Halfback will be a Full-Out Battle

One of the most intriguing discussions of the Alabama football squad's off-season is who will be the Tide's starting halfback when Alabama opens its season on September 4. There are three candidates and they are all worthy, but it might not matter who starts.

Ray Hudson has prepared himself for the job. He's experienced, strong and fast. He should be the starting running back for Alabama's season-opener versus Utah State.

Kenneth Darby is the most explosive running back on the team. He is dangerous with his hands on the ball, and is finally 100 per cent healthy this fall. He should be the starting running back for Alabama's season opener versus Utah State.

Tim Castille has show to be a patient and elusive runner. He has football smarts and can catch passes as well as pass-block. He should be the starting running back for Alabama's season-opener versus Utah State.

All the arguments might not matter all that much, however. Mike Shula was accustomed to seeing one running back get the bulk of carries when coaching in the NFL. Roster limitations made having one feature running back almost a necessity. That idea bared out in Shula's first season at Alabama. Shaud Williams, with his undersized body and oversized heart, carried the football more times than any running back in the Southeastern Conference.

But What is Shula's take this year? There are three running backs on the squad who might make legitimate cases to be that feature back in fall practice – and Shula would undoubtedly love to see one man that he couldn't keep off the field. Shula indicates that it will take that kind of show-out performance for Alabama not to use a halfback-by-committee.

"This year my mindset is more flexible," Shula said Monday. "If one guy emerges the we're going to have to look hard at that. We're going to take a look at all three of those guys (Castille, Darby and Hudson). It gives us some flexibility, which I like."

"I'm comfortable with ‘running back by committee', but I'd like to get the carries that Shaud (Williams) got last year," Hudson said. "As long as we win I really don't care."

Hudson said that the public discussion of his suspension for an off-the-field run-in a year ago helped change his outlook on football. "It motivated me in the weight room, watching film, just anything that has to do with football. I was just mad and I just had something to prove, I guess."

Hudson's attitude has changed again leading into the 2004 season, however. "I wouldn't say mad now, I would say hungry. I want a ring," he said.

The more flexibility the better as Tim Castille is concerned. Besides contending to be one of the Tide's top halfbacks, he is listed as the starter at fullback. His shot at being the primary ball-carrier will depend largely on the play of Le'Ron McClain at fullback.

McClain passes the "look test" with flying colors, and he has already delivered some crushing blocks as a true freshman a year ago. If McClain masters the mental aspect of the offense, and proves his hands good enough to catch passes out of the backfield, Castille's time at halfback should increase.

Darby hasn't had much of a chance to prove himself when healthy, save a 41-yard run versus Mississippi, where he injured his shoulder. Darby is a shifty and powerful runner, a rare combination, but he needs to become a more complete back.

Whether it's Hudson, Castille or Darby – or some combination – the journey to fill the Shaud Williams void will play out over the next few weeks, and it looks like Shula might use more than one man to get the job done.

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