Spring News: Good and Bad

With spring training starting Feb. 22, Alabama fans are optimistic about the Crimson Tide's chances in the 2005 season.

On the good side of the equation, there are the two consecutive top 15-ranked recruiting classes that Head Coach Mike Shula has brought to Tuscaloosa. On the bad side, there are still plenty of areas on the Alabama team that are thin due to scholarship limitations enacted during the most recent probation. And while this year's recruiting class will get Alabama near the 85 limit again, most of the numbers will be concentrated in the lower classes, meaning there will be a lack of veteran leadership in several areas.

Alabama's 2005 hopes, much like the 2004 team's hopes, will ride on the back of injury luck. Some areas of the Tide team are deep, others aren't. What follows is an overview of what to be excited about and what to be worried about as spring practice approaches.

NOTE: Personnel are taken from the most recently published Alabama roster and will likely change as spring progresses. Not all players on the roster are listed in the depth charts. All class information is listed as it will be for the 2005 season. Walk-ons are indicated by a "*".

OFFENSE

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

SE: Tyrone Prothro (Jr.), Keith Brown (So.), Matt Miller (Sr.), Brandon Brooks (Sr.), Marcus McKnight (Jr.), Jake Collins* (Jr.)

FL: Matt Caddell (So.), D.J. Hall (So.), Ezekial Knight (So.), Will Oakley (RFr.), Will Roach (So.), Patrick Gordon* (RFr.), David Steakley* (Sr.)

TE: Trent Davidson (So.), Greg McLain (Sr.), Nick Walker (RFr.), Barrett Earnest* (RFr.), Will Denniston* (So.)

Reasons for excitement: Alabama's freshman class of receivers exceeded expectations in 2004. Wide receiver went from being a source of great concern in the preseason to, at the very least, a position of average strength by the time the season ended. Tyrone Prothro developed into a dangerous kick returner and a good possession receiver. Keith Brown showed flashes of brilliance. D.J. Hall and Ezekial Knight got better as the season went along, and Matt Caddell improved greatly over his spring performance and redshirt year. In 2005, Alabama adds redshirts Will Oakley and Patrick Gordon to the mix, as well a TE Nick Walker, one of the better receivers at the position Alabama has had in recent years.

Reasons for concern: Prothro still drops a pass in his basket every now and then, and Hall dropped two wide-open touchdown passes in 2004, including one at LSU that could have had a big effect on the game. Of more a concern is the fact that injuries have depleted tight end depth. Starter Trent Davidson will have to watch his weight to avoid outgrowing the position. Reserve Greg McLain is a former starter, but injuries have limited the number of snaps he can play. While Walker is a very good receiver, his blocking skills are suspect, and at least one signee is expected to play.

Incoming signees/comments: WR Nick Kyles, WR Desmond Jennings, TE Charles Hoke, TE Travis McCall. McCall has the best shot at early playing time because of his blocking ability. Kyles is blocked by sheer numbers. Jennings is likely a sign-and-place or professional baseball player. Hoke needs a redshirt to build bulk

Players to watch: WR Ezekial Knight, TE Nick Walker. Knight didn't play as many snaps as fellow signees Brown and Hall, but the percentage of snaps played to the number of times the ball was thrown his way was much higher. He's a physical player with good speed and he likes contact. His playing time should go up. Walker's development is extremely important, as it might allow Alabama to redshirt both Hoke and McCall, or move McCall to defensive end, his natural position.

Summary: This is a deep, talented group that will only get better. Avoiding injuries at the tight end position, along with continued improvement from the young receivers, will make this unit a strength.

RUNNING BACKS/QUARTERBACKS

QB: Brodie Croyle (Sr.), Marc Guillon (Jr.), John Parker Wilson (Fr.), Adam Thrash (RFr.)

FB: Le'Ron McClain (Jr.), Tim Castille (Jr.), Kyle Bennett (Jr.), Damien Jones* (RFr.)

RB: Kenneth Darby (Jr.), Aaron Johns (So.), Theo Townsend* (RFr.), Brandon McAway* (Jr.), Vic Horn* (Sr.)

Reasons for excitement: Brodie Croyle is back, and before his knee injury last fall, he was on his way to putting up some very impressive numbers. Alabama is a different team with Croyle under center, as the Tide coaches are able to completely balance the offense. Croyle's arm allows him to make throws other quarterbacks simply dream about making. At running back, Kenneth Darby came into his own in 2004, and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark even while splitting time for a large part of the season with Ray Hudson and Tim Castille. Fullback Le'Ron McClain has NFL written all over him. Grayshirt quarterback John Parker Wilson looked promising in a limited tryout in December and probably has more long-term potential than either of last year's backups, Marc Guillon or Spencer Pennington.

Reasons for concern: Croyle is effective, but fragile – and with Alabama perhaps starting three freshmen on the offensive line, it's hard to imagine him getting through the 2005 season completely unscathed. Guillon still isn't 100 percent due to a bad back, and may never be. Questions surround Tim Castille and whether he can be an effective running back following ACL surgery. Injury concerns also surround Darby, who won't be 100 percent for spring practice, especially given Aaron Johns' unimpressive showing late in the season in relief.

Incoming signees/comments: QB Jimmy Barnes, QB Jimmy Johns, RB Roy Upchurch, RB Mike Ford, RB Glen Coffee, RB Ali Sharrief. Unless the injury bug hits the quarterback position head-on again, Barnes and Johns are headed for likely redshirts. If all the running backs qualify, Sharrief and perhaps Coffee will also redshirt. Upchurch and Ford, however, likely will play. Alabama needs a back with some bulk to spell Darby, and Ford fits the bill. Upchurch's top-gear acceleration is too good to keep on the sidelines. Both may pass Aaron Johns on the depth chart unless Johns can build his body in the offseason.

Players to watch: FB Le'Ron McClain, QB John Parker Wilson. McClain improved drastically from 2003 to 2004, and he has even more untapped potential. McClain has the ability to be the best post-wishbone fullback in Alabama history if he sets his mind to it. While Wilson isn't likely to wrest the starting job from Croyle, he can take the backup's position from Guillon, which would make him one of the few true freshmen to ever play quarterback for Alabama.

Summary: It sounds like a broken record, but if Alabama can stay healthy, the players at these positions can be special. Croyle, Darby and McClain will all be mentioned in preseason all-conference talk.

OFFENSIVE LINE

RT: Kyle Tatum (Jr.), Von Ewing (Sr.), Drew Davis (Fr.)

RG: B.J. Stabler (RFr.), Justin Moon (So.), Dawson Brown* (So.)

C: JB Closner (Sr.), Travis West (So.), Taylor Britt (Sr.)

LG: Antoine Caldwell (RFr.), Mark Sanders (Sr.), Al Jefferson* (RFr.)

LT: Chris Capps (So.), Cody Davis (RFr.), David Brown* (RFr.)

Reasons for excitement: Antoine Caldwell nearly displaced JB Closner at center last year as a true freshman, and only a foot injury kept him from playing. Caldwell may yet unseat Closner or force a move to guard, but the fact remains that Caldwell figures to be an anchor on the Tide's offensive line for years. Fellow freshman B.J. Stabler is the rare blue-chip offensive lineman that figures to live up to his recruiting hype early in his career. He's versatile enough to play guard or tackle. Closner will be a three-year starter somewhere along the line. Chris Capps isn't the run blocker that Wesley Britt was, but he has the potential to be an even better pass blocker.

Reasons for concern: Alabama's top three linemen from 2004 are no longer here. When Alabama had troubles on the line last year, they usually came from center or right tackle, which represent the two positions with returning starters. Kyle Tatum must develop quickly at right tackle and learn to avoid holding penalties. Capps was suspended for the bowl game and there's no telling what the aftereffects might mean for his chance at playing time. Like last year, depth is extremely thin, and none of Alabama's second-team players have much experience. While the Tide line was much improved in 2004 over the difficult 2003 season, Alabama still had a lot of trouble blocking for the inside running game at times. The O-line is the early pick to be the team's weak link in 2005.

Incoming signees/comments: T Mike Johnson, G/T Marlon Davis, G Scott Deaton, G Evan Cardwell, C Cole Harvey. Along with greyshirt Drew Davis, this class will help Alabama rebuild its numbers. Of the signees, Cole Harvey might have been the most likely to play given depth concerns at center, but he appears to be set to greyshirt for the 2005 season. Mike Johnson and Marlon Davis have the most long-term potential, and could feasibly work their way into the two-deep by season's end. Cardwell and Deaton are regarded as more long-term projects.

Players to watch: T Kyle Tatum, T/G Von Ewing. It's all going to hinge on Tatum, who is the closest thing to a veteran leader with a mean streak that Alabama is going to put on the field along the offensive line in 2005. As for Ewing, his ability to play both tackle and guard makes him valuable, and Alabama needs a capable, dependable reserve to emerge quickly during spring practice.

Summary: Alabama was fortunate not to have much injury trouble on the offensive line in 2004. Even with good injury luck, the 2005 line figures to be iffy. One or two injuries could spell disaster.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE

DE: Mark Anderson (Sr.), Keith Saunders (So.), Tremayne Wright* (RFr.), Earnest Nance (So.)

DT: Jeremy Clark (Jr.), Dominic Lee (Jr.), Curtis Dawson (So.), J.P. Adams* (Jr.)

DT: Rudy Griffin (Sr.), Justin Britt (So.), Allen Long* (Jr.)

DE: Wallace Gilberry (So.), Chris Harris (Jr.)

Reasons for excitement: In terms of pure pass rushing, Alabama's starting tandem of Mark Anderson and Wallace Gilberry may be the best in the SEC. Both had breakout seasons in 2004 and figure to be strong again in 2005. Jeremy Clark developed into an able defensive tackle, while Rudy Griffin surpassed expectations, won a starting job, and then won a scholarship. Perhaps the most electrifying young player, outside of Gilberry, was Justin Britt, who proved capable defending both run and pass from his tackle position. Chris Harris emerged as a strong backup at end after spending his first two seasons in obscurity.

Reasons for concern: Depth inside is thin, with only Clark, Griffin and Britt having proven themselves as dependable. Dominic Lee has massive talent but has yet to make use of it. Depth outside isn't much better, with only Anderson, Harris and Gilberry proving themselves so far. Only one other end, Keith Saunders, is on scholarship, and his development has been slower than some of the others. A couple of injuries could really wreak havoc here. A concern that looms even larger, though, is the fact that Minnesota exposed Alabama's middle during the Music City Bowl. It was a weakness the Tide coaches had hidden effectively throughout most of the season, but one that needs to be fixed nonetheless.

Incoming signees/comments: DT/DE Brandon Fanney, DT/DE Lorenzo Washington, DT Byron Walton, DE Brandon Deaderick, DE Bobby Greenwood, DE/DT Antonio Forbes. Depth questions, at least at end, will likely be solved on the first day of fall practice. Deaderick is a speed rusher who could play an immediate role. Fanney and Washington can play either tackle or end, and neither figures to redshirt. Walton needs a redshirt to get adjusted to the speed of the college game, but might not get the chance unless the Tide can develop tackle depth in the spring. Greenwood and Forbes figure to redshirt for conditioning purposes. Zach Schreiber, who played linebacker in high school, might play here as a pass rushing specialist. No SEC team signed a better group of defensive linemen, top to bottom.

Players to watch: T Justin Britt, T Dominic Lee. Britt has much more long-term potential than Rudy Griffin and his pass rushing skills alone could win him a starting job in the spring, but surgery on both feet in the off season could delay his return to the field. With Chris Turner's departure, Lee must solidify the other reserve tackle position. Lee has tons of potential, and if he can drastically improve, Alabama can make some serious noise along the defensive line.

Summary: Recruiting really helped a position of need for Alabama, but didn't automatically solve all problems. The biggest question will be whether Alabama can solve the issue of stopping the run inside. Two players, minimum, are needed to step up.

LINEBACKERS

OLB: DeMeco Ryans (Sr.), Terrence Jones (Jr.), Jeffery Dukes (Jr.), Kenneth Vandervoort* (So.)

MLB: Freddie Roach (Sr.), Matt Collins* (So.), Juke King (Sr.), Brent Nall* (So.)

OLB: Juwan Garth (Jr.), Demarcus Waldrop (So.), Marcel Stamps (So.)

Reasons for excitement: This is perhaps the biggest collection of playmakers anywhere on the Alabama team. Both Demeco Ryans and Freddie Roach briefly considered skipping their senior seasons and heading to the NFL, but ultimately decided against it. Both figure to get preseason all-SEC consideration. Terrence Jones and Demarcus Waldrop aren't big, but they're blazing fast and can make plays sideline to sideline. Jeffrey Dukes, who figures to move from safety, has a frame to put on weight, while still maintaining his good speed. Marcel Stamps was a force on special teams as a freshman and should develop into a quality linebacker. Senior Juke King started one game last year, is good on special teams and against the run, and can back up any of the three linebacker positions.

Reasons for concern: Even though Roach has starting experience in the middle, he has grown into more of an outside linebacker/stand-up end combo player. Thus, Alabama has no true middle linebacker on the squad, and certainly has a depth issue there. Walk-on Matt Collins enters spring the likely backup. On the outside, size is an issue with top backups Terrence Jones and Demarcus Waldrop. Juwan Garth had a great start to the 2004 season, but was hurt mid-year and was never the same player afterwards.

Incoming signees/comments: LB Prince Hall, LB/DE Baron Huber, LB/DE Zach Schreiber. Hall is a true middle linebacker and figures to play early, if he can get qualified. Unfortunately, he has some work to do. Both Huber and Schreiber may eventually project as defensive ends rather than linebackers, meaning Alabama could wind up adding no linebackers to the depth chart in the fall. Hall will play if qualified, Schreiber's chances are up in the air, and Huber's chances probably depend on whether Hall makes it academically or not. Chris Keys, who will come to campus originally as a defensive back, is also a possibility to play here.

Players to watch: OLB Juwan Garth, OLB Marcel Stamps. With Roach's mobility in the middle perhaps affected by his growth over the previous year, it's imperative for Garth to cover more ground and make more plays from the outside. When healthy, his speed, leaping ability and coverage instincts make him a dangerous force. He needs to get better against the run. Stamps is raw and played receiver for half the 2004 season, but he is very aggressive and strong. With his speed, look for Stamps to contribute in more ways than just on special teams in 2005.

Summary: This is the strength of the Alabama defense and may be the strength of the entire team. If the starting three can stay healthy, and if Roach can be effective as a middle linebacker as he was as a multi-position player in 2004, Alabama is going to make itself tough to deal with from an opposing coach's standpoint.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

CB: Anthony Madison (Sr.), Travis Robinson (So.), Lionel Mitchell (Fr.), Eric Gray (So.)

FS: Roman Harper (Sr.), Justin Ballard* (Jr.), Forress Rayford* (So.)

SS: Charlie Peprah (Sr.), Marcus Carter (So.), Bryan Kilpatrick* (Jr.)

CB: Ramzee Robinson (Jr.), Simeon Castille (So.), Aaron McDaniel (RFr.)

Reasons for excitement: Alabama led the country in pass defense last year, a shocking feat for a group of defensive backs thought to be no better than average in the preseason. Instead, cornerbacks Anthony Madison and Ramzee Robinson proved to be good coverage men and very effective against the run. Roman Harper had a breakout season and emerged from the shadow of the more-heavily-touted Charlie Peprah. All four starters return, and the depth at cornerback is nearly embarrassing in its breadth and scope. Simeon Castille could be the best fifth defensive back in the conference. If depth can be manufactured at safety, the Tide has an excellent chance to put up good pass defense numbers for a second year running.

Reasons for concern: Large, physical receivers will still cause problems for Robinson and Madison. Of the reserve cornerbacks, only Castille is proven. Travis Robinson had problems last year with penalties and size differences, then got hurt and missed the season's second half. Lionel Mitchell and Aaron McDaniel are tall, but need weight room work. Eric Gray challenged for playing time as a true freshman, redshirted, then seemed to backslide. The biggest problems, however, are at safety, where Alabama has only one scholarshipped reserve (Marcus Carter) and a collection of walk-ons. Lastly, Peprah's move from cornerback to safety worked reasonably well, but he didn't become the playmaker at safety that most had hoped.

Incoming signees/comments: SS/LB Chris Keys, SS/LB Cory Reamer, SS Sam Burnthall, FS Travis Sikes, CB Chris Rogers, CB Michael Ricks, CB Lionel Mitchell (already on campus). Alabama hauled in an impressive number of safety projects, but none may play there in 2005. Keys could end up growing into an outside linebacker, while Reamer, Burnthall and Sikes are all greyshirt candidates. Ricks has qualifying issues, leaving Chris Rogers as perhaps the only defensive back that is guaranteed to be qualified, on campus, and in the defensive backfield in the fall. That doesn't count, of course, Lionel Mitchell, who is already at UA and will go through spring practice. The head start would seem to give Mitchell the inside shot at playing time, but whoever in this group that can prove he can play safety figures to be the most valuable to the coaches.

Players to watch: SS Marcus Carter, CB Aaron McDaniel. Carter will play by default, and Alabama desperately needs him to play well. With Travis Robinson's injury situation still not 100 percent clear, and given both his troubles in 2004 and McDaniel's emergence in practice late in the season, McDaniel could jump Robinson on the depth chart. Carter and McDaniel, former high school teammates, could wind up playing major roles in 2005.

Summary: Alabama's statistical success in 2004 probably overstated a bit the true ability level of the players, but not by much. For all the grief fans gave Madison during the season, the fact remains that he is one of the Tide's most complete defensive backs. Robinson's leadership and ability to support the run make him equally valuable. Alabama may not finish first in pass defense again, but the unit will be solid.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Jamie Christensen* (So.), C.J. Rhody* (RFr.), Ryan Saxby* (Sr.), Mike McLaughlin (Sr.), Matt Ryals* (So.)

P: Jeremy Schatz* (Sr.), Joseph McPhillips* (RFr.), Jeffery Aul* (Jr.), Patrick Eades

Reasons for excitement: Over the last two years, Alabama coaches managed to cobble a kicking staff that was not just competent, but eventually became a strength. The kick return and punt return units became more than a strength; they became a force. Alabama's kick coverage also got better. Prior results would seem to indicate that Alabama can put together good special teams units again in 2005.

Reasons for concern: Unfortunately, that's just speculation. The reality is that Alabama enters 2005 with precious little experience among its kickers. Jeremy Schatz punted once in the regular season, against Southern Miss, and did a good job. But when an injury to Bo Freelend put Schatz in the spotlight in the Music City Bowl, he whiffed twice. Schatz probably doesn't have the leg strength to punt from anywhere other than a plus-field. Jamie Christensen developed into a very good kickoff man last season, but was having trouble in preseason practices making placement kicks off the ground. Alex Fox, the holder for the last season and a half, is also gone, and his value to Alabama's kicking success can't be overstated. Fortunately, the kick return men and long snapper Drew Lane return, but the thought of finding a holder and a pair of kickers is going to make Alabama fans nervous for months.

Incoming signees/comments: PK Andrew Friedman. Friedman is walking on, turning down a scholarship from West Virginia in the process. Although he'll get a late start on the kicking competition, if he can adjust quickly to kicking without a tee, he can challenge Christensen and Rhody for the placekicking job.

Players to watch: PK C.J. Rhody, P Joseph McPhillips. Rhody walked on last fall and spent his first couple of months rehabbing an injured leg. Once he got going, though, practice observers were wowed by his abilities. McPhillips, another true freshman walk-on in 2004, also looked good in late practices. They'll both push heavily for starting jobs in 2005.

Summary: It's going to be difficult to replicate the successes of 2004, which saw PK Brian Bostick named first-team all-SEC and punter Bo Freelend record a very consistent senior season. The return and coverage squads should be solid, and snapping is covered, so the primary concern in the spring is finding a holder and a pair of kickers who can handle gameday pressure. It won't be easy.


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