For Babb, it was concrete evidence that Alabama's new head coach didn't just say the right things in public--he and his staff followed through on the practice field. "(Coach Fran) said it doesn't matter," Babb continued. "It doesn't matter if you're a walk-on or on scholarship. If you produce, you play. The playmakers will be the ones on the field. They will be the ones that get the ball.
"And (Wide Receivers) Coach Pope said basically the same thing. He told us Coach Fran really doesn't care. A lot of people talk, but (this staff) means what they say. If you can make it, then you'll be on the field."
Franchione's initial words to the squad delivered in that first team meeting were as much a challenge as a promise. Returning starters knew they would have to produce or be replaced. But for Babb--essentially ignored by the previous staff--the assurance of a ‘clean slate' meant he would finally get the opportunity to prove what he could do.
He explained, "A lot of players knew I could play; I just never did get the opportunity. They kept telling me that. I just went out there and played my best. I knew I could play. I learned that on the scout team working against the No. 1 defense. That gave me more confidence, since I did well against them."
"Joel is an extremely hard worker," said fellow junior wideout Sam Collins. "He's out here all the time giving 110 percent, in the weight room and on the field. He's made a name for himself through the off-season and on the practice plays. He makes plays every opportunity he gets."
It's not so much that Babb is suddenly expected to contend for All-America honors. In truth with names like Milons, McAddley, Carter and Collins still ahead of him on the depth chart, he'll likely begin the season as a situational player on offense. But after being ignored for most of his high school and college careers, that will be sweet vindication for the Phenix City native.
"Coming out of high school I wasn't really recruited," Babb explained. "I think basically it was because of my speed. The players know I can play, but it was my high school situation. I went to Phenix City Central, and Triandos Luke came in (my junior year). We were running a wing-T offense with just one wide receiver, so there basically was only room for one receiver. And Tree was faster. He ended up playing (ahead of me) because of his speed. When it came to recruiting I really didn't have any stats. I had like five catches and one touchdown in high school."
Having become a Tide fan while following the team during its 1992 national championship season, Babb decided to walk-on at Alabama. But he quickly discovered his path would not be easy. "There was a point when I thought nobody would notice me. I felt like I was wasting my time, and basically I was ready to leave last winter. If I hadn't had a good enough spring to get into the rotation, I would have considered it."
"It's very difficult for the walk-ons," Collins added. "The scholarship guys come in with all the hype. Walk-ons usually don't get as many reps. They have to take advantage of the few they get, and Joel's done that."
Like most athletes, all the redshirt junior wanted was a chance. "Actually I had gotten everything set," Babb related. "I talked to (Athletics Director) Mal Moore about my release form, and it was ready to sign. I was prepared. If they didn't give me an opportunity, I would have been gone."
But it only took one day of practice for Babb (and the rest of the squad) to learn that Dennis Franchione was a distinctive departure from what they had experienced before. "(Coach Fran) sets goals and then works to achieve them," Babb explained. "He's a goal-oriented person. First he sets the path, then he shows you all the steps that you need to take to reach that specific place. He knows what he wants done, and he's going to go and accomplish it.
"And he is intense. He wants things done in a precise way. You have to be stern and be a disciplinarian to get that. You have to be strong and have that backbone. Sometimes you do have to be hard on the players."
But Babb echoes what other Tide veterans have said in his belief that intensity and discipline were just what the squad needed. "We're more of a team this year," he explained. "Last year I didn't really feel like part of a team. This year you know more people at other positions. You hang out with other guys. Everybody is focused on getting that winning tradition back.
"I think it goes back to what Coach Fran emphasizes, and the way the coaches treat the players. It's like they really care about you. That feeds off of itself, and everybody really cares about the next person now."
That new camaraderie was forged through long months of shared effort in the summer conditioning program. And like his fellow teammates, Babb is more than anxious for Saturday to arrive, so they can begin to erase the memories of last year's losing record.
"Right now I'm just hoping to get on the field and contribute any way I can," he said." I just want to get on the field and play. I don't worry about the number of catches or anything else. I just want to be a part of the team."