Ho-hum signing day a good thing

If you're a longtime follower of University of Alabama football recruiting, Wednesday had to be somewhat unusual. <br><br>For once, national signing day passed for Alabama followers with little intrigue and fewer surprises.

There were no last-minute additions.

No surprises.

But there were also no last-minute defections or unexpected changes.

And when the final signed national letter of intent rolled off the fax machines, that calm was replaced with a sense of a job well done for the Crimson Tide coaching staff.

In his first crack at college football recruiting, Tide Coach Mike Shula -- with plenty of help from his staff -- cobbled together Alabama's best class in five years.

Most recruiting analysts rank it among the nation's top 15 classes, and among the five best in the Southeastern Conference behind LSU, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

Yes, Wednesday was quiet. A very, very good quiet, indeed.

Shula and staff received 27 signed letters of intent from a class of players who provide a much-needed infusion of talent into the program.

Even more impressive, they did it on the heels of a rocky 4-9 record in 2003.

Keith Brown from Gulfport, Mississippi, (by way of Pensacola, Florida) represents a new breed of wide receiver for Alabama, tall, fast and strong enough to hold their own in one-on-one battles with rugged SEC cornerbacks.

Upon further review, the rough start to Alabama's Shula era might have helped harvest Wednesday's bumper crop.

The Tide filled nearly all of its major needs -- at wide receiver, defensive back, and along both the defensive and offensive lines.

Three Florida wide receivers -- Pensacola receiver Keith Brown, Fort Walton Beach wideout D.J. Hall and St. Augustine wideout Will Oakley -- all also possess excellent pass-catching skills and athleticism. Brown and Hall are regarded among Florida's top 40 prospects.

Briarwood Christian cornerback Simeon Castille and Fort Payne safety/athlete Marcus Carter make the defensive back class special.

Alabama also loaded up with linemen, most notably Logansville, Ga., defensive tackle Lorenzo Washington. Other impact signees include Cullman defensive tackle Justin Britt, the brother of Tide senior offensive lineman Wesley Britt and junior defensive tackle Taylor Britt, Tuscaloosa-Hillcrest offensive lineman Cody Davis, Montgomery-Lee center Antoine Caldwell and Clarke County offensive lineman B.J. Stabler.

Davis, Caldwell and Stabler are all considered among the state of Alabama's top line prospects.

National television coverage of most of Alabama's embarrassing 2003 defeats stung at first, but it likely proved quite beneficial. Surely Castille and Carter watched pass defense struggles and pictured themselves in the fray.

Washington and Britt likely imagined themselves injecting power into a weak Alabama pass rush.

And Brown and Hall surely noticed the utter lack of playmakers beyond freshman Tyrone Prothro in the wide receiver corps.

Alabama's poor record was a beacon to prospects, kind of the way the "Hot Donuts Now" sign in the Krispy Kreme window attracts the sugar addicts among us.

At Alabama, opportunities to play early and often exist, and the class of 2004 will help fill the voids left behind by probation and lackluster recruiting efforts caused in part by the turmoil that has bubbled under the program's surface for the better part of four years.

Wednesday's signing class is the first step towards correcting the problem and putting the program back on the stable, fruitful ground most Crimson Tide fans expect it on year after year.

Of course, Wednesday's phase -- signing players -- is only part of the solution.

The next step is developing this talented group into players who can help on the field and overcome a significant talent deficit between Alabama and the SEC's elite.

BamaMag.com is pleased to feature regular columns from Greg Wallace, one of the most talented writers on the Bama beat.

An avid sports fan whose job "just happens" to give him a seat in the front-row, Wallace is entering his third year writing for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of Iowa, where he was a journalism and history major.

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Hindsight on 2003's poor showing shows that many of the problems that cropped up weren't Shula's fault. The players were in their third offensive and second defensive system in less than a year, and a rash of injuries exposed a thin talent base. It also forced young players and reserves that weren't ready for full-time action into the fray, with predictable results.

When the 2004 season begins, Shula will have had a stable staff in place for over a year, giving the players a chance to learn and adapt to his ways and methods.

His first recruiting class will likely be a major part of the effort, too, although it will be interesting to see which 19 of Wednesday's 27 signees wind up on campus in August.

As many as eight key signees still have academic work left, and the remaining over-signees will likely delay their enrollment until January 2005, when their scholarship numbers count against 2005's 25-scholarship class.

The players that show up will play a key role in the rebuilding process, especially if Shula's staff develops them correctly.

If the job is done right, it could lead to more quiet -- and successful -- years to come.

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