He showed flashes of brilliance as a true freshman, but Wortham spent all of last season and the first three games of 2001 second-string, backing up Saleem Rasheed and then Victor Ellis at outside linebacker. But Saturday that situation changed, as Wortham started ahead of Ellis on the strong side. "We weren't sending a message," said Alabama Defensive Coordinator Carl Torbush. "That had nothing to do with it."
Likely being careful not to offend a teammate, Wortham declined to speculate about why the change was made. But Torbush explained; "We try to be honest with our players, and Wortham had graded higher in practice. So he deserved an opportunity to start. Victor played (versus South Carolina) just as he usually plays, but at the same time we're going to reward the guys that produce, that are most productive that week."
"Cornelius has a great motor," Torbush continued. "He plays hard all the time. He'll make a few mistakes, but he plays hard. He has a great deal of ‘want to.' He's got really good athletic ability. I think you're going to see him just get better and better."
For his part, Wortham lists instinct and the ability to get to the football quickly as his chief assets. "First of all I bring speed," he explained. "I think I run well for a linebacker. And I have a nose for the football. I always try my best to be around wherever the football is. If I'm not making a tackle, I'm trying to get my teammate in a position to make the tackle."
So far this season, Wortham is credited with seven tackles and three quarterback hurries. "I've played OK, but I can do better," he said.
Typically, true freshmen take time to adjust to the speed of the SEC, and Wortham had his struggles as well. But just getting used to the noise and hoopla of big-time football was also a problem. "This year I'm different in a lot of ways," he related. "I'm older and a lot more mature. When they put me in the games last year, my eyes used to get big. But now they're staying small and focused on the task at hand. There's no doubt I'm a lot more mature than I was then.
"Before there was the big crowd that I wasn't used to. (Last season) when I got in there, instead of thinking about the job at hand I made a lot of mistakes. But this year I'm staying focused and cutting down on my mistakes."
That very caution about making mistakes held him back. "Sometimes you can be too conservative," Wortham explained. "You try to serve two masters. You're covering one gap, but you're looking back for the cutback. You're not trusting your teammate. You hold back, and that can hurt you. It's just getting to trust yourself more."
During that difficult first season, Wortham gained confidence mentally. But his now bulging biceps point to a different kind of progress as well. He explained; "When I first got here I could only do 315 on the bench press. I came back (last Christmas) doing 355, but when we were getting ready for spring I said I wanted to focus on working out. I got up to 435 at the start of spring, and at the Night of Champions I did 440.
"When we put Coach TJ (Terry Jones Sr.) and Coach Pollard's workouts together, everybody went up. We've got two great strength coaches working side by side. I think we're blessed to have Coach Jones and Coach Pollard."
Wortham is stronger and more experienced his second season at Alabama, and it also helps that Carl Torbush is one of the top linebacker coaches in the nation. "Coach talks to me about a lot of things," Wortham said. "Feet movement and working downhill--just cut loose. The big thing about linebackers is you want them to just cut loose and play. At times I try to hold back, but Coach Torbush stays on me to push myself forward. Cut loose and play better.
"He wants that aggressiveness from everybody, linemen and linebackers. He wants everybody to get to the football and to call your name when you get there."
Aggressive play helped win for Wortham his starting job, but he understands that the designation is hardly set in stone. "That's the question. We'll have to see (who starts) come the next game. We're both going to work hard, so the right man will play. Of course I was happy that the coaches chose me."
The new starter at strongside linebacker was only the latest in a series of changes that have rewritten the Alabama depth chart. Competition--recently lacking on the Tide practice fields--has returned with a vengeance. And Torbush warns that other changes could loom in the future.
But Wortham is certain his battle with Ellis for playing time will be confined to the football field where it belongs. "Our relationship is still the same. In football you may only be starting one game. You have to go out week to week and battle. Everything can change, but a starting position doesn't break a friendship. Only friends can break friendships."
The battle between the two friends will continue through the season. But Wortham is certain that whoever is on the playing field at any given time, they'll be moving around in a hurry. "I don't know if there is a faster group out there or not," he said. "But I know all our linebackers have great speed. It doesn't matter who plays, we're going to have speed to the ball--no matter who is in there."
Depth and speed make a promising combination, but there is still work to be done. Wortham explained; "We can definitely improve a lot. We haven't reached our peak; that's the good thing. We can improve in coverage and a lot of areas. You can never be satisfied. If you're satisfied, then you're already whipped by the enemy. Every day we try to come out and get better. Take it day by day and game by game.
"But right now I'm just trying to have fun."