Loss leaves fans asking questions

Why? <br><br>That's the question most Tide fans are asking in the wake of Bama's first upset loss of the season.

With rain falling for the second straight gloomy day in Tuscaloosa, the Monday following Bama's disappointing loss to Northern Illinois seems a good time to take a critical look at the team. Hope always springs eternal in the pre-season heart of a Crimson Tide fan. But as the first few games have shown, the latest edition of Alabama football has a few weak spots.

As Head Coach Mike Shula pointed out afterwards, there really wasn't just one problem that led to the loss. Rather several aspects of Bama's play were found wanting. As much as some fans (and pundits) like to scapegoat, that's really not appropriate in this case.

Yielding just more than 18 points per game, the Tide defense is playing fairly well. But except for the season-opening win against South Florida, offensive points for Alabama have been hard to come by.

Coaches Dave Rader and Mike Shula confer during practice. As recent games have shown, clearly Bama's offense is still a work in progress.

There are a lot of factors involved, but two factors stand out. Too little time to prepare means the Tide is competing with players still learning an already truncated playbook. And a dearth of playmakers on offense places an inordinate burden squarely on Shaud Williams' back.

The preparation problem speaks for itself. Without winter to plan and spring to practice, Alabama has been playing catch-up all summer and fall. It's a problem that won't go away, nor should it be minimized. Leading up to the season Coach Shula and Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader were unremittingly positive in their remarks to the media.

What else could they have said?

But apparently many fans misunderstood the "coach speak," expecting a high-powered, high-scoring attack.

Such expectations were clearly wrong. With no pre-season film to scout, South Florida's defense gave up 40 points. But Bama's next three opponents have been considerably better prepared.

Stating that Shaud Williams is Bama's only offensive "playmaker" may strike some as harsh, but given the way the word is used it's also true. Certainly the Tide has numerous talented athletes on offense. But when coaches talk about playmakers, they mean an athlete capable of creating on his own, taking a bad play and turning it into a big gainer. Zach Fletcher is a fine down-the-field receiver, but he's certainly not "David Palmer" dangerous after the catch--and the same is true of Bama's other wideouts.

Brodie Croyle has a strong arm and plays hard, but he doesn't yet have the field vision necessary to spot second and third receivers running free and deliver the ball. Right now Croyle has an NFL-arm but a sophomore head. He's learning, but he's not there yet.

Williams alone has shown quick-strike ability capable of turning a game around.

All three of Bama's tailbacks (Williams, Ray Hudson and Kenneth Darby) are on the small side. Against Oklahoma especially, Bama badly needed a big back to pound the defense. Last season Santonio Beard was far from the most popular player on the team, and when he dropped strong hints that he was leaving school early few tried to dissuade him from the plan. But football isn't summer camp. Players and coaches don't have to love each other to co-exist and work toward the overall goal of winning. And if a few of last season's coaches had seen fit to go the extra mile with the sometimes-difficult Beard, then he might well be running the football for Alabama this year instead of struggling to catch on with a CFL team.

Alabama is a solid offensive team, but tailback Shaud Williams is the only genuine "playmaker" on the squad. (Associated Press)

At the other backfield position, with Le'Ron McClain recovering from injury (and still learning the offense), Alabama is essentially playing without a fullback. Tim Castille plays hard and looks pretty good catching the football, but he's not yet skilled as a lead blocker and has yet to carry the football.

Pre-season writers (including yours truly) quoted Alabama's players and coaches to the effect that this year's offensive line could be even better than before. But so far at least that has not proven true. Alabama clearly misses Alonzo Ephraim and Marico Portis more than most fans expected.

Let me be the first to propose a new regulation. Call it the "Zo Rule," in honor of Ephraim now playing for the Philadelphia Eagles. When a team loses a genuine all-star starter (Ephraim was named All-SEC twice), then no one associated with the team should be allowed to claim his replacement will be "just as good, if not better."

This year's starting center, J.B. Closner, has potential. But he's clearly still learning to play in the SEC. At right guard, Dennis Alexander (Bama's other new starter), has been solid. But so far at least he hasn't matched the fire and tenacity of Portis, especially in the rushing game.

Defensively, Alabama is playing fairly well, but a lack of turnovers and relatively few sacks have fans worried.

Heading into the season defensive end Antwan Odom was looking for a breakout year. His goal of 20 sacks showed his ambition, but constant double-teams have limited Twan's production. Of course when that happens, it's up to the other linemen to step up. So far at least Anthony Bryant, Ahmad Childress and Nautyn McKay-Loescher have not been able to take advantage. After four games, Odom's sack total stands at three, while Childress and McKay-Loescher have one each.

Not surprisingly, the defensive line's relative few sacks has impacted the Alabama secondary. Versus Oklahoma, Kentucky and Northern Illinois the Tide's defensive backs have given up long touchdown passes. Against the Sooners and Huskies, they proved to be the difference in the game.

It's easy to blame the cornerbacks (Anthony Madison is the early leader for that role), and as a unit they certainly need to improve. But lack of pressure on the quarterback will hang even the best cover corner out to dry. Don't forget; the other team has scholarshipped players, too. Pass coverage is a cooperative effort between rusher and defensive back. So far this season Alabama needs to improve in both areas.

Coordinator Dave Ungerer's special teams units need more time to gel.

Bama's special teams have been maddeningly inconsistent. First Coach Ungerer's unit will perform well in one area, then the next game they'll regress.

Two points are worth noting. First, there is no question Alabama suffers from a lack of individual talent at placekicker, punt return and kickoff return. (And punter Bo Freelend needs to be much more consistent.) Making that statment is no knock of Shaud Williams, whose long punt-return touchdown versus South Florida turned the game in Bama's favor. But Shaud would be the first person to admit that he's a tailback returning punts and not ideally suited for the role.

Second, Alabama's special teams clearly suffer from a lack of preparation time during winter and spring. There is only so much practice time available during fall camp, and the Tide coaches are still learning their personnel. Plus, the schemes simply must be repped at full speed (including full-speed tackling) for maximum effect--very difficult to do very often during the fall.

Northern Illinois was not Oklahoma, but they were definitely a solid team, very well coached. A veteran unit, the Huskies were as confident in their schemes as Bama often is not. Yes, the Tide had more overall talent than NIU. But with still less than two full months of work with their present offensive schemes, Saturday's experience deficit was huge.

The 2003 Tide is a good team, but still very much a work in progress--especially on offense. Obviously when the opposing team sports more talent (like Oklahoma), victories will be very tough to come by. And as Northern Illinois proved, this year's Alabama squad can't expect to play poorly against a good team and win either.

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