Five games into the 2003 season, the NCAA probation is beginning to take its toll on the Alabama program.
It is not easy to see, and it requires a bit of analysis -- and a couple of sprained ankles or separated shoulders. But it is clear that right now, Alabama is not a deep football team whatsoever.
Take, for example, the defensive line. Last week, Kyle Tatum, a redshirt freshman, made his first start at defensive tackle, replacing junior Ahmad Childress, who was sidelined with a neck injury suffered against Oklahoma. His top backup? That would be true freshman Dominic Lee, who played 51 snaps in his Alabama debut while making three tackles.
And what cleared the two youngsters' spot in the lineup? Jeremy Clark's left ankle sprain. Clark, by the way, is also a redshirt freshman, and the top reserve behind Childress and fellow starting defensive tackle Anthony Bryant.
Lee and Tatum, by all accounts, played well despite being part of a defense that allowed Arkansas tailback Cedric Cobbs to rush for 198 yards. But they are far less experienced than Bryant, Childress, or defensive ends Antwan Odom and Nautyn McKay-Loescher, for that matter.
Last season, Odom, McKay-Loescher, Bryant and Childress (as well as suspended defensive end Todd Bates) rotated in and out of games with now-departed Jarret Johnson, Kenny King and Kindal Moorehead, all now on NFL rosters. Of the eight, none were freshmen and only Bryant, Childress and Odom were sophomores.
This season, three of the top eight linemen (Clark, Lee and Tatum) are freshmen, and only Bryant and McKay-Loescher are seniors. As a partial qualifier, Bryant can earn another year of eligibility if he earns his degree by August 2004, which he is on track to do.
Depth problems aren't limited to the defensive line (or the offensive line, for that matter).
Fellow sophomore Spencer Pennington proved himself worthy of a start with a solid relief performance last Saturday against Arkansas, leading the Tide offense to a game-tying field goal at the end of the first half when Croyle left with a clipped wing.
But should Pennington go down, the backup would be redshirt freshman Brandon Avalos, who has never played a down of college football, much less as a starting quarterback.
These depth problems have been exacerbated by the NCAA probation, which will strip 21 scholarships over three years from Alabama. Former coach Dennis Franchione had a signing class 17 strong in 2002, former coach Mike Price had an 18-member signing class in 2003 and Mike Shula will have a 19-man signing class in 2004 before the full complement returns in 2005.
The Tide began fall practice with between 76-78 scholarship players on roster, depending on whom you believe. So the serious problems have not yet hit Shula and staff. And the worst depth issues won't come for another two years -- when the Classes of 2002 and 2003 are projected to be seniors and juniors, for the most part.
For now, Shula and Co. must do the best they can with what they have, even if it means playing raw talent like Lee, freshman linebacker Terrence Jones and true freshman fullbacks Tim Castille and Le'Ron McClain.
That's the devil of probation. Heading into the season, Alabama looked much like 2002's 10-3 edition, at least on paper. But throw a few choice injuries in -- like to Croyle's left shoulder, senior linebacker Cornelius Wortham's dislocated left elbow, senior linebacker Derrick Pope's sprained left ankle -- and things get mighty dicey mighty quick.
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Add in unexpected departures like All-SEC rover linebacker Brooks Daniels' withdrawal from school for undisclosed medical reasons, and even a deep unit like linebacker takes on the depth of your average backyard kiddie pool.
If Pope can't recover from a sprained left ankle in time for Georgia, the starting linebacker corps will look something like this: sophomore Freddie Roach at middle linebacker, sophomore Demeco Ryans at weak linebacker and either Jones or redshirt freshman Juwan Garth at strong linebacker.
It's a scary thought for Alabama fans -- and a delicious one for the Georgia offense, which is just getting back to full strength itself with wide receiver Fred Gibson, running back Tony Milton and tight end Ben Watson expected to return from injuries this week.
An even scarier thought is this: unless Shula and staff recruit well and are fortunate health-wise, this could be just the beginning of Alabama's depth problems.
Pass the athletic tape and knee braces, please.