According to Alabama's official spring roster, the Tide lost two senior backs from last year's squad, including Shaud Williams and Nathan Cox. It'll be interesting to see if that group will also includes Josh Smith, who at one time had planned to give up his final year of football to concentrate on academics.
In the "Redshirts now Available" category, tailback Justin Ballard (5-10, 183) is now eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer to Alabama from Delta State.
Help will probably be on the way this fall when the new freshmen arrive, but at the beginning of spring practice no one could realistically argue that the Tide's stable of backs is stronger now than in 2003.
Given Head Coach Mike Shula's clear preference for a strong running game, it's obvious that tailback will be a recruiting priority for the next several years. As a note, the present staff refers to them as "halfbacks," though the roster still uses the "TB" designation.
Bama's spring roster lists only three athletes exclusively as "halfbacks":
If a fourth-year player can be termed a "surprise," then senior Ray Hudson (5-10, 202) certainly deserves the classification for his very good work last year backing up Williams. Easily the workhorse of Bama's offense in 2003, Williams carried the football on 280 of the Tide's 423 rushing attempts by its running backs. That works out to .661 percent or essentially 2/3's of the carries. But working as a solid reserve, Hudson had 100 carries for 490 yards.
Hudson's production last season was a welcome improvement. More than one pundit remarked on his better vision. In the past Hudson relied on speed and not much more, but during the '03 campaign he showed an ability to see the field and follow his blockers that bodes well for the future. Whether or not Hudson is ready for the increased workload remains to be seen, but like Williams he is a powerfully built athlete who also has a knack for not allowing opposing defenders to get a big hit.
Some fans may wonder if Hudson is up to the challenge of starting, but he doesn't share those worries at all. From his point of view, he's waited his turn behind athletes like Santonio Beard, Ahmaad Galloway and then Williams. Hudson is looking to make a statement in his final season.
Kenneth Darby (5-10, 202) provides more than a bit of "worry insurance" for fans concerned with Hudson's durability. Though plagued by nagging health problems for most of last season, Darby still managed to show flashes of his potential.
He's not quite as fast as Hudson in the 40-yard dash, but nobody's quicker than "KD" in that five-yard space immediately behind and beyond the line of scrimmage. When healthy, he explodes into the hole. Darby also has a bit more shiftiness to his game, and when healthy he's can make a smaller defensive back pay for his tackle attempt.
Of course the problem is the "when healthy" phrase. Darby suffered a variety of injuries last year, never seeming to be at his best for any length of time. His ribs are now healed, and the same is true of Darby's lower body. But though the shoulder is better, there was no off-season surgery to repair the joint. He'll rely on weight training to strengthen the muscles and hopefully tighten the joint.
Darby partially separated the shoulder during the season, aggravating an injury dating back to high school. And of course that raises red flags with the worrywarts. Sometimes such shoulder problems do fine, and the athlete suffers few long-term effects. But "loose" shoulders often don't go away, and it would be a shame if the problem continues to plague Darby in the future.
After sitting out his transfer year, Ballard's eligibility couldn't have arrived at a better time. In most seasons it's next to impossible for a walk-on tailback to have much of an impact at a school like Alabama, but 2004 could be different. Certainly he'll get plenty of reps this spring, giving him a chance to impress the coaches.
At least two of the names consider themselves more "tailback" than "fullback," but four athletes were listed at fullback on the spring roster:
Alabama's hands were tied somewhat due to NCAA sanctions, but it was a bit of a surprise that the Tide did not sign a fullback this season. Certainly that will be a priority in 2005.
Of course Tim Castille (5-11, 231) was Bama's starting fullback last season. He played in 12 of the Tide's 13 games, missing just one due to injury. Castille rarely got a chance to carry the football, and when he did it was mostly from tailback in the so-called "jumbo backfield" with McClain as blocking fullback. For the year Castille was credited with eight carries for 33 yards, scoring two touchdowns. Bama's coaches gave him more of a chance to impact games as a receiver out of the backfield. Castille caught 21 passes, good enough for third on the team.
He's not the fastest tailback out there, but when given a chance Castille proved he can be effective at the position. Spring will provide even more opportunities, but frankly the Tide's options are limited in terms of personnel. So depending on how other players progress, it's entirely possible that Castille will again do double duty as both fullback and "jumbo backfield" tailback.
At 6-1, 240 pounds, Le'Ron McClain is a prototype blocking fullback. Not only is he good at the job, McClain frankly relishes the role, which gives him a leg-up on the competition. Injuries and a late start combined to limit how much of the offense McClain was able to absorb, but he clearly showed great potential. He finished the season with one official carry and two pass receptions.
A healthy and completely practiced McClain at fullback would provide the Tide coaches with some welcome flexibility. However, he must make strides in terms of learning the nuances of playing fullback in the SEC. More than a few times he was lost last season, heading the wrong way or blocking the wrong man. That's perhaps forgivable for a true freshman thrown into the fray too soon, but Bama needs more from McClain in 2004.
It'll be interesting to see just how persuasive Running Backs Coach Sparky Woods is, and whether or not fifth-year senior Josh Smith (5-11, 221) goes through spring drills. A converted tailback and former walk-on, Smith was overlooked for most of his first three seasons on campus. But a desperate need at fullback last year opened the door, and Smith provided solid minutes as a lead blocker from the position. Based on numbers, he's too small for the job. But numbers don't define an athlete like Smith.
Smith originally had decided to give up his final season of eligibility (not uncommon for walk-on players) and concentrate on continuing to be an honor student in Engineering. But an obvious need for warm bodies at fullback had Bama's coaches hoping he'd change his mind. Smith was listed as a senior on the post-season stat sheets, normally a sure sign his career would be finished. But he is listed on the spring roster.
Nic Luke's situation is different. After seeing the handwriting on the wall last year--which clearly showed that his future at Alabama was at fullback, not tailback--Luke (6-1, 224) had decided to transfer to Tuskegee. He wanted a chance to carry the football as the featured back, and he rightly judged that wasn't likely to happen at Alabama. After staying home last summer and missing the off-season workouts, he eventually decided to return to the team. But he was not included in the 105-man early reporting roster and thus was only able to begin practice when classes started. That obviously set him back in terms of preparation, but by the end of the season he had become a contributor on special teams.
If he would commit himself to the position and work to add some bulk for the role, Luke could conceivably become a good college fullback. Certainly he's athletic enough to handle the occasional runs and receiving duties. But anything less than an all-out effort won't cut it. For Luke, it's essentially put up or shut up time. If he wants to play at Alabama, then the opportunity is there. No offense to Smith, but Luke is the better athlete. The question is "does Luke want to play the position?"
In the "Seize the Day" category, this spring practice will be absolutely crucial to the futures of both Kenneth Darby and Nic Luke. We've already talked about the challenges facing Luke. For his part, if Darby wants to start at Alabama, now is the time to prove he's capable of handling the job--not later. Certainly Hudson has a lead heading into next season, and rightfully so. But coaches have long memories, and how hard Darby fights this spring will be remembered next year when they're prioritizing him and any recently recruited hotshot tailbacks heading into 2005.