Smiley responds to team critics

Despite finishing 10-3 last season and having plenty of starters back, Alabama is garnering little pre-season hype. Reasons for doubting the team are obvious, so we thought we'd ask a team leader to address the concerns head on. <br><br>Pre-season All-America guard Justin Smiley accepted the challenge.

Alabama can't go to a bowl game, so how can the team possibly stay motivated?

Justin Smiley: "We have plenty to play for. We can still win the SEC West, like we did last year. We were the Western Division champs. We know that. We couldn't represent the West in Atlanta, but we had the best record and we beat Arkansas in Fayetteville. We can be the No. 1 team in the country in the AP poll. We can earn a ring for achieving that. There's a lot to play for.

"We're at Alabama. What more reason do you need to win 13 games?"

Three coaches in seven months, isn't the team on the verge of falling apart?

Head Coach Mike Shula

Smiley: "Folks will just have to see how the season progresses. There is no way I can explain it to an outsider. I can't do what we've been through justice. I'd just say watch how hard we work.

"Our off-season has probably been the most productive we've had. We worked hard on a lot of technical, fundamental things. We've got our offense pretty much in place. We've just got to get some reps on it during two-a-days and we'll be fine. Just watch us to see how the season progresses."

Your head coach looks like he's 25 years old. Can Mike Shula possibly be tough enough to handle coaching in the SEC?

Smiley: "He's a really quiet guy, but at the same time Coach Shula has got it together. He's an offensive-minded coach, which I like. I can tell already that while he's really calm and reserved off the field, on the field he can snap on you.

"The quiet people are the ones you've got to watch out for."

How can the team learn a new offense in such a short period of time and still be ready by the season?

Smiley: "We've already put in most of our run game and much of the passes. As soon as the coaches got here we started watching cut-ups from Miami and other offenses, because we have coaches from all over the country. We've been picking up bits and pieces. Now we've got it pretty much together. We've just got to get some reps in practice."

Won't it be mid-season before the offense even begins to take shape?

Smiley: "Being truthful, as high-powered as our offensive line is I don't think we need more than two or three running plays and several passing plays to be effective early on. Of course we're going to get better as the season goes on.

"We can run the football, we know that. Against South Florida we've just got to play our game, and I believe we'll be all right. We've got time to perfect our offense before we get into SEC play."

Three D-Linemen from last year are gone to the NFL. The defensive line has got to be in rough shape, right?

Smiley: "Anyone that would say that obviously hasn't seen our players. The first thing that pops into my mind is Antwan Odom. He was as deserving of publicity last year as any of those three guys. He's an unbelievable defensive lineman. I believe he can be the best defensive end in college football this year. He probably got half the snaps that David Pollack from Georgia got last year, but Antwan had only four sacks less. The guy is amazing. He's an All-American type player.

Smiley expects big things from Antwan Odom.

"Anthony (Bryant) and Ahmad (Childress) are unbelievable. They're as good at defensive tackle as anybody I've ever faced. They both needed to drop weight and get in shape, and they've both done that in the off season. They're ready for a good season. And of course Nautyn (McKay-Loescher) is as solid a player as anybody.

"We're still stacked all the way across the board. We still have two or three All-SEC type players."

What about the defensive line players behind the starters?

Smiley: "We really do have depth. Of course they need experience, but how can you get experience without the chance? In practice those guys have shown me a lot. They need to continue to get stronger in the weight room, but guys like Jeremy Clark, Kyle Tatum and Mark Anderson and others will fight tooth and nail. They want to play. They're going to really help us out."

Last year's team overachieved to win 10 games, but you've lost a lot of good players. Can you reasonably expect to be as good in 2003?

Smiley: "There are plenty of critics, but I think the true Alabama fans understand. We're still loaded. We're stacked at most positions. We might not have the depth we've had in some years, but that's just part of it. So we condition our bodies to be in the best possible shape this year. That will cut down on injuries. Last year (except for Ahmaad Galloway) we didn't have anybody get injured that ended their season. That was a product of us working hard. This summer we've stepped it up a notch."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Check back with as we continue to play devil's advocate with Justin Smiley. In the second segment he talks specifically about the Alabama offense and its outlook for the year.

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