From relief pitcher to relief QB

Bama's coaches still hope to hold Mike Machen out of game action this year. But due to injuries the former minor-league baseball pitcher could be called on to play football sooner than expected.

Machen had hoped to use this year to re-acquaint himself with the game of football. Before the season he frankly expected to spend these months running the Tide scout team, while learning the ins and outs of Mike Shula's new offense. But if needed, he's more than ready to try and help his teammates win.

"Football is more of a team game," Mike Machen (pronounced "match-en") commented. "When you're a pitcher in baseball, you've got control. In football you count on your teammates, and your teammates count on you."

Redshirt freshman Brandon Avalos took virtually all the practice reps Tuesday, but Machen received approximately 20 percent of the snaps both Wednesday and Thursday. "(The quarterback situation) is going to be a day-to-day thing, very similar to last week," Tide Head Coach Mike Shula said. "(The injury situation) slows game preparations down a little bit. It's tough. It's a tough situation, playing some younger guys at quarterback."

Preparing for the real possibility that he could have to play Saturday, Machen has taken reps with the varsity offense this week in practice.

Actually, having spent three years pitching in the minor leagues for Atlanta and Baltimore, Machen would be one of the oldest true freshmen in the country. "We have another (true freshman) that's two years older than me," Machen said, "the other former baseball player (Scoop McDowell). I just turned 22 years old four days ago. I am an old freshman. That's true. I'll graduate by the time I'm 26."

Injuries to Brodie Croyle and Spencer Pennington, Bama's top two quarterbacks, could force Machen into action earlier than expected. But that would be okay with him. Machen said, "I came here as a fan of Alabama football. I know what it's like to watch as a fan. You want to win. You don't care who is in the game. Winning is what's important. I'm going to do my best not to let anybody down.

"That's my teammates, my coaches, the fans, everyone."

Though mainly a baseball prospect in high school, Machen quarterbacked McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile his senior season before signing with the Braves organization. "Alabama was on my mind the whole time I was in the minor leagues," he said. "I've been an Alabama football fan my entire life. I thought for awhile that I might try to do both baseball and football at the same time. But that wasn't feasible. I wanted to give professional baseball my best shot."

Part of Alabama's plan to weather NCAA probation included attracting former pro baseball players to walk-on. Machen explained what happened in his case. "Alabama was under scholarship limitations, so the previous staff contacted me. They looked at my tape and told me ‘We're not going to sign a scholarship quarterback. You're our scholarshipped quarterback.' Of course I have my college paid for through the Atlanta Braves. It worked out."

Machen originally thought he would be playing for Bama's 2002 coaching staff, which featured lots of option-running from the quarterback--not exactly his forte'. But when Dennis Franchione bolted for browner pastures in Texas, he found himself learning the pass-happy schemes of short-term head coach Mike Price.

A tall, strong-armed athlete, Machen is still adjusting to the transition from baseball pitcher to football QB.

"Coach Price's system was nice, but (Coach Shula's) system is even better," Machen said. "It's a pro-style offense that can prepare me for the future (in pro football), if that opportunity ever comes."

Prior to this week, Machen was best known to Tide fans as the scout team quarterback. Each week he studied film of Bama's next opponent, then in practice he did his best imitation of the upcoming signal caller.

"(That role) helped me a lot when it comes to throwing," Machen explained. "The more times I can throw the football, the better. I've played Matt Jones (Arkansas), Jared Lorenzen (Kentucky), David Greene (Georgia)--all these guys that throw the ball a lot and run it a lot. I've gotten a little bit of both."

Still adjusting to college football, Machen worked against Bama's top defensive players every day in practice. He commented, "I go against our No. 1 defense, and there aren't too many defenses that are going to present the problems ours does. It helped me get experience against the speed of the game."

Machen credits his time in the minor leagues with toughening him up mentally. "It helped me out a lot in terms of maturity," he said. "When I started playing baseball I was a boy. I didn't know how to handle success or failure. Baseball prepared me for both sides, people praising you or telling you you're bad. How you handle adversity really makes you who you are. That, and the way you handle success. You can't ever get too high or too low."

Coach Shula says that being the backup quarterback is very much like a relief pitcher in baseball. He never knows when he might be called on, so the reserve guy has to be ready to run onto the field and take over at a moment's notice.

Machen enrolled in school last January and spent the last several months working himself into football shape.

"I was a relief pitcher most of the time in the minor leagues," Machen related. "I had to be ready to go. That's kind of what being the backup quarterback is. You've got to go into the game and maintain--not make your team lose.

"You can't have the mentality that you're going to fail. You have to go out there thinking that it's your time. You've got to be ready to go when the coach calls you."

Of course in baseball the games come one after the other, with players often competing for days in a row. Machen talked about the difference between pitching in the minor leagues and college football.

"Baseball is much more taxing mentally," he said. "Every single day you're playing. Every day you're under pressure. In football it all builds to the weekends. Saturdays you've got to be ready to go. Once Saturday is over, you've got to get ready for the next game. You've got to have a short memory.

"That's where baseball helped me out. If you throw badly, you've got to be ready to go again the next day."


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