Attrition Was Expected

June is a tough time to be a college sports fan. Spring practice is long over. College baseball–in most parts–has thrown its last pitch. SEC Football Media Days are more than a month and a half away, and the 105-man roster is more than two months from reporting for hot, sweaty summer football practices.

Football coaches and their assistants are holed up in their offices, plotting the season ahead. Outside, their players are working through seven-on-seven "voluntary" pass skels that are about as voluntary as paying taxes and cooperating with the NCAA enforcement staff.

This time of year, college sports news–legitimate news, at least–is incredibly scarce.

The only news that happens is bad news–kids getting arrested, flunking out of school or changing schools.

Maybe that's why the eligibility of this season's Alabama football signees has become such a hot topic the past several weeks.

As you know, Mike Shula and staff signed 27 prospects to scholarships last February, with the understanding that only 19 would step on campus in August, thanks to NCAA scholarship restrictions connected with the 2002 NCAA probation.

So why is it such a surprise that the class has shrunk–and could shrink a little more before early August?

The answer? It isn't. And outside of Lorenzo Washington's failed English class, Shula's Class of 2004 is coming together exactly as most observers expected.

The class's biggest eligibility risks–Prattville defensive lineman Kevin Hamilton and Hoover defensive lineman Jeramie Holifield–are heading to junior college.

Washington and Morristown, Tennessee, defensive lineman Brandon Fanney are expected to room together at Hargrave (Virginia) Military Academy.

The class's top prospect–Hartselle receiver Nikita Stover–will likely wind up at Itawamba (Mississippi) Community College, which is hardly surprising considering he had academic ground to make up from the moment he verbally committed to Alabama coaches last year.

As of Thursday afternoon, 22 of the 27 signees were in the mix to wind up on campus this August. Fanney, Hamilton, Holifield, Stover and Washington are the only certainties not to; a sixth player, Randolph County wide receiver Ezekial Knight, can still qualify this fall if he passes the state of Alabama's high school exit exam.

If Knight doesn't qualify, that leaves 21 players for 19 spots, with the two probable "grayshirts" Sparta Academy offensive lineman Drew Davis and Hoover quarterback John Parker Wilson. Wilson said this week that he'd gladly take a grayshirt; in his opinion, delaying enrollment would separate him from veteran quarterbacks Brodie Croyle, Marc Guillon and Spencer Pennington while giving him time to physically mature.

If Davis and Wilson grayshirt, that would leave 19 players for 19 scholarships–just as Shula and his staff envisioned in February.

"We've got a plan for all these guys," he said on national signing day. "It's not like all of a sudden we had a plan that we decided today. Since day one (of the process), starting in the staff room with (recruiting coordinator) Randy Ross and the rest of the coaches, we knew which direction we wanted to go in. With our prospects at the time, we told them, ‘This is what the plan is.'"

Shula hasn't spoken much since that day about prospects' grades, since NCAA rules handcuff coaches making such comments. But surely he knew attrition was part of the plan.

Of the academic casualties, only Stover and Washington are truly damaging losses. They were two of the four class members one prominent national recruiting service recently rated among the nation's top 200 prospects (Cullman lineman Justin Britt and junior college defensive lineman Chris Turner were the others).

At 6-2, 190 pounds, Stover could have made an immediate impact in Alabama's depleted receiving corps, while Washington also had a shot at early playing time along the thin defensive line.

But Fanney, Hamilton and Holifield were not expected to be early contributors; most considered Hamilton and Holifield probable junior college candidates when they signed their letters of intent.

It'll be interesting to see where Stover eventually winds up after two years of junior college in Mississippi. Sometimes, junior college prospects stay true to their original school all through their stay. That isn't always the case, of course.

Fanney and Washington are a little easier to project. Hargrave is a one-year program with a reputation of returning its prospects to the schools they originally signed with. And it isn't a college, which essentially gives Fanney and Washington an extra year to mature before potentially returning to Alabama in fall 2005 (or even spring 2005, if their grades work out).

Will their departures really hurt the class? It's too early to tell. Alabama's two biggest needs in this class were defensive line and wide receiver. Without Stover, as many as five receivers–Knight, Keith Brown, D.J. Hall, Marcel Stamps and Will Oakley–could still qualify. Britt, Turner and Travis McCall are the only defensive linemen left, though, making academic casualties critical in that area.

But Fanney and Washington could rejoin the class in a year with no lost eligibility.

There are few positives about bringing only 19 new scholarship players into camp. It will dig the probation hole a little deeper for Shula and his staff and make the success of all 19 players absolutely crucial (and there must be at least 19 this fall). But despite what some might think, there's nothing wrong with a little attrition this summer.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com


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