"It has strengths other places, too. But its strongest support is right here with kids that have grown up here."
One of Franchione's favorite recruiting lines is that ‘You don't fly over an Alabama athlete to get to an out-of-state kid,' indicating his conviction that tradition and loyalty can be as valuable as a good 40-yard dash time. The Tide ended up signing eight players from the Tuscaloosa News' Sweet 16 list. "It is important to us to keep the best players that we could in state to play for Alabama," Franchione said.
Obviously the Tide staff deserves praise for successfully recruiting in the face of extremely tough circumstances. But Franchione also mentioned athletes currently on the squad. "I want to compliment our players. They did a great job in recruiting. The (recruits) coming in on visits all commented about the closeness of our players. How well they were accepted and how comfortable they felt."
Last season every new athlete but one (Todd Bates) took a redshirt his first season at The Capstone. But Franchione said 2002 could be different. " I think there are some (that can play this fall)," he said. "The D-Line guys obviously can help next year. Zach Fletcher and the (junior college) kids we hope can help next year and the linebackers. Though we don't have a lot of quantity in this class, we do have a lot of quality.
"We were fortunate enough to redshirt a lot of last year's class, and when you inter-mingle these kids together that makes a pretty good group. I think some of these guys are going to need to be able to help us immediately, maybe a little more than last year's class."
With Alabama facing a two-year ban on post-season play, most experts were frankly surprised that the Tide was able to hold onto three of its four JUCO commitments. "We feel fortunate that we were able to get three commitments," Franchione acknowledged. "I think those guys can help us, and I think they realized they can help us."
Since a junior-college transfer only has two years of eligibility left, logic would dictate that such players would say ‘Thanks, but no thanks,' to Alabama this season. But the Tide assistants had done their job well. Franchione explained; "Our coaches had strong relationships with them. The players had a special passion for playing for Alabama, and they could see that we had a need for them and could make an impact. Fortunately, that helped overcome everything."
Of course simply signing athletes is not the entire battle. Academic concerns can cripple an otherwise strong class. "There are three or four that have a little bit of work to do," Franchione acknowledged. "For the most part we've got a core that are in good shape academically. We've got a few with some work to do that they can do. And there is probably about four that have a good bit of work to do."
There are always concersn, but Bama fans shouldn't get too paranoid about those statements. The athletes with a "little work to do," refers to players just short of a qualifying test score but expected to make it. But there are also a few Tide signees who will likely begin their careers in junior college. And that is no surprise to the Bama staff.
Franchione explained; "Others we signed we realize are going to have to really do some work. And if they don't make it, we hope to get these guys back in a couple of years to make this class a little bigger."
Understandably, fans would like to know right now which players will and which ones will not begin next September. But Franchione advises patience. "I think we'll just have to see how things progress academically for some of them. I don't think there is a magic number right now.
"I live by the guideline that it's not the ones that get away that beat you, it's the ones you sign that can't play. We want to make sure the ones we continue with are capable of helping us in the SEC in the future."
Alabama's only two defections were Roshawn Pope (wide receiver) and Derrick Pope (linebacker). And worried about the sanctions, highly sought defensive tackle, Jimmy Williams, choose Virginia Tech over the Tide. "I would have liked to have signed another receiver, maybe another linebacker or another defensive lineman," Franchione said. "We will continue to exhaust every area even more. There are always some guys you keep evaluating and looking for."
Last season the Tide coaches continued to evaluate prospects even beyond signing day, looking to sign an athlete that might have been previously overlooked. "That's possible this year," Franchione said. "There are always stories of late signees that make great impacts at their schools, much bigger than people ever realize. We'll just have to see how it progresses with our kids in this last semester of school."
Alabama has always been noted for a strong and productive walk-on program, and the NCAA sanctions will enhance its value even more. Franchione explained; "The walk-on program is important. We've worked hard on that and had great interest. Our emphasis as a coaching staff is to try and heighten that and attract more of those kind of young men. We need to get them into our program this year.
"There is no exact science about recruiting," Franchione continued. "Certainly there are a lot of stories out there about non-scholarship guys that became scholarship players and made an impact and helped their football team. We had some of those this year."
For most of this past recruiting season opposing coaches have made hay with recruits over Alabama's NCAA problems. But while he holds to his belief in ethical behavior, Franchione isn't crying foul. "There is a difference between negative recruiting and facts," he said. "You can always live with facts. And I think in any recruiting process there are facts that have to be pointed out. With negative recruiting, there is a fine line to cross over.
"Certainly we had some facts that had to be dealt with, and our coaches did a great job with that. But we did have some things out there that we had to overcome that were perceptions that weren't necessarily true."
Pulling prospects from long distances away is tough any recruiting season, but Alabama will be adding a Tyler, Texas lineman to its roster. "Grant (Dickey) made a commitment to us back in the summer," Franchione said. "Grant's uncle (Jimmy Dickey, the then head coach at Kansas State) gave me my first college coaching job a long time ago. So I had a good salesman there that knew me pretty well. Grant came and visited many times, bringing his grandparents and his parents. They fell in love with Alabama and the coaching staff. They were very firm and solid all the way through the process. They never wavered."
Dickey is slated for offense, but the Tide's main emphasis Wednesday was on the other side of the ball. Franchione explained; "Defense and the line was probably the biggest area that we touched on. Chris Harris, Kyle Tatum, Jeremy Clark, Ahmad Childress--it was important for us to shore that area up. If you look at our football team, Kindal (Moorehead), Kenny (King) and Jarret (Johnson) are seniors next year. We didn't want to wait until next year to start filling those shoes. We needed to start putting people in place now that could come in and maybe play this year and be able to play a great deal in the future."
Saleem Rasheed's recent announcement that he was leaving school early to pursue a career in the NFL has left Alabama thin at linebacker. "We were trying to (sign one more)," Franchione acknowledged. "We would have hoped to sign another linebacker in this group, but it did not work out that way. I think these three (Demeco Ryans, Greg McLain and Earnest Nance) need to prepare to play. They're certainly a group that will need to play as backups if nothing else."
Of course at one time or another McLain has been listed at any of several positions---both on offense and defense. But Franchione believes linebacker could be his spot. "We listed McLain at linebacker, and that's what I think. But I always let the freshmen start out where they feel comfortable. I think that's where Greg will want to start. We feel very good about him starting there."
Nance is considered to be an outstanding prospect at either running back or linebacker. But because of a knee injury that the Courtland native is still rehabbing, a final decision on when he will enter school hasn't yet been made. Franchione explained; "We've got flexibility there. We'll see how his knee progresses. We felt like a delayed entry (January of 2003) was a good option to keep available, depending on how much rehab Nance needs. If he comes along well by August, then we can re-evaluate that. But we feel good about having him in the program."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Check Tide signs 19 athletes in football for a complete listing, with bios and pictures of Alabama's 2002 signing class.