Building for the future: Offense, part 2

Of course it's possible that several of the true freshmen signed last winter could have provided some help this season in a backup role. But Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione is adamant in his commitment not to burn a player's redshirt year for little or no practical benefit. <br><br>In this report we focus on the remainder of Bama's true freshmen currently slated for offense, including Von Ewing, Clint Johnston, Spencer Pennington and Mark Sanders.

Von Ewing, 6-5, 306, Offensive Lineman/OT

Ewing takes a water break last August in the indoor practice facility.

Measured in terms of publicity, Ewing was probably the most highly touted O-Line signee among last year's class. He's a tall, big-framed athlete with good feet for a man his size. Plus Ewing is an intelligent young man, so there should be no concerns about whether he can stay eligible into his fourth season of football (fifth year in college). Of course his combination of long arms and decent agility has most predicting a future at offensive tackle for Ewing.

Like many linemen his size, Ewing was able to be effective (and often dominate) on the high school level based on physical talent alone. However, there is a down side to that equation, because sometimes the lack of consistent competition on the prep level means that athletes like Ewing haven't developed the proverbial ‘mean streak.' It's not necessarily their fault. After all, when an athlete can be successful based on God-given talent alone, there is little incentive to strive for more.

But of course college football--especially big-time college football--is a different game entirely. And size alone means very little. The best linemen in the SEC bulge with extra muscles put on through months of work in the weight room, and play with a competitive fire forged from fierce battles on the practice field to earn their way into the lineup.

Without bashing individuals, an argument can be made that players like Bart Raulston, Lannis Baxley--and even Dante Ellington and Dennis Alexander, would have been better off in the long run with a little less natural talent and a little more competitive fire. What is it about Marico Portis and Justin Smiley that the current staff likes so much? Tall or short, big or small--both guards relish contact.

The good news for Ewing is that he's playing for a coaching staff that is loathe to play an athlete too soon. It may take a couple of seasons, but there's no reason to believe that Coaches Pollard (Strength and Conditioning) and Helduser (Offensive Line) won't be able to mold Ewing into an SEC-caliber lineman.

Clint Johnston, 6-4, 230, Tight End

Johnston makes the running catch during pass skel work.

Telling Coach Franchione on his official visit last winter that "once I saw that Crimson jersey hanging in a locker with my name on the back, that's all it took for me," Clint Johnston quickly became a fan (and head coach's) favorite before he even enrolled in class. Clint is the son of Johnny Johnston, who played linebacker for Alabama in the 60s. And though he had originally committed to Southern Miss, once the new staff offered a scholarship he jumped at the chance to play for the Tide.

On several occasions before the season began, Coach Fran identified Johnston as an athlete who could possibly step in and play right away. But like the rest of this year's freshman class (excluding Todd Bates), Johnston has been held out of action. At tight end both starter Terry Jones Jr. and chief backup Theo Sanders have stayed healthy. And junior-college transfer Donald Clarke (who has already used his redshirt year) has filled the third-string spot.

Johnston has solid athletic skills, but his work ethic is outstanding. Like most true freshmen he struggled a bit adjusting to the speed of college football, so redshirting the first season should turn out to be a good decision for him. An extra year in the weight room (and at the training table) will give him a chance to mature, adding extra bulk to aid in what will likely be his principal role as a blocking tight end. And a full off-season working with the Tide quarterbacks should improve his pass catching skills as well.

Spencer Pennington, 6-4, 204, Quarterback

Shown throwing the football during practice, Pennington is a good enough athlete to have been drafted by Major League Baseball.

Though most of the attention was focused on the better-known Brodie Croyle, plenty of practice observers rave about the ability of Pennington. A dual-sport star, Pennington will also play baseball for Alabama. Known mainly as a third baseman, Pennington could just as easily contribute at first or in the outfield for Coach Wells' baseball squad. Attending school on a football scholarship, Pennington will be required to spend all of spring practice with the football team for at least his first two seasons at Alabama. But he'll play as much baseball as his schedule will allow.

Like Johnston, Pennington is another athlete that wasn't particularly recruited by the previous staff. Before Coach Franchione arrived in Tuscaloosa, it looked like the pride of Fayette was headed to Mississippi State. But Franchione quickly noted the lack of scholarshipped quarterbacks on the Tide roster, so signing both Croyle and Pennington was a priority.

Pennington has a very good arm, displaying the ability to make all the throws. Standing a broad-shouldered 6-4, he also has the prototypical size of the classic pocket passer. And as his baseball background proves, Pennington is an excellent all-around athlete. Plus, while he may not win many sprints, the big guy runs very well.

At this point there is no question that Croyle is ahead of him on the depth chart (Croyle entered school last winter, getting a jump on preparation, plus Croyle has worked with the first two offensive huddles from fall camp through the season). But interestingly, Pennington is almost certainly ‘enjoying' his first year more than his fellow freshman QB. Croyle must share varsity reps in practice with three athletes ahead of him on the depth chart, while Pennington essentially gets in as many snaps and throws as he could ask for. His job directing the scout team offense involves throw after throw--down field and often into the teeth of the first-team defense. And while Croyle hears from a coach over every missed read--much less interceptions, Pennington enjoys no-pressure practices.

Make a good throw, make a not-so-good throw--no problem. Just trot back to the huddle, get the next play and go at it again. Not a bad way to spend your first season on campus.

Mark Sanders, 6-6, 307, Offensive Tackle/Guard

Sanders has excellent size, and the coaches like his attitude and work ethic.

The brother of former Tide punter Matt Sanders, Mark was assumed by many to be the ‘extra' lineman signed with last year's class. But since arriving on campus he has shown very good potential, displaying solid football instincts and not backing down from contact. Sanders is a friendly kid, almost always sporting a smile. And a fair complexion coupled with physical exertion often result in what could only be described as ‘rosy cheeks.' But don't be fooled. The Ashville native isn't afraid to hit you.

He's listed at 6-6, and Sanders is all of that. So it's natural to project him at tackle, where his long wing-span would help in pass protection. But at this point in his Tide career, he could just as easily end up at guard.

Coach Helduser makes no secret of the fact that he prefers to redshirt every O-Line recruit if at all possible, stockpiling talent for future seasons. In fact, in a perfect world (which of course doesn't exist) none of the Alabama linemen would get into the playing rotation until their redshirt sophomore season--their third year on campus. Competition along the line of scrimmage in the SEC is especially brutal, requiring a physical and mental toughness normally only found in older, seasoned athletes.

The Tide coaches like Sanders' potential down the road, but he'll need to make progress in the weight room this year and next.

Mac Tyler, 6-6, 335, Defensive Tackle

Mac Tyler

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tyler was a defensive prospect, but we inadvertently left him off our earlier report.

Since originally committing to Alabama in 2000, Tyler has followed a convoluted path in his attempts to gain academic eligibility. He spent the second half of his senior high school season and all of last year enrolled at Milford Preparatory School, attempting to satisfy NCAA requirements. Tyler resigned with Alabama last February, but after failing to receive academic clearance he was faced with tough choices. For a time it was rumored that he was hoping to sign with a different SEC school, but reportedly he is now enrolled at UAB, paying his own way.

At this point the big lineman's chances of ever playing Division 1a football should be considered problematic. And almost certainly his chances of ever playing for the Tide are nil.

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