Bama's Big Class Important

By now, all of the signed letters-of-intent have long since rolled off the fax machine inside the University of Alabama football complex. Players have gone back to their classes, coaches back to their offices, and libraries returned from impromptu press conference locations to places of quiet contemplation.

Football coaches' Christmas Day – known as national signing day to rest of us – is over, and that means the evaluation of the Class of 2005 can begin.

For the first time in five years, the Crimson Tide signed a full class minus either the burden of sanctions or the weight of an NCAA investigation bearing down on it. And that made a huge difference. With 33 signees, it ranked in the top third of the Southeastern Conference and 16th nationally by noted recruiting service

This wasn't Alabama's best class ever. But it will be one of its most important. Wednesday was the start of a new era in Crimson Tide football – although it remains to be seen what direction the program goes in.

In the going-on six years since Alabama last won an SEC championship and went to a BCS bowl game, the program has taken a step back from one of the nation's elite to a middle-class citizen, scrapping for invitations to New Year's Eve bowl games.

Some of that is probation's fault, the result of stripping 21 scholarships from the program over three years. Some of that can be chalked up to turmoil caused by the NCAA investigation and subsequent probation, which drove Dennis Franchione from Tuscaloosa, brought in Mike Price for his ill-fated five-month tenure and led to Shula's learn-on-the-run 2003 season.

Throw injuries, lots of them, into the mix, and you get a 6-6 football team that was down to its third-string quarterback and third-string tailback in a bowl game before getting its nose rubbed in its troubles by a second-rate Big 10 school's band.

Obviously, if these kind of seasons continue much longer, Mike Shula won't be long for Tuscaloosa.

That's why recruiting – this class, in particular – has become so important for Alabama.

Numbers and depth are severely depleted by Division I-A and SEC standards. Shula said near the end of last season that he had "77 or 78" players on scholarship, which included walk-ons awarded full rides like special-teams star Matt Ragland and holder Alex Fox.

At least 17 scholarship seniors graduated the program, meaning even a full 25 players reporting in August might not bring Alabama back to the NCAA's 85-scholarship limit.

Shula is determined to get 25 in – that's a major reason why he signed 33 players, adding commitments right up until signing day with tailback Roy Upchurch, defensive end Bobby Greenwood and athlete Desmond Jennings. Rest assured, if one of the 33 doesn't qualify academically or has a change in plans, someone will be there to take his place among the August reportees.

And all of those who show up will be talented players. Shula's staff made sure of that by signing loads of prospects who fill Alabama's many needs, including three quarterbacks, four tailbacks, seven defensive backs, six offensive linemen and six defensive linemen.

Of this group, the tailbacks should make the earliest impact.

Glen Coffee of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Mike Ford of Sarasota, Fla., Roy Upchurch of Tallahassee, Fla., and Ali Sharrief of Stevenson – a class national recruiting analyst Jamie Newburg called "one of the nation's best" – give the Tide backfield much-needed depth.

Junior Kenneth Darby carried the offense on his shoulders down the stretch, but wore down and spent the Iron Bowl and Music City Bowl limited with a stress fracture in his pelvis. And sophomore Aaron Johns, try as he might, simply didn't look much like an every-down back in Darby's absence.

Alabama badly needed fresh legs in the backfield. If all four qualify academically – a big if, admittedly – the Tide will have a running game deep enough to withstand a freakish injury bug as bad or worse than 2004's. Just as importantly, the fab four freshmen will foster competition among themselves and the veterans – a theme which should carry over into the rest of the roster.

For most of the probation period, Alabama's depth chart has been thinner than Paris Hilton right before a Maxim photo shoot.

With classes like this, it will regain the beef necessary to compete with the Auburns, Georgias and Tennessees of the world on a more consistent basis – another must if the Shula era is destined to become a long and prosperous one in Tuscaloosa.

If it lives up to its hype, Alabama football will take another step back towards national prominence. We'll find out the ultimate answer in three years or so. If Shula is still coaching them, chances are this class will be judged a success, a building block of Alabama's return to glory.

If not, they'll be just another anonymous stepping stone on a long road back towards success.

The best part is, they'll get to decide their fate – starting in August.

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