Though there is still a vitally important full week of practice left before the season-opener, in many ways the 2001 edition of the Tide has started to take shape. Under Head Coach Dennis Franchione, the emphasis is on developing talent, which most often indicates a redshirt season for incoming freshman. And in every case the best player plays.
True freshman O-Lineman J.B. Closner
As noted earlier, the recent elevation of Justin Smiley and Marico Portis to first-team was simply a move to get the best football players on the field. Both guards are good athletes, but more importantly they relish contact.
Of the three freshmen offensive linemen (Von Ewing, Mark Sanders and J.B. Closner), Closner is the smallest. He's ‘only' 6-4, 297 (as compared to Ewing at 6-5, 306 and Sanders at 6-6, 307). But the coaches love Closner's attitude and toughness, and the Texas native just ‘looks' like a football player. All three should eventually contribute, but Closner is the closest right now. Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser has him working at center, though Closner could play any position on the O-Line.
Senior Adam Cox returns to linebacker
With more famous names already penciled in at linebacker, the move of senior Adam Cox from offense back to the defensive side of the football hasn't caused much stir. Starters Saleem Rasheed, Victor Ellis and Brooks Daniels have received most of the ink--and rightfully so. While returning backups Jason Rawls and Cornelius Wortham both have shown promise. But Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach Carl Torbush noted earlier this week that Cox was making strides at the Rover position. Look for the Jasper native to play in the rotation this season.
Super-frosh Freddie Roach
And staying on the subject of linebackers, at this point senior Darius Gilbert is still running second-string at middle linebacker. But because of the precocious talent shown by true freshman Freddie Roach, how long that will last is an open question. Roach is getting some work on the outside as well, but it seems clear that he's being groomed to take over at ‘Mike' linebacker when Rasheed eventually departs for the NFL. Under Franchione, the majority of freshmen will likely redshirt every season. But from the moment Roach signed with Alabama last February, the coaches have identified him as a probable exception to that rule.
Freshman defensive end Mark Anderson
Standing 6-5, but weighing only 210 pounds, true freshman defensive end Mark Anderson is an almost certain redshirt this season. But the coaches really like his speed and athleticism. Anderson is what Coach Franchione calls a ‘flash guy,' referring to a defender with enough speed to pressure the quarterback off the edge of the defense. Though he may be at somewhat of a disadvantage when facing athletes bigger and stronger from months in the weight room, Anderson has impressed his new teammates. "He'll get after you," was the appreciative comment made following one pass-rush drill.
Center Evan Mathis is also getting some work at offensive tackle.
As Coach Franchione said earlier, second-string center Evan Mathis has also been getting some work at Strong Tackle. Weighing 281 solid pounds, Mathis has worked very hard in the weight room and is viewed as a ‘comer' by the Tide staff. Helduser also noted recently that Mathis and Closner would likely "work opposite" each other. In other words, if Closner stays at center, then Mathis would likely end up at tackle in future seasons and vice versa.
Watts has worked hard in the weight room to become stronger.
It's been awhile since Alabama had a powerful quarterback, capable of running over smaller DBs. In fact, probably not since the 80s has an athlete as strong as Tyler Watts also called the signals for the Tide. Obviously a quarterback's main responsibility is getting the team in the right play and passing the ball accurately, but there is also no question that Franchione isn't afraid to use his quarterback's feet to attack a defense as well.
In a recent scrimmage, Watts was met head on at the goal line by free safety Reggie Myles. The tackler was squared up in good position, but Watts lowered his shoulder and bowled his man over and back into the endzone.
Walk-on receiver Lance Taylor makes the catch.
Every spring several walk-on receivers will show up well, and almost every fall the same players will drop off the radar screen. But so far sophomore Lance Tayler (#25) out of Mt. Vernon's Citronelle High School has shown no signs of going away. He's only 5-9, 186, but Taylor brings good speed and very good strength to the position. And in practice after practice and scrimmage after scrimmage he just keeps catching the football. Obviously there are numerous talented scholarshipped receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, but determined athletes like Taylor somehow find a way to help the team.