interesting spring," Ungerer acknowledged."> interesting spring," Ungerer acknowledged.">

An 'interesting' spring

With all three scholarshipped tight ends injured, position coach Dave Ungerer has been forced to work with walk-ons almost exclusively this spring. <br><br>"It's been a really <i>interesting</i> spring," Ungerer acknowledged.

Last year's starter, David Cavan, is over his broken wrist but is still recovering from off-season surgery to repair a torn ACL. No. 2, Clint Johnston, has been sidelined by "stinger" problems in his neck and shoulders, not to mention a bad back. And after finally recovering from concussion problems last season, Greg McLain dislocated his elbow before spring drills even began.

The hard reality is that right now at least the Tide doesn't have a healthy, proven tight end on its roster.

"If we had to play a game today, then we'd be forced to look at some other position groupings," Head Coach Mike Shula acknowledged.

With the frontline players sidelined, walk-ons Barrett Earnest (6-4, 230), Rusty Hill (6-1, 226) and Will Denniston (6-2, 217) have taken virtually all the snaps at tight end.

"It's frustrating because the players that have played for you and the ones you're counting on are injured," Ungerer admitted. "But the kids we have are working hard, trying to improve. I'm happy with their work."

Spring practice has always been a time for walk-ons to make a name for themselves. It's just been amplified a bit this season for Alabama. "It's a great opportunity for all those young guys," Shula said. "It's a rotating thing for all three players, but they've all made progress. It's been exciting to see the growth."

Barrett Earnest (left) and Rusty Hill (right) pose after practice. Along with Will Denniston, the three walk-ons have handled the tight end position for Alabama this spring.

Every athlete would prefer to earn the starting job based on his merits, but injuries have always been a part of the game.

Will Denniston commented, "I hope the guys that are hurt get better, but it's our time to shine right now. I hope there is a spot for us."

A graduate of UMS Wright in Mobile, Denniston spent most of his prep career playing defensive end. He played some fullback in high school, but tight end is a new experience.

"I'm still learning the plays and getting used to things; it's tough," he admitted. "But the coaches have given me a shot, and I've got to step up and take the challenge."

Denniston grew up a Crimson Tide fan, but like most athletes he hoped to sign a major-college scholarship. Southern Miss and Louisville were recruiting him the hardest, but when the Cardinal pulled his offer on Signing Day, Denniston decided to follow his heart to Bama.

"My parents both went to Alabama," he said. "I could have gone to some smaller colleges, but I figured if I wanted to play here, go ahead."

Earnest's situation was different. He has ties to Alabama as well, but in his case a knee injury suffered during his senior season threw off the college recruiters. He played wide receiver exclusively in high school but knew that tight end was his best shot in college.

He walked on at Alabama last season, planning to put on some pounds and then hopefully get a look this spring from the Tide coaches. Little did he know how much of a look that would be.

As Dave Ungerer said, going through spring drills without a single healthy scholarshipped tight end has been interesting, to say the least.

"I didn't think I'd have anywhere near this sort of opportunity," Earnest admitted. "I thought maybe this spring I could mix in and get some work, but I had no idea it would be this much."

Catching the football is obviously not a problem for the former wideout, and he's handled the transition to tight end with no major problems.

"It's gone real well," Earnest said. "Blocking has been the biggest adjustment, and I've had to add a few pounds. But it's gone pretty good."

Used mainly as a fullback in high school, Rusty Hill says that blocking techniques for the two positions aren't as close as some fans might think. He's a compact, powerfully built athlete that so far has shown decent hands.

"I just decided to be a little more confident with myself," Hill explained. "When I first got up here I wasn't confident enough to catch the ball. I decided to step up."

In Bama's first scrimmage he had a touchdown reception, hauling in a fade pass from Mike Machen in the left corner of the endzone.

"I was really surprised on that touchdown catch," Hill admitted. "The practice before I missed a couple of passes that hit me in the hands, but I caught that one. I was wide open."

He's obviously anxious to get his injured tight ends back in the fall, but Ungerer praised the work of the walk-ons.

Will Denniston poses after practice.

"Those three are all doing a nice job," Ungerer said. "All are on the same scenario, scout team guys a year ago. They're all learning the offense. So you go through a lot of transition and growth. But their effort is good. We have a good group of kids. They're trying to do the right thing."

"David and Clint and Greg are going to be back next year," Barrett Earnest said. "We're just trying to show we can be depended on. If the coaches need us, they can put us in the game and rely on us."

Last summer Dave Ungerer was actually the last staff member hired by Mike Shula, leaving California to join the Tide team. If he knew then that he'd have to go through his first spring practice in Tuscaloosa without a single healthy scholarshipped player, would he still have accepted Shula's offer?

"Maybe; I might have run--maybe," Ungerer replied with a laugh. "But David Cavan is getting better. Clint got in some limited reps Saturday. And I feel really good about the (true freshmen) we've got coming in. When it's all said and done, I think we're going to have a really talented group."

NOTE: Alabama signed two stellar tight ends as part of its 2004 class. Trent Davidson and Nick Walker will both arrive in the fall. Travis McCall played tight end in high school but is expected to work at defensive end in college.


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