Looking At Injuries

After the Alabama football team finished practice late Wednesday afternoon, a reporter asked Mike Shula "how many more levels" his team can rise to, considering the serious injuries it has suffered in the past three weeks.

"However many we need," Mike Shula quickly replied.

You have to wonder, though, if it's really that simple.

Eventually, the injury monster (for this Alabama team, it changed from an injury "bug" into a monster the moment quarterback Brodie Croyle blew out his anterior cruciate ligament) will track this team down and cause serious damage.

When the Crimson Tide settles down for its likely postseason destination in Houston, Nashville or Shreveport, excitement and adulation will rain down on Shula and his team for a job well-done, and rightfully so, considering 2003's ugly 4-9 finish.

But there will be a definite undercurrent of what might have been.

What if Croyle had thrown the ball away instead of running on third-and-six against Western Carolina?

What if the helmet of a Kentucky defender had gone 10 inches higher and slammed into Ray Hudson's right thigh instead of his kneecap?

Ten inches–that's the difference between Hudson practicing for Southern Miss with a deep thigh bruise and perhaps an orange "no-contact" jersey and watching practice from a golf cart, as he did Wednesday afternoon, a day after surgery to repair cartilage damage and a cracked right tibia.

The rest of Alabama's season is by no means a lost cause, a point the 80 or so healthy, capable players left on the roster would certainly support.

Ken Darby and Tim Castille should pick up the backfield slack Hudson leaves behind very capably.

And after two games' worth of struggles with Marc Guillon under center, fellow backup Spencer Pennington looked very comfortable helping Alabama wax Kentucky last week.

However, the voids Croyle and Hudson have left behind will be tough to fill.

Croyle was enjoying a breakout season–a 66 percent pass completion rate and five touchdowns against no interceptions–when he was hurt.

So was Hudson, who averaged 106 yards per game, second-best in the SEC, with spectacular speed and game-breaking ability.

This is by no means discounting their teammates' chances against the three best opponents left on the schedule, Tennessee, LSU and Auburn.

If Alabama runs the ball effectively and the defense keeps up its current pace, the Tide stands at least a small chance of winning each game and turning a good season into a great one.

But that small window of opportunity for victory would be much larger if Croyle and/or Hudson were healthy and in the lineup against those difficult foes.

Both players were difference makers, the kind of players who could lift a probation-riddled roster to heights it otherwise couldn't reach. Now, scaling probation's mountain is even tougher.

That said, don't go blaming their injuries on the "price of probation".

I have said time and again that probation is designed to hurt. Take away 21 scholarships over three recruiting classes, and each injury's impact is magnified.

These two might be different, however.

Croyle is a special player, the kind of quarterback who–barring injury–most Alabama fans expected to be a three-year starter who smashed records and held an ironclad grip on the job until he graduated.

What quarterback wants to come compete with that? Countless quarterbacks say they're "competitors," but they aren't stupid, either.

If you think such thoughts didn't run through the mind of a special player like JaMarcus Russell, for example, you're crazy.

Frankly, the Tide is lucky to have Pennington, who grew up an Alabama fan in nearby Fayette but was committed to Mississippi State before Dennis Franchione swooped in and snagged him away.

Hudson's shoes should be filled well by Darby and Castille and the rest of Alabama's running backs–one of the few positions on the roster where probation hasn't had much of an impact.

Life without Croyle and Hudson will go on, just as it did last fall when big left tackle Wesley Britt's leg got tangled and badly broken early in the Tennessee game.

Alabama's roster is one of America's best at recovering from bad things (see Price, Mike; Franchione, Dennis; and Yeager, Thomas).

"It's just a matter for our guys of focusing in on their own responsibility and not letting a lot of other things effect them that we can't control and injuries are part of it," Shula said. "There's nothing we can do about Brodie, there's nothing we can do about Ray, so the mindset has got be 'Hey, let's move on, the guys that are here, it's a great opportunity to step up and we're the guys that can do something about weekends and game days.'"

They'll move on and do quite well at it.

After all, this team has had plenty of practice.

But if, in late December, they don't shake their heads and wonder, ‘What if?', it would be stunning.


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