Alabama began its first practice of the preseason outdoors, but after stretching and a little work on the kicking game a passing thunderstorm drove the Tide into the indoor practice facility for the balance of the two hour and 45 minute workout.
Head Coach Mike Shula seemed quite pleased. "This was a lot better than last year's first day," he said. Alabama's problems last season have been well-documented, and it was no surprise that a year later was much smoother. As an example. Shula said that when the team went from the outdoor practice fields to the indoor facility the coaching continued uninterrupted, something that would not have happened last year when the staff was new and putting in a new system.
Which is not to say that there is not a lot of newness to this team. Including walk-ons, 30 of the 104 players on the field Tuesday were out for the first time in an Alabama uniform. And that does not include 16 redshirt freshmen from last season.
One thing that caught Shula's eye was team speed. "This is going to be a faster football team," he said. "The new receivers did a nice job. They are bigger, and you combine that with decent speed. And they competed harder than I would have thought for freshmen."
It wasn't perfect. "We had some drops," he said of the freshmen receivers. "The ball comes a lot faster. But they competed, and they are polished. The guys have been well-coached in high school."
A returning player on defense who Shula noticed was defensive end Mark Anderson. "He's put on weight and looks good," the coach said.
Shula was pleased with the Tide's conditioning and praised the players for preparing well in the summer.
A disappointment was that there were "too many balls on the ground," the coach said. "We had a couple of center-quarterback exchanges that misfired and a couple of fumbles. I told the players that you can have a lot of good plays, and then have one of those bad plays–a fumble or a penalty–and it all goes away."
Shula said he thought the quarterbacks were much improved over a year ago, as would be expected, but said, "As a group, we were not as effective as we should be offensively." But, he said, more than watching the mechanics of the quarterbacks, Shula said he "was watching their thought processes–are they throwing to the right guy."
Quarterbacks Coach David Rader said, "We looked like it was the first day of practice, but it was a light year ahead of where we were 365 days ago. The freshmen receivers weren't bad, but they were extremely nervous. Brodie (quarterback Brodie Croyle) looked healthy. But polish? It's a good thing we are practicing."
Shula said, "We have a chance to be a good running team. Ray (Hudson) looked very good. Kenneth Darby looked good, but he put the ball on the ground a couple of times. Tim (Castille) worked mostly at fullback, but got a few snaps at halfback. And (freshman) Aaron Johns worked in there well."
Shula said he also saw much improvement in sophomore fullback Le'Ron McClain and he expects to add more offense for the 6-1, 258-pound fullback.
Two freshmen cornerbacks caught Shula's attention. The coach flashed a big smile when asked about Simeon Castille. "He has a good change of direction," Shula said. "He and Travis (Robinson) both have that good change and the ability to turn and find the ball."
Shula noted that it's difficult for the big men to do much in this type work because they have to be at a tempo to prevent injury. Bama is in helmets and shorts through Friday, then goes into full gear Saturday.
The team has a few injuries, most of them from months past. Those players are in plain jerseys with no numbers. Tight end David Cavan still has some knee problems, but is expected to work back into the rotation as early as this weekend. Tight end Greg McLain, who had elbow surgery last spring, is expected to be a little longer in getting back into the rotation. Also coming along slowly are wide receiver Antonio Carter, who has been out the past two years, and middle linebacker Freddie Roach, who had a "clean up" surgery in his knee late this summer.
Senior defensive tackle Anthony Bryant was nursing a little stomach ailment and held out of practice, but otherwise Bryant felt great. He had taken his final examination to complete his graduation requirements Tuesday morning, and learned by mid-afternoon that he had earned an A-minus in the class. His completion of graduation requirements means he is eligible for his final season of football.
Shula said, "There is an urgency with this football team to get better all the time. That is what we hit them with every day. We showed them a lot today and the guys are getting familiar with the system and we will add more stuff tonight. The tempo was pretty good. The mindset has been pretty good, but we need to understand that we have to get better every day."
He said his "gut feeling is that there will be three good days, and then we'll go into pads and start over."
Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines said, "It was a good, smooth start. A lot smoother than in the spring. It's going to be a great little film. The older guys are light years ahead of where they've been."
It was no surprise that Kines was asked about massive freshman linebacker Curtis Dawson (6-1, 276). The coach said, "We had a little extra running at the end of practice to get him in step, but he has great instincts out there. With Freddie Roach out, we're going to look at Curtis inside. I'm not afraid of his weight if he can carry it."
Although Shula said he was still looking for a long snapper out of the four that were listed on the 105-man roster the most impressive appeared to be Drew Lane, a transfer from Hinds Junior College in Mississippi. Freshman tight end Trent Davidson also did some long snapping.
There was a last minute change in the reporting roster. Nick Esposito, a 6-2, 250-pound defensive tackle from Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida, had been expected to be with the initial group. Esposito, however, will now wait until classes begin August 25 before joining the squad. His place on the preseason roster was taken by 6-2, 248-pound redshirt freshman defensive end Justin Johnson of Tuscaloosa.
The roster continues at 104, although freshman wide receiver Ezekiel Knight is expected in the next few days. He was late completing his eligibility requirements and now waits for approval from the NCAA Clearinghouse and admission to The University.
Alabama opens the season September 4 hosting Utah State at 6 p.m. CDT. Prior to the opener Bama will have two scrimmages open to the public at Bryant-Denny Stadium–Monday, August 16, and Saturday, August 21.