Shula's Offense Didn't Go into a Shell

Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula said last week that his offense wouldn't "go into a shell" in the Tide's first game of 2004 without Brodie Croyle at the helm. With Marc Guillon taking his first collegiate start, the Bama offense only mustered 18 pass attempts in the Tide's 27-10 loss to Arkansas Saturday.

Shula bluffed a year ago when he told anyone who asked that he and his staff had plenty of time to install an offense that would be competitive with the league's better teams throughout the season – it wasn't the case.

And this year based on what Croyle had done previously in his first three games, the offense could do nothing but cut back on the passing game against Arkansas, but Shula wasn't bluffing when he said his offense wouldn't go into a shell. His play-calling was appropriate for a first-time starter at quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.

Marc Guillon's first pass was a confidence-builder to Tim Castille, who made the catch at the line of scrimmage before picking up a first down on a second-and-six play. His second pass attempt, on a third-and-six play from the 46-yard-line, was misfired to intended receiver Clint Johnston, who couldn't come up with the ball.

On the day, four of Guillon's 18 pass attempts were to running backs, two were intended for tight ends, and 12 were to wide receivers (three of those in the two-minute drill with the Tide down 10 late in the game).

Nine of Guillon's attempts were "short" passes, intended for receivers who were standing within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. Three attempts were mid-range, intended for receivers 11-20 yards down field, and six attempts were to receivers 20 yards or more down the field.

Alabama's woes in the passing game weren't due to play-calling, they were a result of poor execution, be it timing, accuracy, drops or – gasp – good plays by Arkansas defenders.

Life without Brodie Croyle under center is an adjustment that couldn't go unnoticed. Alabama's freshmen receivers (and one sophomore) looked like freshmen Saturday, more so than the veterans the impersonated in the season's first three weeks. During the recruiting process, Keith Brown and DJ Hall were told they'd be catching passes from Brodie Croyle, and that's who they ran for in June and July, and in August during fall practice, and in Bama's first two games. Now these true freshmen have to adjust to a "new guy".

For the bulk of fall camp, Croyle took about 50 per cent of the practice repetitions while Guillon and Spencer Pennington shared the other half. And as the season approached, the back-ups spent more time watching and less time doing during practice. It would've been naïve to believe the post-Croyle era would have begun any differently than it did on Saturday.

To say the least, the post-Croyle era, where the Tide needed three wins in eight games to be bowl eligible and meet the minimum standard of approval, got off to a rocky start Saturday.

There was no a flaw in play-calling or a conservative game plan, however. Alabama used a bruising offensive line to the best of its ability, rushing for 271 yards in the game. And if not for a fumble and the squad's first interception of 2004 on one of the 18 passes, Bama would almost certainly be undefeated and probably nationally ranked today.

There's not a human-being alive in the world that could've stepped under center in Fayeteville, Arkansas Saturday and picked up where Croyle left off – not Southern Cal's Matt Leinart, not Oklahoma's Jason White, not Guillon and not Pennington - not under the circumstances.

Knowing this, Shula did lean on the rush. He went back to basics and it almost worked. Ray Hudson asserted himself as the Crimson Tide's most potent offensive weapon, totaling 170 yards on 20 carries Saturday, putting himself ahead of pace for a 1,000-yard season.

Shula has already been asked if he'll pull Guillon in favor of Pennington at any point, and he's certain to be asked again. But all indications are that he will not.

"There is some thought to that," Shula said when asked Sunday if Pennington would see increased reps this week. "Marc Guillon is our starter and he's going to be starter this week, and we've got to give him every opportunity to get better, just like we did with Brodie.

"Marc is our guy and I want make sure he has confidence, and that he knows that I have every bit of confidence in him."

Shula said on Wednesday of last week that Guillon was taking "about 85 per cent" of the practice reps, noting that Pennington had "a little more work" on Thursday. Shula also said last week that he's not the kind of coach who likes to have his starting quarterback, in this case Guillon, looking over his shoulder every time he has a bad play.

Bama's remaining opponents will load up with defenders near the line of scrimmage in attempt to stop the run, even as Guillon and Tide receivers improve on their passing game. How Mike Shula counters these moves with his philosophy and play-calling – not who's playing quarterback - might dictate the rest of the Tide's season.

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