Signs Of Progress

Rain poured down in sheets over Thomas-Drew Field, the Alabama football practice facility. Lightning crackled in the not-so-distant sky. Suddenly, the megaphone used to direct every Crimson Tide football practice blared: "Into the barn!"

Meaning, get the heck inside the Hank Crisp Indoor Practice Facility.

The 2004 football season was 15 minutes old, and it wasn't looking much better than 2003.

Then, a funny thing happened. Coaches herded players into the facility, barking orders along the way. Seconds later, all 104 players (one was still missing) and the coaches ordering them around were back in the flow of practice as if they'd been there all along.

Welcome to Year Two of the Mike Shula era. Tuesday's speedy transition was a welcome sign that it will be much smoother at Alabama than it was in Year One.

""Compared to last year's first day, this was a lot better," a calm Shula said after the season's first workout. "A good example of where we've come from (was) the transition we made from outside to inside. The guys were coaching on their way into the barn, so we didn't miss much time that way. We've been around and know where to go. None of that stuff is an issue anymore."

It was a major issue a year ago. Shula inherited a program rocked by the sudden departures of Dennis Franchione and Mike Price and barely had time to learn his players' names before fall practice began.

Preseason drills turned into a 29-part crash course on Shula's pro-style offense disguised as a getting-to-know-you session.

So was anyone really surprised when Alabama fell to 4-9 after an injury-laden season that robbed it of quality depth and forced young, untested players into the lineup?

At the time, I was. But months of retrospective have made me realize how inevitable 2003 actually was.

These days, Shula is doing his best to make last season a distant memory. He signed a talented 28-member recruiting class. And although the losses of top receiver Nikita Stover and five highly touted defensive linemen to academics hurt, there is plenty of solid talent on campus.

Five freshman receivers–Keith Brown, DJ Hall, Ezekial Knight, Will Oakley and Marcel Stamps–have turned heads so far. So has freshman cornerback Simeon Castille, the brother of fullback Tim and son of Alabama legend Jeremiah Castille.

Depth concerns remain on both the defensive and offensive lines, and an injury in the wrong place could still prove catastrophic, considering the probation-weakened talent levels.

But a less challenging schedule and bowl eligibility have brought a little joy back to Tuscaloosa these days.

Shula himself seems far more comfortable running the program than he did a year ago.

Last year, he seemed a bit lost at times, unsure of himself. Exhibit A was sending an injured Brodie Croyle into a game at Georgia down 30-3, only to see linebacker Odell Thurman blast him out of service two plays later.

He also looked shaky in front of the news media: his initial appearance at SEC Media Days was as wooden as Pinocchio himself.

But he improved and gained confidence as the year went on. Last month's SEC Media Days appearance wasn't perfect, but it was a quantum leap forward from 2003.

And Alabama's Media Day press conference was even better. After spending over a year observing Shula on a regular basis, I've noticed that he's far more relaxed around smaller groups. He's the kind of guy who'll stand around after a post-practice briefing and shoot the breeze with beat writers, or recognize a new writer's presence in his press conferences.

And he's even developed a bit of a bite, something sorely missing last year.

After Wednesday's practice, a young television reporter asked him if his team's "soft" schedule would help his team this season.

"That's your opinion," Shula said, eyes blazing and voice bristling. "I don't think our schedule's soft. We've got to get ourselves ready for Utah State. They're coming in here (September 4) ready to do what other teams tried to do to us last year; and what some teams did."

Around him, the whole group–including print reporters who had just walked up–got real, real quiet.

"Not many questions today," Shula said with a grin. "Quiet group."

It was the smile of a man comfortable with his status. Comfortable with his team.

Shula–like this Alabama football team–is far from a finished product.

But both show definite signs of progress.

And after 2003, that's a major positive.

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