Mike Shula said, "We told them they were going to get some time off, but that when they came back on Sunday things were going to be fast and they had to be focused. I think they did that. We conditioned hard and I think the guys were into it."
While most of the attention is on those who have been playing and who will continue to play the games, Shula said the open week also gave the Bama staff time to work with younger players, many of whom are being redshirted.
Alabama was not alone in having an open date last Saturday. So did this week's opponent, Mississippi State. Alabama will take on the Bulldogs of Coach Jackie Sherrill in Starkville Saturday. Kickoff will be shortly after 11:30 a.m. CST with regional television coverage by Jefferson Pilot.
During his regular midday Tuesday press briefing, the Tide coach said Bama put "30 to 40 per cent" of the game plan in Sunday and would put the remainder in during Tuesday's meeting and practice.
Shula said Alabama's off-week had been particularly valuable for quarterback Brodie Croyle, who has been playing with an injured shoulder. Croyle was held out of practice during the open week, then was given a heavy dose of practice time Sunday with another heavy day scheduled Tuesday. Shula said, Brodie looked healthy. The week off helped him more than anyone. Now we have to get him back after a week in which he threw very little."
Shula said this week that Croyle would get about 75 per cent of the work with the first offense and that "if things go as we expect" that Spencer Pennington, who has been out with a shoulder injury since the October 4 Georgia game, would get about 25 per cent of the work and would be the back-up quarterback this week. He noted that Pennington had begun throwing prior to the Tennessee game and practiced all last week.
Quarterback is not the only position where the injury situation has been prominent. "All of a sudden we're pretty thin in the offensive line," Shula said. Three-year starting left tackle Wesley Britt is now recovering from surgery after suffering a compound fracture in his leg against Tennessee. His place is being taken by Atlas Herrion. There is also some question about right guard Dennis Alexander, who suffered an ankle injury. If Alexander is unable to play, Danny Martz will start at right guard. Matt Lomax, the back-up center, is also getting work at both guard and tackle, and Von Ewing could come into the picture at tackle.
Halfback also drew some attention. Shula said that Shaud Williams had been given most of last week off to rejuvenate. He also said that Kenneth Darby, who has missed time this year with rib and shoulder injuries, appeared ready to get back to action. He said both Pennington and Darby might be less than 100 per cent, but that both had "shown things in practice."
Second only to discussion of the value of an open week was talk about Alabama's poor performances in road games and, in the case of the Mississippi game, Bama's poor start after a morning kickoff.
Shula said there would probably be some changes to the pre-game routine in hopes of improving performance this week. "First of all, we've emphasized it to our players," Shula said. "That means when we have curfew Friday night, it means being in bed, not just being in the room. We may do some things different in pre-game. We may go out earlier. We may hit a little more. Something to get things going."
Shula said, "We talked to our players about getting off to a good start. They know that Mississippi State will be ready to play and it's important to start strong. Now, if we don't get off to a good start, that doesn't mean we can't win."
Alabama and Mississippi State are having very poor seasons. Alabama is 3-6 overall and 1-4 in Southeastern Conference games, while the Bulldogs are 2-6 overall and 1-3 in the SEC. This is the final season for State's Sherrill, the Alabama graduate who has announced his retirement effective the end of the season, his 13th at Mississippi State.
Shula expressed admiration for Sherrill, whom he first met at last spring's SEC meetings in Destin, Florida, where Sherrill was the dean of SEC football coaches and Shula a head coach for only a few weeks. Shula said, "He's meant a lot to college football and to SEC football."
Shula has said that Alabama's goal is to win its final four games and finish with a winning record this season. However, on Tuesday he also said, "Every week is like a new season. We are not looking down the road. You have to take them one game at a time."
Shula said, "Mississippi State has always been a big game for Alabama." He said it's partly because of the closeness of the schools (Starkville and Tuscaloosa are about 90 miles apart) and partly because so many players on each side have known each other since high school days and the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game.