Numbers Watched Closely

Who'd have thought that after three years of watching scholarship numbers, University of Alabama football fans would spend late January and early February, well, watching those numbers?

That's just what Mike Shula and Co. are doing these days, huddled in the Crimson Tide's spanking-new football complex, crunching oral commitments, soft commitments, offers, official visits and greyshirts into an equation which will produce the Class of 2005 come Feb. 2, also known as national signing day.

And after three recruiting classes of needing more numbers – thanks to NCAA sanctions that stripped 21 scholarships from the program – Alabama, once again, needs more scholarships than it has.

This time around, though, that's a good thing. A very good thing, in fact.

It's a sign that the Tide is back in the recruiting game full-force, and doing it well.

As of Thursday afternoon, Alabama had 26 oral commitments – for 25 scholarships – and planned on adding three, if not four, more commitments by the time signing day rolls around in three weeks' time.

Going into his third season, Shula has not yet proven he can coach a winning football team.

But he and his staff have most certainly proven they can attract winning talent – which, in turn, could remake Alabama into a dominant program.

Last season, Shula and staff put together a 27-member signing class that was regarded by national recruiting analysts as one of the nation's top 15 classes and solidly among the upper half of Southeastern Conference classes.

This year's could be even better. So far, Alabama has addressed most of its most pressing needs, filling up with offensive and defensive linemen, quarterbacks and several running backs, strengthening what are thin positions.

Six offensive linemen – two guards, two tackles, and two centers – are solidly committed. Of them, Pine Forest, Fla., tackle Michael Johnson and Columbus, Ga., guard Marlon Davis appear the best products.

Four defensive linemen – three defensive tackles and defensive end Brandon Fanney – are committed. Alabama would love to add another lineman or two, including Prattville defensive end Bobby Greenwood and Mobile defensive end Antonio Coleman, but this is already a solid group.

One of its best players – Hargrave Military Academy defensive tackle Lorenzo Washington – has received minimal publicity, at best, because he has stayed committed to Alabama.

Washington was one of 2004's gems as a prep signee from Grayson, Ga., but didn't meet academic requirements and was packed off to Hargrave. While there, he has only improved, showing exceptional speed and agility during a recent scouting combine in the Atlanta area.

Spencer Pennington's recent decision to quit football and concentrate on baseball hurts quarterback depth, but the commitments of three talented prep quarterbacks cushioned the blow.

Hoover's John Parker Wilson was a top baseball/football prospect himself in high school, but chose Alabama over a lucrative offer from the Florida Marlins. He's already enrolled and practiced with the Tide during its pre-Music City Bowl workouts.

Los Alamitos, Calif., signal caller Jimmy Barnes committed to UA before his senior season started, and quickly became one of that talent-rich state's best quarterback prospects while staying solidly committed to Alabama.

And to top it off, the Tide recently got a commitment from Mississippi's Mr. Football – Brookhaven, Miss., quarterback Jimmy Johns, whose arm and scrambling ability show athleticism that could serve him well at a number of positions if quarterback isn't a good fit for him.

Tailback has been another major area of concern, especially after a rough, injury-plagued 2004. Alabama's projected starting backfield of tailback Kenneth Darby and fullback Tim Castille will both be recovering from major injuries. Darby spent the latter part of the season nursing a stress fracture in his pelvic area, while Castille tore two ligaments in his right knee during a loss at Tennessee.

So far, two talented runners – Stevenson's Ali Sharrief and Fort Walton Beach, Fla.'s Glen Coffee – have committed, and more could be on the way soon. Tallahassee's Roy Upchurch appears near a commitment to Alabama, and Atlanta's James Davis (one of the South's top tailback prospects) moved the Tide to the top of his list after a great visit last weekend.

Sarasota, Fla., tailback Mike Ford is also in the mix, although he could get shut out unless he commits soon. That a player as talented as Ford is having his hand forced by Alabama is a rarity most followers haven't seen in the past few seasons.

It's a sign Alabama has a surplus of interested talent and a shortage of scholarships, even at the full limit of 25.

Shula and his staff still must finish strong and hold their ground with the current commitments over the next three weeks – nothing is ever certain in recruiting.

But if they can keep their commitments and add a few big names, a rebuilding program will take a big step forward.

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