Spring Outlook: Receiving corps must be rebuilt

Football coaches are known for the long hours they keep during the season, arriving early and staying late preparing their team for games. But given the size of the task facing Tide Wide Receivers Coach Charlie Harbison this spring, he might want to set up permanent housekeeping at the Football Complex.

Five senior receivers are gone from last year's squad, including Zach Fletcher, Dre Fulgham, Triandos Luke, Brandon Greer and Lance Taylor. And all five were significant contributors. Between them they caught 109 passes for 1,682 yards. Those numbers alone are impressive enough, but dig a little deeper and the total loss becomes downright frightening.

Alabama only completed 125 passes to wide receivers last season. Fletcher, Fulgham, Luke, Greer and Taylor accounted for 87 percent of those receptions. And yardage-wise, it's worse. The senior five-some was responsible for fully 90 percent of those. In fact, Tyrone Prothro was the only non-senior wideout that contributed last year. His 16 catches for 191 yards make up the "missing" numbers.

Coincidentally, five athletes eligible and participating in spring drills did not play last season. Will Roach and Matt Caddell redshirted as true freshmen, while former Minor League Baseball player and current walk-on Scoop McDowell also sat out his first year of college ball. Antonio "AC" Carter, who has been granted a sixth year but will not participate in spring drills, missed the entire year with injury. Another former pro baseball player, Damien Jones enrolled at The University this semester and will be eligible in the fall.

Prothro is the only returning receiver who caught a pass in 2003. (Barry Fikes photo)

There is tons of athletic talent in that second five, but most of it is as-yet unproven. And of course while everyone is optimistic, there is no guarantee that Carter will ever be completely healthy again. So at this point at least, Bama's receiving corps is not nearly as solid as last year's fall unit.

On the official team roster, the various wideouts are designated as "flankers," "split ends" and "wide receivers." But for practical purposes--and definitely during spring practice--there is no real purpose to be served for fans by breaking the group up. The spring roster lists 17 athletes at receiver, though Carter will not practice until next fall:

Tyrone Prothro, of course, is the bell cow of the unit. Only 5-8 and 173 pounds, Prothro played very well last season when given a chance. He's fast and quick, but that only begins to describe Prothro's skills. As a true freshman he had a lot of learning to do, but Prothro generated excitement every time he touched the football. He runs good routes and catches the ball well, but best of all Prothro is most dangerous after making the catch. Surprisingly (at least to many unsuspecting defenders), Prothro proved to be a superb blocker, often pancaking defensive backs that were unfortunate enough to get in his line of fire.

Will Roach (#83) walks off after practice, followed by Matt Caddell (#11).

Among Bama's more veteran players, Tarry Givens (6-5, 220) has the size to excite fans. But so far the senior has had no impact at Alabama. Brandon Brooks (5-4, 163) proved to be dangerous as a return man last season, but his height is a real disadvantage for him as a receiver. Marcus McKnight (6-2, 173) will be a redshirt sophomore. If he is going to make a move, spring will be the time to start. Of course before Carter (5-9, 191) broke his leg, he was ranked among Bama's best receivers statistically. But he will not be back before fall at the earliest, so the unit must do without him this spring.

Two true freshmen wideouts redshirted last year, Matt Caddell (6-0, 171) and Will Roach (6-1, 187). Roach will remind you of former Tide receiver Tim Bowens, which is to be expected since the two are brothers. He's actually a tad bigger and faster than Tim, which means that Will has the potential to be very good. Like all young receivers Roach needs to get stronger and improve his consistency, but he's one to watch this spring.

Caddell came to campus with a reputation as a stellar kick return man and a very good receiver. He'll definitely get a long look at both roles this spring, but he's probably a bit behind the other two '03 receiver signees in terms of being ready to contribute on offense. Caddell needs a good spring to catch the eye of the coaches.

Brandon Brooks proved a dangerous kick return man.

They have yet to play a down of college football, but it's possible that Minor League Baseball's loss will prove to be the Tide's significant gain. Eighteen months ago both Scoop McDowell (San Francisco Giants) and Damien Jones (Atlanta Braves) were highly regarded baseball prospects. But both have given up the sport and are now enrolled at Alabama to play football.

Jones (6-2, 215) was also a stellar football player in high school, while McDowell (6-0, 185) concentrated on baseball almost exclusively. That means that McDowell had relatively more to learn than Jones. But having joined the Tide squad last year, he's almost a full year ahead, which probably makes them even. Both are relatively tall, extremely fast athletes looking for a place to contribute to the Tide team. And both will work this spring as receivers.

Alabama always has several walk-on receivers capable of competing in the SEC, and this year is no different. There is plenty of talent among the group, led by Matt Miller (6-3, 199), the brother of former Tide special teams standout Marc Miller; and Matt Ragland (5-10, 190), who transferred to the Capstone from West Alabama.

Former baseball player Scoop McDowell will get a look.

For some odd "whistling past the graveyard" reason, for the past several years a contingent of Alabama fans have insisted that the now-completed NCAA sanctions had little or no effect on the talent-level of the Tide squad. Much more could be said, but consider this. Over the past two years alone, three outstandingly talented in-state receivers that Alabama should have had the inside track on signing ended up elsewhere: Jayson Swain (UT), Chad Jackson (UF) and Ben Obomanu (AU). Add any two of those names to Bama's current receiver roster, and most of the gloom goes away.

As informed writers have said from the start, NCAA sanctions are designed to cripple a program. And all things being equal, they generally do just that.

Right now Alabama fans will quickly point out that the Tide's '04 signing class was very good. Sporting names like Nikita Stover, Ezekiel Knight, Keith Brown, D.J. Hall and Will Oakley (to name a few), it may have been Bama's most talented class ever in terms of receiving talent. But even if everyone gets eligible, none of them report until the fall. And the best teams rely on veterans to carry the load, filling in here and there with younger players.

Unfortunately, Bama's best-case scenario for next season's receiving rotation will turn that axiom on its head.

Marcus McKnight has good height and speed.

In the "Catch ‘Em While You Can" category (the coaches' eyes that is), all of the walk-on receivers need to play big every day of spring. Because with that boatload of scholarshipped talent set to arrive next fall and winter, they'll never have a better chance. Tiny Brandon Brooks also deserves mention here. It's simple to typecast a player, and the "too short" tag is all-too-easy to hang on Brooks. If he wants to prove he can contribute on offense, spring practice is his best shot.

Injuries can always shuffle the deck, just ask former Tide coach and walk-on receiver Dabo Swinney. But the "Now or Never" label may apply to both Tarry Givens and Marcus McKnight. For Tarry of course this is his last spring and consequently his last chance to prove to his coaches that he can be trusted. McKnight on the other hand has more seasons ahead, but if he doesn't show something now he could well end up lost in the shuffle once the true freshmen arrive in the fall.

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