As has been often reported, the first promise Dennis Franchione made to his new team last December was a "clean slate" for everyone. For a change individual athletes would be judged solely on their on-the-field efforts. <br><br>Several former walk-ons have redeemed that pledge to earn playing time and even scholarships. And the underlying philosophy continues to have an effect on Bama's starting lineup.
Prior to the season, two former backups beat out previous No. 1s to earn starting jobs. Tyler Watts at quarterback over Andrew Zow was most publicized, but guard Justin Smiley's climb ahead of Dennis Alexander was probably equally important. It's not that Zow and Alexander aren't talented--quite the contrary. But Franchione and his new staff are committed to identifying and playing the athletes they judge best able to help the Tide to victory.
As coaches everywhere are fond of saying, "competition makes everyone better." And battles for who will start at several positions on this Bama team are continuing.
STRONGSIDE LINEBACKER: Incumbent Victor Ellis versus challenger Cornelius Wortham
Tide Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach Carl Torbush related this week that "Cornelius would love to have Victor's job--and Victor would love to keep it." Which of course sets up an intriguing battle for the strongside spot. With age, experience and a weightlifter's physique going for him, Ellis would appear to have the edge. But though still young, Wortham is one of the better athletes on the squad. He and Saleem Rasheed are frequent workout partners in the weight room, and interestingly Ellis and Rasheed could be the two most effective leaders on this year's defense.
Given his maturity and past experience as a starter, a best guess would have Ellis holding onto the designation as No. 1. But Wortham's playing time will almost certainly increase, and as the year progresses who knows how things might play out?
STRONG TACKLE: Incumbent Dante Ellington versus challenger Evan Mathis
Based on recent playing time for Mathis at strong tackle and some penalty problems for Ellington, Internet scuttlebutt holds that ‘the Duke' may well be the starter whose job is most in jeopardy. But the reality is almost certainly different.
There is no denying the fact that since arriving on campus in 1999, Ellington has not progressed as much as most expected. Plus, Bob Baumhower's nephew (Mathis) does have very good potential. But the size (6-6, 330+) and quick feet that got Ellington on the field as a true freshman remain. Ellington will need to increase his aggressiveness, lose some weight (while continue gaining strength), and eliminate the mental gaffes before he can hope to follow former teammate Chris Samuels into the NFL via the first-round. But unless the motion penalties continue, don't expect Bama's starting strong tackle to lose that role anytime soon.
STRONG SAFETY: Incumbent Waine Bacon versus former incumbent Shontua Ray
This one has been close for a long time, and it's likely to remain so in the near future. Even though Bacon is a former walk-on, there really isn't much to choose between the two athletically. Ray has an edge in straight-ahead speed and is more powerful, but Bacon is more agile and plays with better instincts. Ray was slightly ahead heading into the season, but a piece of floating cartilage in his knee elevated Bacon to starter. And even though Ray is now set to return, Coach Franchione said this week that Bacon's performance versus UCLA and Vanderbilt was good enough to hold on to the starting job.
Whoever is officially termed the starter, expect both Bacon and Ray to share this job all season.
FULLBACK: Incumbent Marvin Brown versus former incumbent Donnie Lowe
In the spring Lowe had a decided edge over Brown, based on the all-important ‘trust' factor. Coach Franchione has told the squad in no uncertain terms, that if the staff cannot trust a player to do the job (and be available) then he will not be put on the field. Back in March Brown's grade problems combined with trouble learning the offense had dropped him as low as third-string on the depth chart. But hard work in the classroom over the summer solved one problem, and a very good Fall Camp helped alleviate the other.
The truth is that before the UCLA game, Brown had pulled almost even at fullback. And when Lowe suffered a concussion (compliments of Saleem Rasheed and Brooks Daniels) in practice, there was little if any drop-off as Brown stepped up to No. 1. Being second-string at fullback is no shame, as Brown is easily one of the best all-around athletes on the team. But don't expect the tough-minded (and tough-bodied) Lowe to stop battling. Ever.
THIRD RECEIVER: Incumbents Sam Collins and Jason McAddley versus challenger Triandos Luke
BamaMag.com maintains a depth chart as a service to its readers, and the one position that causes more problems than any other is receiver. Though Alabama most commonly works with one, two or (sometimes) three wide receivers on offense, the Tide coaches officially list four starters. Obviously there are times when Bama uses four wideouts at once, but privately the coaches acknowledge that naming four ‘starters' helps to keep everyone happy.
Freddie Milons and Antonio ‘AC' Carter have a stranglehold on two of the slots. But who deserves the third designation?
Before the season the answer would have been either McAddley or Collins, with McAddley's track speed giving him the barest of leads. But since late August Triandos Luke has probably pulled slightly ahead. Judged on long-term potential, Luke could possess the top combination of speed, agility, soft hands and football instincts of all the receivers--including Milons and Carter.
LEFT CORNERBACK: Incumbent Hirchel Bolden versus challenger Roberto McBride
Gerald Dixon is definitely No. 1 on the right side, but Bolden is still working to solidify his hold on the left. In high school Bolden starred at several positions, and there is little doubt that his progress in college has been slowed by a late commitment to play defense. And while Bolden is almost certainly a better athlete than Dixon, he doesn't possess ‘Smoke's' instincts for playing cornerback.
For his part, McBride is easily the most improved defensive back on the squad, earning him the 'starting' job as Bama's fifth ‘nickle' back. He has good instincts, but McBride is still learning the position. And his size (5-9, 177) will always be an obstacle for him to overcome.
RIGHT DEFENSIVE END: Incumbent Aries Monroe versus challenger Antwan Odom
One of the reasons moving Kenny King to nose tackle was such an easy decision was because it freed up playing time for Monroe and Odom. As a senior, Monroe had a slight edge heading into the year, and with two sacks he is the only Tide defender to yet register in that category. But Odom's size and speed make him literally the prototype defensive end. And once his sleeping disorder was diagnosed and dealt with, most believed it was only a matter of time before Odom's boundless potential won out.
Of course that assessment was made without accounting for a chronically loose shoulder joint. No one is actually saying what the plans are for Odom's shoulder. But given that he has not yet been operated on, it's reasonable to conclude that the medical staff hopes to nurse Odom through the season. Though the problem itself can only be solved via surgery, with some luck Alabama can postpone the procedure until after the season. But in the meantime it's hard to imagine that the continuing problem won't limit Odom's effectiveness and his number of snaps.