Quarterback Question

Give him a flak jacket. Throw him a knee brace. A shoulder harness. A foam neck brace, even. Pack him, head to toe, in industrial-strength bubble tape. Okay, so that might be going a bit too far, but here's the point: The Alabama football coaching staff must protect Brodie Croyle.

The junior quarterback is, without question, the Crimson Tide's most valuable commodity, the difference between a good season and an ugly repeat of 2003's 4-9 disaster.

He is the heart and soul of the Alabama offense, its physical and emotional leader, the axis around which it revolves.

And he must–underline and underscore that–be protected. Minus Brodie Croyle, the offense will likely struggle mightily to score points and move the ball, putting undue pressure on  a defense that is capable of winning games but not shutting opponents out completely.

This is not as much a question of Croyle's durability as a reflection of the talent gap behind him.

Tuesday afternoon, sophomore Marc Guillon and junior Spencer Pennington fought to become Croyle's backup. And although the conditions were hardly ideal–starting tailback Ray Hudson and number one receiver Tyrone Prothro sat out the scrimmage, which was halved between Bryant-Denny Stadium and the team's indoor practice facility by a thunderstorm–neither looked impressive by any standards.

Guillon completed seven-of-19 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown (on a shovel pass to backup running back Theo Townsend), while Pennington hit on seven-of-14 passes for 60 yards.

More importantly, neither looked comfortable directing the first-team offense. Tide Coach Mike Shula and Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader let both quarterbacks work behind the entire first team offensive line, ostensibly giving them a feel for directing the starters should they relieve Croyle at some point this season.

Maybe the pressure of competition got to both players, but neither quarterback was particularly sharp. There were false-start penalties galore, and passes sprayed all over the field, from the bottoms of receivers' cleats to 10 feet in front of them and behind them.

Sure, competing for a job at a program like Alabama involves plenty of pressure. But this scrimmage was mostly contested before a smattering of parents and their teammates in an otherwise empty Bryant-Denny Stadium.

How will they react if Croyle tweaks a shoulder, sprains an ankle or dislocates a finger in Neyland Stadium or Baton Rouge?

Those locales and others in the SEC are some of the most unforgiving for a quarterback in all of college football.

And while talented, Guillon and Pennington are completely unproven.

Guillon has thrown all of five college passes–all at Miami of Florida–completing three-of-five for 53 yards with the bulk coming on a 39-yard touchdown toss against noted power Florida A&M.

Pennington has spent the past two years backing up Croyle and Tyler Watts, playing in 10 college games. Only one of those games has been a start–in place of an injured Croyle last season at Georgia.

Before a hard hit separated his right shoulder, Pennington struggled that day, completing nine-of-20 passes for a touchdown and an interception.

Midway through the second quarter, the game was so out of hand that Croyle got in the game, injured left shoulder and all, with Alabama trailing 30-3. He left two plays later thanks to a wicked hit from Odell Thurman with his shoulder hurting worse than ever.

Both quarterbacks are talented players who could potentially start at other Division I programs. They've been nothing but accommodating to the news media exploring their situations, and are, by all means, fine young men.

But they haven't proved themselves to me yet.

Even going-on three years into NCAA probation, Alabama has enough talent left on its roster to scratch out eight victories and win itself a more-than-decent bowl bid (anyone for New Year's Eve in Atlanta?)

Trouble is, that talent is spread paper-thin across the depth chart, particularly at quarterback.

When healthy (as he is this fall) Croyle is a game-changing quarterback. He appears comfortable in Shula's pro-style offense and has enjoyed a very impressive preseason camp while hitting receivers in stride all over the field for big gains and touchdowns.

This fall could be his long-awaited breakout season as the Crimson Tide's next great quarterback if the revamped offensive line protects him well.

If he goes down, though, look out.

Unless Guillon or Pennington shows us something they haven't yet, it could be another long season.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes this column for BamaMag.com.

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