Ever since Alabama's 2003 fate became clear at about mid-season, writers, football-savvy observers, and some of the older fans who remember the pre-Bryant days at The Capstone have looked at 2004 with varying degrees of wariness. Whether plaintively urging patience or using unprintable adjectives and frothing with abject woe, those pundits and fans from primes past have made it clear they believe that trouble may lie ahead. While that diagnosis has been well broadcast, it is unlikely that it is palatable to any in the Crimson Tide camp.
A-day 2004, for those that attended, was a mixture of hope and concern. The first-team defense shut down the first-team offense, as is expected–and wanted–whenever good teams split up and choose sides. But the second-team offense moved the ball effectively against Alabama's defensive reserves, pointing to depth issues, particularly those on the defensive line.
Special teams, aside from booming punts by senior Bo Freelend, simply didn't look very good at all. Of course, it's the nature of a place-kick that 11 men on the defensive side can do their jobs perfectly and 10 of the 11 on the kicking side can do their jobs perfectly, but if one member of the kicking unit–particularly a snapper, holder or kicker–fails to do his job, that aspect of a football team will fail. It was also pointed out that most of the work on special teams will be done when the entire team is in camp in August.
Alabama can finish with a winning record in 2004 and score a bowl invitation. But to do so, the Tide must accomplish certain things:
• Alabama must consistently get better throughout the season. Perhaps the most important thing of all, consistent improvement builds confidence among the coaches and players. And as the basketball team has shown, confidence leads to good performances, even against opponents far more talented.
• Depth must be built quickly on the defensive line. With Dominic Lee out with an injury, Alabama's second-team defensive tackles for A-day were walk-ons J.P. Adams and Rudy Griffin. While those two players can provide a certain number of snaps per game, Alabama needs more help. Junior college transfer Chris Turner, expected in the fall, is being listed by some as a defensive tackle, but to be perfectly honest he looks more like a defensive end. Redshirt freshman Wallace Gilberry looks like he might be able to "grow" into a defensive tackle, but he's probably not ready to help there this fall. Freshman Lorenzo Washington will have a chance to play immediately. Dominic Lee needs to get healthy over the summer and then condition himself well.
• Ramzee Robinson must hold down a starting cornerback position. Robinson's improvement this spring has been well-catalogued. Incoming freshmen Travis Robinson and Simeon Castille will compete for playing time, but it would be better for Alabama if Robinson could lock down a starting position early and let Robinson and Castille compete with Anthony Madison on the other side. This would allow Charlie Peprah to stay at safety, where he was a spring standout.
• Wesley Britt must get healthy. Many Bama fans are assuming Britt will simply return on the first day of fall practice ready to go full-speed. Britt's injury was significant, and without him in the lineup, the Tide will be vulnerable to the outside rush. Britt needs to return and Chris Capps needs to provide competition for the right tackle position held by Kyle Tatum.
• A kicker, snapper and holder must be found. Actually, the holder has been found in Alex Fox, who took over those duties midway through last season. Brian Bostick and Mike McLaughlin got most of the work as kickers in the spring, but others are competing, notably Michael Ziifle. David Sears was inconsistent as a snapper in the spring, but he had not been in camp last fall. Trent Patterson is among the incoming freshmen who is reported to be a good snapper. Mistakes in the most basic areas of special teams cost Alabama dearly last year, a mistake that cannot be repeated.
• At least one and perhaps as many as three freshmen wide receivers need to come to campus ready to play. Alabama has a maximum of five wide receivers (Tyrone Prothro, Matt Miller, Matt Caddell, Brandon Brooks and possibly Marcus McKnight) that appear to have the athleticism and consistency to form the basis for a wide receiver rotation. Walk-ons Jake Collins, David Steakley and Matt Ragland, returning freshman Will Roach and senior Antonio Carter, former professional baseball player Damien Jones and eternal depth chart fixture Tarry Givens are also around, but to be safe, Alabama needs some help from its freshman class. Although we don't yet know if or to what degree academics will affect the wide receiver signees, there is a large group to choose from in Nikita Stover, Keith Brown, D.J. Hall, Will Oakley, Ezekiel Knight, Marcel Stamps and possibly Aaron McDaniel.
• Alabama must avoid the injury bug team-wide. Alabama's spring saw the Tide lose all three scholarshipped tight ends (David Cavan, Clint Johnston, Greg McLain) to injury, as well as walk-on Barrett Earnest, leaving fellow walk-ons Rusty Hill and Will Denniston as the lone players there. While Alabama could possibly afford to lose a tight end or two, losing three players along the offensive or defensive lines, at quarterback or receiver, or in the defensive backfield could spell disaster. Alabama was not injury-fortunate last year, but it must be so this year.
• Finally, the Tide must be a better-coached team. Alabama's staff stepped into Pandora's Box and had the lid slammed on their heads in 2003, and should be given medals for fighting a fight they couldn't hope to win. Everyone has decisions he or she would like to take back, and that's surely true for Coach Mike Shula and his staff last fall. This is a veteran coaching staff and with a full year with the team it is reasonable to expect improvement in such areas as playcalling. The evaluation period for this Tide staff begins now, and while Shula needs several years to right the ship–and should be given those years–his decisions and the decisions of his assistants will be scrutinized closely. With Alabama's future in the balance, 2004 is a critical season in terms of building confidence and moving forward. While Alabama reasonably should not expect to compete for a championship, the Tide can hope. One needs only to look at the basketball team for inspiration.