What took so darn long?

Coaching college football is not for the timid, the weak, or the feeble of mind. <br><br>But why in the world did it take six whole weeks for the University of Alabama coaching staff to discover their biggest offensive strength?

For the past two years, the Crimson Tide running game has steamrolled defenses all over college football. In 2002, Alabama averaged 213.2 rushing yards per game, 18th-best in Division I-A.

But somewhere between Dennis Franchione's departure, Mike Price's ill-fated air-it-out schemes and Mike Shula's hiring, the offensive line and running game were relegated to second-class status behind establishing an air attack with sophomore quarterback Brodie Croyle.

It took two unfortunate shoulder injuries and a sheer lack of quarterback depth to bring it back. It shouldn't take begging and pleading, however, to keep the running game prominent in the Tide offense. It is clear, at least to this observer, that Alabama's path of least (and easiest) resistance is on the ground.

Until a moment of sheer desperation at Georgia two weeks ago, it looked like the run game was destined for bridesmaid duty the rest of the season.

Funny how ugly fate can look at times. For those of you who've forgotten (or blocked it out of your memories), here's how it all went down:

Individually, Shaud Williams ranks this year as the SEC's second-leading rusher. But in terms of team rushing, Alabama is only fifth. (AP Photo)

Croyle first suffered a separated shoulder against South Florida, then re-injured it against Oklahoma and Arkansas. He was forced to watch the Georgia whipping unfold from the Sanford Stadium sideline.

Backup Spencer Pennington started that game, and through only minimal fault of his own, led the Tide to a 37-10 halftime deficit fueled by offensive turnovers, bad special teams play and, yes, some ground-game inefficiency. Croyle tried to help, but re-injured his shoulder two plays into a second-quarter cameo and returned helplessly to the sideline.

By midway through the third quarter, Pennington had joined Croyle on Bama's "medical reserve" with a separated shoulder of his own. That forced inexperienced freshman quarterback Brandon Avalos into his first career action.

At the same time, junior left guard Justin Smiley and the rest of the offensive line pleaded with the coaching staff to run more. The players were obliged, and Alabama did move the ball slightly better in the late stages of a 37-23 loss to the Bulldogs.

Last week, Croyle was sidelined again, so Avalos took the controls against Southern Miss. He passed just seven times, but a stout Tide defense combined with 243 yards of rushing on 50 plays paved the way for a 17-3 victory.

Which again begs the question: what took so long?

Shula's pro-style offense is predicated on balance, with stats to prove it. Through seven games the Tide averages 175 yards per game passing and 168 per game rushing.

Shula and offensive coordinator Dave Rader both have passing backgrounds, as does offensive line coach Bobby Connelly.

But this year passing clearly isn't Alabama's strength. Croyle is a star in the making, although it is important to remember he has only seven career starts under his belt.

And while the Tide receivers -- seniors Zach Fletcher, Dre Fulgham, Brandon Greer, Triandos Luke and Lance Taylor -- are a capable bunch, they don't stretch defenses.

Several of the aforementioned crew might yet wind up in pro football, but it is safe to say you won't see them on your television screen come April, accepting a free cap from Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as the newest first-round NFL draft pick.

The receiving corps forte', for the most part, is possession receiving and the occasional big play. Emphasis on "occasional."

Meanwhile, it would be a surprise if Wesley Britt and Justin Smiley -- who make up the left side of Bama's offensive line -- don't wind up anchoring a professional line someday.

And senior tailback Shaud Williams has game-breaking speed, ability and heart.

The line and tailbacks are clearly this offense's strength. So what's wrong with utilizing them, especially in this unique season where offensive preparation was compressed into a month?

Plowing defensive linemen into mush is inborn for this group. Smiley said as much before the Southern Miss game, and he and his linemates then went out and proved it on the field.

The offensive line has struggled somewhat with pass protection and foot placement, with Croyle taking extra punishment as a result.

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Clearly, the offense needs a healthy Croyle to make something successful out of this campaign. One good hit on his left shoulder - as Georgia's Odell Thurman proved -- could end his season and possibly do serious, career-altering damage. Croyle is a gamer's gamer. He wants the outcome on his shoulders, and he wants to throw. But most of all, he wants to win.

That doesn't mean Shula and Rader should turn the sophomore QB into a handoff-making robot capable only of running Student Body Left, Student Body Right and, in a pinch, Student Body Middle. The offense needs to throw more than seven times a game to win, especially against SEC defenses.

But who would object to a little less wear and tear on Croyle's aching body, at least for the rest of this season? Alabama's offensive line and tailbacks would gladly take on a little extra responsibility and do well with it.

It took six weeks to find Bama's running game. It shouldn't take six more to figure out it is the best answer for the Tide--at least in 2003.

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