Playing Freshmen Could Be Sweet or Sour for Bama

There is an old football adage that says for every true freshman you start, a defeat must be chalked up on the final record.

There is an old football adage that says for every true freshman you start, a defeat must be chalked up on the final record.

Mike Shula is surely hoping that cliché doesn't hold true.

When the University of Alabama football team begins practice Tuesday afternoon, it will do so hoping for contributions from as many as 13 true freshmen.

Over the past three years, probation demons have sapped the Crimson Tide's depth; Alabama will likely carry only 75 of a possible 85 players on scholarship this fall. That makes it absolutely crucial that the kids are, well, way better than all right.

If the freshmen stumble or act like, well, freshmen, a second consecutive losing season could follow come late November.

While freshmen will likely pop up all over the field this fall, their presence is sorely needed at three positions: wide receiver, tight end and defensive line.

Although Tyrone Prothro is a talented wideout and an emerging star, he can't carry the load at wide receiver all by himself. He is the only returning receiver who caught a pass last season – five of Alabama's top six receivers a year ago graduated.

Sixth-year senior Antonio Carter is expected to make a comeback after missing the past two seasons with a chronic stress fracture in his right leg, but his fragile leg could make him a part-time player at best.

Brandon Brooks, Matt Caddell and Will Roach could see time, but the real strength – or weakness – of the wide receiver corps will be its true freshmen.

Keith Brown, D.J. Hall and Will Oakley are all prototypical wide receivers – big, strong and quick. Of the three, Oakley is the smallest, and he stands 6-foot-1; Brown and Hall both stand 6-3.

But they also have another more troubling trait in common: none have played a single down of college football. They've never fought off rough hand-to-hand coverage from an experienced SEC cornerback. Never heard boos rain down on them as they run into Neyland Stadium as an Alabama player. Never heard bottles and rocks thump against the team bus as they roll towards Jordan-Hare Stadium.

By all accounts, Brown, Hall and Oakley are very talented players. But being a successful SEC player is as much mental as it is physical.

They'll be severely tested both mentally and physically over the next few months, and the success of Alabama's offense could ride on how well they adjust to major college football.

A reshuffled offensive line which features Evan Mathis at left guard and Kyle Tatum at right tackle should have no problems protecting quarterback Brodie Croyle and blocking for running backs Ray Hudson, Kenneth Darby and Tim Castille.

However, the offense will be in serious trouble if more playmaking threats don't emerge at wide receiver. Prothro should be improved in his second year of SEC football, but if Brown, Hall, Oakley or even Brooks and Caddell wash out, Prothro will be double and triple-teamed so much fans will need a milk carton to remember what he looks like.

At tight end, the contributions of freshmen Trent Davidson and Nick Walker could be just as important. None of Alabama's top five tight ends were able to practice this spring, although David Cavan, Clint Johnston and Greg McLain should all be ready to go this fall. Their injury issues make readiness from the freshmen absolutely crucial.

If Cavan, Johnston or McLain go down, Davidson and Walker will be next in line. Tight end can be an anonymous position, but Cavan's injury-plagued season hampered the entire offense last season. If he falls again, the freshmen must be ready to go.

Across the ball, the defense will need almost as much help from neophytes.

Justin Britt must be ready to contribute on the defensive line, thanks to academic problems that claimed five DL signees – Brandon Fanney, Kevin Hamilton, Jeramie Holifield, Travis McCall and Lorenzo Washington.

The defensive line is slightly deeper, thanks to the presence of Anthony Bryant, Todd Bates, Mark Anderson, Jeremy Clark and Dominic Lee. But if injuries occur, Britt will likely be next in line to play – immediately and often.

Simeon Castille and Marcus Carter could also make immediate contributions, especially if injuries strike in the secondary.

So all over the field, freshmen should be prominent this fall.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Who knows?

It could be a very bad thing this season; freshmen are typically unstable physically and mentally compared to their older compatriots, which usually leads to an extra loss or two in the final record.

But in two or three years, the extra experience those freshmen gain this season might pay huge dividends in the form of a BCS bowl bid or even a national championship.

Keep that in mind when you're watching Alabama football this fall.

It might repress the urge to destroy your remote control after your favorite freshman drops a pass or misses a crucial tackle.

This fall, Alabama football fans will be served plenty of youth.

How good it will taste remains a mystery.

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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