"It seems as if you about have time to put in a whole new playbook," Alabama Coach Mike Shula said following Wednesday's Crimson Tide practice. "It's a long time between games. But there are other things going on."
For the coaches there are recruiting responsibilities. For the players, most of the time between the Auburn game and the Music City Bowl has been spent preparing for and taking final examinations. And there is also the job of "self-scouting," fixing any problems with the basic schemes.
"There is a little chance to put in gadgets," Shula said. "And you also have to prepare for what the other team might do. It could be on special teams, or they might use some different blitzes. And you look at all of that. But we're mainly concerned with ourselves, getting our players in position to be efficient."
Alabama was out in full gear for about two hours in cool, overcast weather Wednesday. "It was a pretty good practice," Shula said. "The guys were moving around pretty well."
The end of Tuscaloosa practice is near. Bama will have a final practice Thursday morning, a fairly brief workout, then players will be released for a few days of Christmas break. Players and coaches will reconvene in Nashville Sunday and have a light practice that evening at Vanderbilt's practice facility, where the Tide will work each day in Nashville.
Alabama and Minnesota will play the Music City Bowl game at 11 a.m. Friday, December 31, at the Coliseum. ESPN will televise the game. Both teams are 6-5 going into the bowl game. Alabama, designated the visiting team but expected to have the home crowd among the 60,000 or so expected, is representing the Southeastern Conference, while Minnesota represents the Big Ten. Both teams were 3-5 in league play. Bama is on a two-game losing streak and Minnesota, which started the season 5-0, has lost three in a row going into the bowl game.
Shula said, "We'll probably have about 85 per cent of the game plan in when we get to Nashville, but we can still tweak it."
On the Alabama injury front, halfback Kenneth Darby, who has been recovering from an abdominal strain and is listed as "questionable," was dressed. Shula said, "He's doing a little more," emphasizing "little."
With Darby missing most practice work, freshman halfback Aaron Johns, the only other scholarshipped tailback in camp, has been preparing to play. Shula said, "He is improved, but he still has a way to go in consistency and urgency. You might have 60 plays in a game and you have to have the same intensity on each one. If on one play your guy sacks the quarterback because of a mental lapse, that's a big play. Aaron has progressed pretty well, but he still has to get better."
Tight end David Cavan, who missed late season play with broken vertebrae, has been getting more work each day and was involved in contact Wednesday. "He's not there yet," Shula said, "but he's getting there."
The coach said that defensive end Wallace Gilberry, who was helped off the practice field Tuesday with a turned ankle, "is fine." Cornerback Simeon Castille has been resting a sore hamstring pull, but worked Wednesday. Defensive tackle Justin Britt and wide receiver Keith Brown were held out of practice for a second day after having suffered slight head injuries, but both are expected to be ready to go next week. A determination will be made next week on punter Bo Freelend, out with a strained right knee.
While the reason for bowl practice is the bowl game, Alabama's coaching staff has been getting extra benefit from the work time. There has been an emphasis on working with young players who have had little or no game action this year. "We've gotten more from our young guys than I expected," Shula said. "For instance, there is a comfort level for our offensive linemen who didn't take a snap with our offense in games. I've mentioned those three–(freshmen) Antoine Caldwell, B.J. Stabler, and Cody Davis–a lot. They are better than they were seven practices ago. And (freshman safety) Aaron McDaniel is better."
A few years ago a rule was passed that players had to pass a certain number of hours in the fall semester in order to be eligible to participate in a bowl game and make the bowl trip. Shula said he is not going to comment on players missing the game. But, he pointed out, "There are certain things we require our players to do to participate in a bowl trip. Grades are only part of it. There may be a couple absent." Sources indicate there are no players on the two-deep who will miss the game for academic reasons.