Halfback Battle Looms

In the NFL, it is common practice for the best players to play most of the time. Back-up players may be used on special teams, but the top dogs get most of the playing time on offense and defense. In college football it can go either way. Sometimes, such as when Shaun Alexander was at tailback for Bama in 1998-99, it can appear to be a one-man show. In the glory days of wishbone success in the 1970s, it was not unusual for Bama to play nine or more runners in a game.

Shaud Williams didn't break Shaun Alexander's record of 307 rushes last season. But Williams, who has completed his eligibility, got the brunt of 2003 work with 280 carries for a Southeastern Conference-high 1,367 yards. Next behind Williams in carries was upcoming senior Ray Hudson with 100 carries for 490 yards. Ken Darby, who had two injuries in his redshirt freshman year, played in 10 games and had 34 carries for 185 yards.

Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula, with a football background exclusively in the NFL until returning to his alma mater last May, had mixed feelings about Alabama's halfback (the Tide's designation for the running back position) rotation last year. On one hand, he thought it was more rotation than he was accustomed to. But he also thought Assistant Coach Sparky Woods did a good job of using the running backs.

And, said Shula, "If you have three guys you feel comfortable with, then you can have fresh legs in the fourth quarter, which is really important."

Alabama is going to have its number two and number three halfbacks from 2003 back this season. And there's going to be a new face in the mix. Last year's starting fullback was Tim Castille, the only true freshman to earn a starting job.

Castille may play at fullback again this season, but Shula promised he is also going to see playing time at halfback. "He's going to play both positions," said the head coach. "He needs to be on the field as much as possible."

The coach noted that it is easier to learn the assignments at halfback than at fullback, which has more blocking and receiving responsibilities.

Shula said, "We're going into the season with the attitude that we have three guys who can win. That doesn't mean that all three will play an equal amount. It's sort of a ‘feel thing.' If a guy gets on a roll, you stick with him."

Last year Castille had only eight rushes for 33 yards, but two of those eight runs were for touchdowns. Shula said, "Our fullback doesn't really carry the ball a lot, but he has to be able to catch passes." Castille had 21 catches for 129 yards last year. (But Williams had 24 pass receptions for 161 yards.)

In the spring, Hudson appeared to have held onto the number one job. But it was obvious that Shula and the Alabama coaching staff was enamored with its "big backfield" experiment. One reason Shula said he would expect to rotate halfbacks is because Hudson and Darby are both small backs, both listed at 5-10, 202.

Castille, though, is 5-11 and listed at 231 pounds. "Tim will play fullback with Ray and Ken," Shula said. "And we'll also play him at halfback with (6-1, 255-pound) Le'Ron McClain at fullback."

Castille is no stranger to the running back position and he also has a history of changing positions. As a prep star at Briarwood Christian in Birmingham he started as a wide receiver, an eighth grade star on a state championship team. In his junior and senior seasons he was a tailback. As a junior he had 913 yards and 22 touchdowns on 130 carries and also caught 55 passes for 825 yards and 12 touchdowns. Playing with a knee injury as a senior he had 158 rushes for 875 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 22 passes for 308 yards and one touchdown. He had 163 career touchdowns.

Tim is the son of former Tide All-America cornerback Jeremiah Castille. Tim's brother, Simeon, a defensive back, will be a freshman at Bama this fall.

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