Talent is one thing, but the best Alabama squads of the past were much more than a collection of physically gifted athletes. More than any other college program in the country, the Crimson Tide played together as a unit.
"The key thing is earning the right to come together and call ourselves a team," Shula said. "You've got to earn a starting spot. You've got to earn playing time. You've got to earn the right to call yourself a team."
It wasn't that last year's squad wasn't made up of quality individuals, because epitomized by warriors like Shaud Williams and Derrick Pope, it certainly was. But multiple coaching changes took their toll, and when Mike Shula took over in late spring he pretty much had to play the hand he was dealt.
This year Shula is determined to change that. He quickly made the tough decision to bring in Kent Johnston, a veteran NFL strength coach, but more importantly a former colleague who learned at Alabama just like Shula. Beginning last January, the Tide players have been learning what it means to earn the right to wear that Crimson jersey.
"So far these guys have done that," Shula said last Saturday after completing his first week of spring practice. "They've paid the price from Day One. We worked out in here at 6 a.m. three days a week before we started spring ball. That's what the off-season is about.
"Every year we've got to do that."
Last season Shula was forced to prepare for games without knowing his players all that well. The several weeks of fall camp were all he had to go on, and frankly the Tide staff played catch-up all season long.
This spring Shula is taking as long as it takes to get to know his athletes and what they're capable of on the football field.
"We've got a lot of different faces out there," he said, speaking of spring drills. "We're going to take a look at a lot of guys. We've got to find out about (our players)."
Without benefit of spring practice, last season Shula and his coaches essentially had to start off with someone else's depth chart. This time around he's determined to know the strengths and weaknesses of his athletes long before fall camp arrives.
Shula explained, "You want to make decisions on them now and toward the end of spring practice. Once fall starts, you increase the reps for the guys that have earned the right to be the ones on the field."
He acknowledges that team drills so far have been far from perfect, but his goal at this point is to thoroughly scout every athlete on the squad. Once the top players have been identified, then he'll worry about polish.
"Sometimes when you do that, practice won't look as pretty as you want," Shula explained. "There are guys playing new positions, so that increases the learning curve. Hopefully that curve is not too big. We're feeling more comfortable (after the first week), but we need to look at a lot of guys."
Shula explained that while he may be watching a 7-on-7 running drill, in reality he's paying much closer attention to individual match-ups than to the efficiency of the line as a unit.
He commented, "By individual work, you're looking at each position by itself. But also we're doing more of what we call ‘compete drills,' with the offensive and defensive linemen going one-on-one. Linebackers and tight ends going one-on-one blocking and taking on blocks. Running backs and linebackers on pass-rush drills.
"We don't do as much of that during the fall after the first couple of weeks. This is when you can really teach the little things."
At practice and through the off-season conditioning program, Shula's message to his team is consistent: Play hard, and finish!
Next year's squad may or may not be significantly better in terms of its record, but Alabama's head coach is determined that no other team will enter their game mentally tougher than his Crimson Tide.
"As we know, on Saturday afternoons you can start good, but you've got to be able to finish what you start," Shula explained. "As coaches we try to make everything as much as we can game-like, and we want to get their minds that way, too."