Fighting an uphill battle at fullback

With limited practice time in the fall to learn new schemes, predictably Alabama's offense has struggled this season. But due to injuries--coupled with a dearth of experienced players--the fullback position has suffered more than most.

Running Backs Coach Sparky Woods commented. "The injuries have been frustrating for everybody, but at least we've not been without one. They've all hung in there and practiced each day. I've been proud of how hard we've played at the position."

No one questions the effort. Whether it be Tim Castille running pass routes, Le'Ron McClain fighting for the extra yard or Josh Smith slamming his undersized body into a linebacker, Bama's fullbacks have played hard. But fans have to wonder if things might have been different had Woods and Head Coach Mike Shula been blessed with practiced and healthy players.

True freshmen Castille (left) and McClain (right) are Bama's top two fullbacks. Each has been limited due to injury.

"Fullback is a big position in our offense," Woods said. "It has a lot to do with the execution of our plan. It's usually at the point of attack somewhere. It takes a unique guy to be able to play the position for us."

But unfortunately for Woods and Shula (not to mention Tide fans), if it hasn't been one thing this year, then it's been another. Certainly no other position on the squad has been snake-bit quite like fullback.

Back in the spring the entire position was erased from the depth chart, as short-term Tide Coach Mike Price installed his wide-receiver-heavy schemes. When Mike Shula came on the scene, he clearly preferred to use a traditional fullback, but sophomore Greg McLain was the only athlete on the squad with any experience at the position. And recurring concussion problems quickly removed McLain from the fullback equation.

With incoming freshman Le'Ron McClain, Alabama had one of the top-rated fullback recruits in the nation. But qualifying problems kept him on the sideline during most of fall camp, crippling any chance he had of stepping in to play right away. That left only Tim Castille, also a true freshman, who prior to this season had never played fullback before in his life.

Shula went down the list. "Tim obviously started the year, then he got hurt. Then Le'Ron came in, and he got hurt. Tim came back. We also use our second tight end at the position, too. We feel good about Tim, and Le'Ron is getting healthier. He may see some time (Saturday)."

So far in the first eight games Alabama's fullbacks have caught 13 total passes for 108 yards. And between them, the fullbacks have run the football a grand total of one time.

For a gain of one yard.

Shula's telling the truth. The coaches are pleased with the effort of Castille, McClain and Josh Smith (the other athlete that has seen time at fullback). But there is no question that the 2003 Tide offense would have played out differently, if the staff had a healthy, physically capable and practiced fullback tandem to start the season.

"When you consider what we were..." Woods began. "Before Coach Shula was hired we didn't even have a fullback. It's a tough position to play for us. For young guys to step in there and do it with the injuries they've had, having at least one ready and getting them in and out of the game has been a challenge."

Woods broke down his depth chart. "Tim has played. He was a halfback and came here willing to move. Le'Ron stepped in there, then got hurt. Josh stepped in when Le'Ron got hurt. Josh Smith has been here awhile, but he's pretty much been a halfback. For him to play there and earn a scholarship is a great thing.

"They've all been kind of a fullback by committee."

Both McClain and Castille were highly recruited, and each arrived on campus with outsized expectations. Not surprisingly, they've had trouble living up to the hype.

According to Coach Woods, former walk-on Josh Smith has earned a scholarship for his work this year at the fullback position.

Woods commented, "A lot of times it's hard for freshmen to maintain their focus with school and all the distractions. To have two (freshmen) at the position, it can be tough. But maybe that's better. Maybe with just one he would have babied himself more.

"Both of them being here, they've kind of pushed each other."

Next season things should be different. McClain will be healthy. He'll have a full season of practice under his belt, so familiarity with the offense will not be a factor.

Despite his hefty physique, Castille adamantly maintains his preference for tailback over his present position. In fact, with the graduation of Shaud Williams, Castille hopes his present work at fullback will be a one-season thing.

But for now, Alabama's coaches have to play with the hand they've been dealt. And that's especially true at fullback.

"I've really been proud of the players at the position," Woods said. "To get one freshman ready to play, much less two, is difficult. It's been a positive for me. You've got to credit the kids. They're the ones that did it."

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