Actually, Alabama had quite the experience in replacing players in 2004 – Brodie Croyle, Ray Hudson, Clint Johnston, Kenneth Darby, etc. But in the majority of those cases, Alabama was replacing players only temporarily due to injury. Heading into 2005, however, Alabama must take on the task of replacing stalwarts like left tackle Wesley Britt, defensive end Todd Bates and middle linebacker Cornelius Wortham.
With tailback Ray Hudson graduating, Kenneth Darby becomes his probable replacement. But Darby's name is familiar to all Crimson Tide fans already. This list focuses on 10 players who will all play important roles on the 2005 squad, but perhaps have not been nudged into the full heat of the limelight just yet. Others on the list are current starters whose importance just shot up considerably with the graduation of teammates.
Note: The class next to the player's name indicates what he will be in 2005, not what he was in 2004.
1. Trent Davidson, sophomore, tight end
Davidson toiled in relative obscurity as a true freshman for much of the year, playing mostly on special teams, short-yardage situations and when the score grew to such a margin that the substitutes at the end of the depth chart took the field.
But as the year went along, Davidson's role got bigger and bigger. First, starting tight end David Cavan again was slowed by injury. Then, it was co-starter Clint Johnston's turn. Johnston suffered a concussion late in the season, which added to several previous concussions, means his career in all likelihood may be over. Greg McLain, a starter as a true freshman in 2002, himself battled the aftereffects of concussions, as well as an elbow injury. That pushed Davidson into a starter's role against Auburn, and the Tide coaches tried their best to get him involved in the full game plan, attempting three passes to him in the end zone that day.
With Cavan graduating, Johnston possibly out of football and McLain an uncertainty heading into 2005, Davidson looks to possibly be the full-time starter. Even if Johnston were to return, Davidson would be an important cog in the offense. Davidson is a powerful blocker and a tough player, but his receiving skills are suspect. If his hands continue to develop, however, he could be as complete a tight end package as Alabama has had in several years.
2. D.J. Hall, sophomore, wide receiver
Classmate Keith Brown got more publicity this season due to his eye-popping speed and big-play ability. But it may be Hall who ends up playing the more important role next year.
While Brown was responsible for several big catches in 2004, he was also the focal point of the year's most controversial play, the pass interference no-call at LSU. Brown was obviously pushed down on the play, but part of the problem was his own tentativeness. By comparison, Hall fought off a defender the following week against Auburn and came up with a big touchdown catch late in the game. Hall's willingness to get physical makes him the kind of target the Tide quarterbacks can go to in a crucial situation.
Hall isn't as big and physical as fellow sophomore Ezekial Knight, but he is a smoother route-runner and is more fleet of foot. With the core of Alabama's wide receiver corps still very young, look for Hall to possibly separate himself from the rest of the pack and become Alabama's reception leader in 2005.
3. Wallace Gilberry, sophomore, defensive end Most everyone is familiar with Gilberry's big-play ability by now, but in 2005, Gilberry will be asked to do something he has not yet done: Be a full-time starter.
Gilberry's speed off the corner, pass rushing skills and instincts made him hard to handle in 2004. Gilberry burned opposing offenses for sack after sack, tackle for loss after tackle for loss. Mississippi State offensive linemen probably had nightmares about Gilberry well into the Christmas holidays.
But Gilberry was a part-time player in 2004, called in off the bench to provide a spark, or to feast on offensive linemen tired from fending off bigger players like Todd Bates and Chris Harris. In 2005, Gilberry will likely be playing a full-time role himself. With his height and weight below that of the average defensive end, Gilberry will need to be in top condition throughout the season.
If Gilberry can be as effective as a full-time starter as he was a part-time role player, Alabama fans will be mentioning him in the same breath as Eric Curry or Derrick Thomas by the time his Crimson Tide career is over.
4. Juwan Garth, junior, outside linebacker
In theory, Alabama returns three starting linebackers next year. Alabama's starters in game one of last season were Demeco Ryans, Cornelius Wortham, and Garth, but through the progression of several injuries and other factors, Freddie Roach ended up with a starting assignment more often than not in 2004.
Garth was the original starter most impacted by injury. Garth missed a handful of plays in the middle of the season and was never again as strong as he was in the season's first few weeks. When completely healthy, Garth is hard to handle for opposing offenses. At approximately 6'2" and 220 pounds, Garth runs the 40-yard dash in a legitimate 4.5 seconds – or even faster – and covers opposing receivers well.
In 2005, there will be no Cornelius Wortham patrolling the middle of the field for Alabama. Roach, who started in Garth's place when he was injured, figures to move to the middle full-time. That leaves Garth and Ryans outside ahead of fast-but-undersized back-ups Terrence Jones and Demarcus Waldrop. It will be incumbent upon Garth to get stronger against big running backs, stay healthy, while not losing his superior speed.
A fully healthy, well-conditioned Garth could find himself on a postseason all-star list or two. For a player many think has more upside than a similar player he once replaced (Brooks Daniels), 2005 will be a critical year for Garth.
5. JB Closner, senior, center-guard Unlike other names on this list, Closner is no stranger to starting. He's been Alabama's starting center the last two seasons. But Closner may yet lose his job to a freshman in the spring, or at least be moved to a different position on the line.
Ever since Antoine Caldwell arrived on campus – he also appears on this list of important players in 2005 – coaches have been looking for a way to get the talented lineman onto the field. He was about to play his way into the rotation in 2004 when a broken foot forced a redshirt. Had he played, Closner would possibly have lost his job. Caldwell is more athletic, and seems to have a good feel for making line calls. Closner, recruited as a tackle-guard combo by former head coach Dennis Franchione, may be on the verge of heading back to one of those positions.
Wherever he plays in 2005, Closner will be the most experienced player on Alabama's offensive line. With that distinction comes the responsibility of being a leader. Alabama frequently leaned on Wesley Britt's enthusiasm and Evan Mathis' toughness in 2004, along with Danny Martz's work ethic. With only Closner and Kyle Tatum returning to starting jobs in 2005, younger players like Caldwell, Chris Capps and B.J. Stabler will be looking to someone for guidance. Closner will be the first place they look.
It's equally as likely that Closner returns to his post at center as it is for him to move to left or right guard and surrender center duties to Caldwell. Wherever he ends up, Alabama will need him to make a quantum improvement in both his on-field play and his off-field leadership.
6. Ezekial Knight, sophomore, wide receiver
At the beginning of the year, there was a question whether Knight would even play as a true freshman. The biggest of Alabama's four wide receiver signees in 2004, he also came from the smallest school. With his prowess as a two-way player in high school, fans and prognosticators were almost evenly split on whether Knight would see his first action on offense or defense.
As it turned out, Knight started on offense and stayed there. Standing approximately 6'4" and weighing a robust 230 pounds, Knight has the athleticism, size and aggressiveness for linebacker. But he also has the hands of a receiver, and as the year went along and Knight got more comfortable in his role, those unteachable aspects of size and speed started to be more valuable.
Against Auburn and again in the bowl game against Minnesota, Knight came up big with tough receptions in plus-territory. He's tough to bring down, and even tougher to intimidate. Although he got the slowest start of the three signees who played, by the end of the year, Knight was showing some serious progress. He may yet move to linebacker, but a player with his raw abilities could easily wreak havoc in opposing secondaries for the next three years.
Knight still needs to improve his hands a bit, and his route running isn't the best in the world. But he is young, and has not even participated in a college offseason weight program yet. Once he does, Knight could take a big step to an entirely different level as a wide receiver.
7. Justin Britt, sophomore, defensive tackle
The youngest of the three Britt brothers, Justin Britt was once ticketed for the offensive line, like Wesley and Taylor. But depth problems along the Tide defensive line forced Britt into the regular rotation on that side of the ball, and he learned quickly.
What fans learned about Britt was that he displayed a great mix of effectiveness against the run and the pass alike. His signature play was a key sack against Mississippi State that helped seal the game. Britt steadily progressed as the year went along, getting harder to handle with each game.
In 2004, Britt has a chance to stand out. He's already drawn several comparisons to former Tide great Jarrett Johnson. With the graduation of Anthony Bryant, and the continuing disappointment that is Dominic Lee's career, Britt will go into the spring competing with brave-but-undersized Rudy Griffin for a starting tackle job opposite Jeremy Clark. Britt needs conditioning work as any true freshman does, but he has to be considered no worse than an even-money bet to win a starting job.
While Britt isn't the biggest of defensive tackles, he is one of the quickest line players on the Crimson Tide roster. He also has a hard-working motor and a nasty streak. Next year could be a breakout season for Britt.
8. The Unnamed Punter, year unknown
If experience is the determining factor, Jeremy Schatz will enter spring training atop the depth chart at punter for Alabama. But after four years on the squad – Schatz will be a redshirt senior next year – Schatz is not much different than he was earlier in his career, a player limited by his small size (in reality, about 5'5" and 140 pounds) who is most effective as a punter in plus-territory. When Bo Freelend went down for a quarter against Minnesota, Schatz's limitations as a long punter were exposed. But beyond Schatz, there is mostly unknown. The three players with the most potential are Patrick Eades, Jeffery Aul and Joseph McPhillips, but only Aul has kicked in a game, and that was as a kickoff specialist. In fact, Eades' availability is in question, as whether he is still feeling the affects of a car accident two years ago is still up for question.
McPhillips, who will be a redshirt freshman in 2005, walked on at Alabama following a prep career at Cullman High School, where he put up distance numbers similar to those of former punter Lane Bearden in high school. But McPhillips is a good deal shorter and smaller than the linebacker-ish Bearden was. McPhillips looked good in warm-ups before a couple of games this season, and Eades was drawing raves before his accident. Aul nearly won the starting job two years ago in the spring, but has spent much of the last year or so attempting kickoffs.
It's a good bet this job will continue to be up in the air – no pun intended – perhaps all the way up to kickoff of Alabama's 2005 opener. Alabama needs to find a new placekicker, too, but the competition for that job is expected to be a bit more surefooted – pun intended this time – than competition at punter. This much is certain, however: With Alabama's emphasis on defense and field position, the punter will be one of the most important players on the 2005 Crimson Tide team.
9. Antoine Caldwell, redshirt freshman, center-guard
If not for a broken foot, Alabama fans may have gotten acquainted with Antoine Caldwell in 2004. As it is, they'll have to wait for the Tide's top prospect at both guard and center to debut in the fall of 2005.
Where Caldwell plays is a mystery of sorts. Depending on the development of fellow freshman B.J. Stabler and the progression of incumbent center J.B. Closner, Caldwell could wind up starting at center, at either of the two guard slots, or being the first player off the bench. Regardless, he's going to play a key role in the line play in 2005.
Caldwell is smaller than most top line prospects, standing about 6'2" and weighing 275 pounds or so. But what he lacks in pure size, he makes up for in quickness and smarts. Caldwell drew copious praise from observers in fall practices for his ability to make the correct line calls consistently. Had Caldwell's foot not been broken early in fall practice, it's unclear whether Closner would still be the incumbent center.
The safest bet of all is to see Caldwell starting at one of the guard slots in the 2005 opener. It will take a while before Caldwell can overcome the inexperience of his youth and be as effective as either Evan Mathis or Danny Martz were, but he has more upside than either player he stands to replace. The key will be how quickly he can develop it.
10. Simeon Castille, sophomore, cornerback
Most Alabama fans are already keenly aware of Simeon Castille and just how good he can be in the secondary. From the first time he stepped onto the field in 2004 at cornerback, Castille made his presence felt. He proved to be more of a ballhawk than either Anthony Madison or Ramzee Robinson, the players he was backing up. And with his size – he stands 6'1" or better, and weighs nearly 200 pounds – Castille found himself intimidating smaller opposing wide receivers.
But like many other players on the 2004 Alabama team, Castille was slowed by injury – in his case, a strained MCL ligament suffered on a freak collision on the practice fields. Castille returned after sitting out a brief amount of time, but was never the same for the rest of the season. He's expected to be at 100-percent strength for the start of spring practice.
When Castille is 100 percent, he is a dominant force looking for a place to exert his influence. When he didn't have full control of his powers this season, the veteran Madison and Robinson were more effective. Going into 2005, health will be of primary concern to Castille, who if healthy, figures to be the first defensive back off the bench, if he doesn't displace Madison or Robinson outright.
Alabama has recruited several tall, fast and physical defensive backs. One of them, prep school transfer Lionel Mitchell, is already on campus. Castille will now be looking over his shoulder as well as through his face mask to see the competition for playing time. But given his ability to pull off uncanny big plays in 2004, look for Castille to do his best to help the Tide repeat its pass defense performance in 2005.