly away to find his head coach jogging up. "No, no. That's OK, That's OK." Franchione told him, reinforcing the lesson that saving a chance for an easy field goal is definitely better than forcing the ball into coverage.

The quarterback position at Alabama has always received more than its share of fan attention. And the current situation, in which Watts is battling senior Andrew Zow with true freshman phenom Brodie Croyle also in the mix, has only intensified the scrutiny.

During the most recent scrimmage, neither Watts nor Zow played particularly well, prompting Franchione to admit he was "waiting on someone to step forward." But beginning yesterday and carrying through this morning the Pelham native has seemed to elevate his game, making correct reads and delivering the football while also moving the offense down the field.

"The last couple of days have been going better," Watts acknowledged. "I've still got to be more consistent, though. Ever since the scrimmage I've been really concentrating on trying not to throw interceptions and being able to handle the snaps. I've been working on consistency in my reads and knowing the plays, knowing my assignments and not worrying about anybody else. It's helped. I've still got a lot of improving to do, but I'm going in the right direction."

His first scrimmage stats were just average (three of nine for 27 yards), but Watts was more embarrassed by fumbled center snaps and other mental lapses. "I was just rushing, trying to make a play," he related. "I was just too uptight out there--not relaxing and playing. That's going to happen a little bit, but you'll calm down as you continue to play. I think I was just real excited. I got ahead a bit, hurrying and rushing. I'll do better the next time."

A knee injury suffered against Ole Miss ended Watts's tenure last season as a starting quarterback almost before it began. But the former high-school phenom hopes that 2001 is finally his year.

"The last few days going against our defense we've calmed down a lot," he continued. "You've just got to take a deep breath and relax--just go out there and play. We know what we're supposed to do; we just have to go out there and execute it."

Of course for most fans the questions are simple. Watts or Zow? Or is Croyle making a run at the starting job?

Nothing has been announced. And Watts himself won't speak directly on the subject. But the junior signal-caller has spent a lot of time the last three practice sessions working with the first unit. "We've been doing some rotating," Watts acknowledged. "Just trying to find out who is the most efficient. Who is moving the team well, and who is playing well. (The question of who is No. 1) will work out. We've still got a long ways to go during two-a-days."

As Franchione and Quarterbacks Coach Les Koenning have made clear, the decision will come down to which QB can move the chains while protecting the football. "We're trying to be more efficient," Watts said. "That's something they're really drilling us on. Know your assignment and don't make mental mistakes. Mistakes are going to happen, and we realize that. But we have got to cut down on the mental mistakes. We'll be able to move the ball, so long as we're not beating ourselves.

"And me? I'm doing better about things. I'm getting more confident. Definitely. But I have to continue to practice well. I have to come out here every day with the right attitude. I've got to try and learn as much as I can and take advantage. The more you know the more confident you are."

But Watts refuses to take credit for the recent offensive improvement. "Actually, our entire offense is playing a lot better. We've just got to do that every practice. We've got to realize that we have a long way to go. We're not where we want to be, but we're getting there--heading in the right direction."

As part of his summer conditioning program, Watts worked to increase his strength and also drop a few pounds to improve his quickness.

Since first arriving on campus as a true freshman, some have questioned Watts' arm strength. But two throws from this morning's practice illustrate his ability. First he delivered a perfect 25-yard throw to Freddie Milons on a streak route down the right sideline followed later by a bullet pass to Sam Collins slanting over the middle. In the latter instance he led the receiver just a bit too much, forcing Collins to lay out to make a fingertip catch, but the throw itself arrived with plenty of zip. "Whaddaya mean?" Watts joked. "I hit him right in stride."

Watts traces his improved passing to coaching tips and long hours of off-season repetition. "The coaches helped me out over the summer and taught me a new way to throw the ball," he related. "I've been trying, working on my motion. The biggest thing with me throwing the ball is my feet. I can get lazy with my feet and not have good footwork. But when I really concentrate on it, I'm usually able to put it where it needs to be put. Whether or not I've got good footwork makes all the difference for me."

And responding to the oft-repeated criticism that he is too prone to take off and run rather than hanging in the pocket to throw the ball, Watts offers a simple explanation. "Most of our reads are progression reads on passes. You go 1, 2, 3 and then it's run. You're not going to sit back there with the ball and wait for something to happen, because your protection can only hold up for so long. If you drop back and you see 20 yards without anybody there, why not take it? That's as good as completing a 20-yard pass."

In recent days Franchione has hinted that he would prefer to redshirt both of his freshman quarterbacks, indicating that Watts' task during the last several days of two-a-days remains clear. "Concentration. That's the biggest thing right now," he said. "Everybody is getting tired. Everybody's getting fatigued. The biggest thing that we have to work on right now is staying mentally sharp. That's what we have to overcome, because when you get tired you lose your concentration. We just have to stay on top of things and make sure we know our assignments."

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