Spring A Small Part of the Picture

So what have we learned, from 14 football practices spread over four weeks and one scrimmage – also known as A-Day – held before 25,000 fans in Bryant-Denny Stadium?

That John Parker Wilson will make a capable backup quarterback?

That the Alabama defense remains impressive, just as it was last fall?

Beyond the emergence of a select few young players on both sides of the ball, little else.

Mike Shula and his Alabama football program made progress this spring, but there remain plenty of questions that must be answered before the Sept. 3 opener against Middle Tennessee State.

This spring practice unfolded as a shell game, played by a skeleton crew of backups – particularly on offense – who will have little to no real impact on how 2005 unfolds for the Crimson Tide.

The entire projected starting backfield – senior quarterback Brodie Croyle, junior tailback Kenneth Darby and junior fullback Tim Castille – spent the spring watching others fill their roles while recovering from surgeries.

Others, like senior linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach and senior cornerback Anthony Madison, were limited by nagging injuries and classroom responsibilities that could only be taken care of in the spring.

And while spring made for serious competition at some positions, injuries made it practically meaningless at others.

We learned absolutely nothing about the muddled running back situation; Darby sat out and had surgery on a sports hernia, while sophomore Aaron Johns earned his way into the coaches' doghouse with spotty off-season workout attendance.

And if Rashad Johnson – A-Day's leading rusher – lines up behind Croyle for the first snap this fall, the Crimson Tide is in serious trouble.

It'll also be in dire straits unless the offensive line comes together during fall practice, because it didn't happen this spring.

The line lost three starters from last fall – four-year starters Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis (left tackle and left guard) and right guard Danny Martz.

But by spring's end, only one of those positions had been filled – left guard – by redshirt freshman Antoine Caldwell.

Sophomore Chris Capps and redshirt freshman Cody Davis are still competing to replace Britt at left tackle, while Danny Martz's old right guard spot could be a three-way battle between fifth-year senior Mark Sanders, redshirt freshman B.J. Stabler and sophomore Justin Moon.

Shula said last week that both of those positions will likely be decided in the first two weeks of fall camp.

So will the starting placekicker and punter; Jamie Christensen and Jeremy Schatz hold the edge in replacing Brian Bostick and Bo Freelend heading into fall practice, but neither has a solid hold on a job.

Several young players – most notably sophomore receiver Zeke Knight, redshirt freshman tight end Nick Walker and sophomore cornerback Eric Gray – elevated their play this spring and will make a big impact this fall.

But beyond them, we learned little, other than that the first two weeks of fall practice will be more important than ever.

With Croyle limited, Wilson impressed, but his impact will likely be limited this fall, especially with fellow freshmen Jimmy Barnes and Jimmy Johns entering this fall.

His main competition this spring – Guillon – exists as a cautionary tale for those feeding the Wilson hype machine.

Last spring, Guillon dominated as the only healthy quarterback, playing 75 snaps in the spring game and winning the team's "most improved quarterback" award.

Two bad games and a back injury later, he had lost the coaching staff's good graces, perhaps for good. Wilson and Guillon are different quarterbacks, different people. But it's tough judging a young quarterback's worth on 15 practices.

The same can be said for this Alabama team.

Beyond the offensive line, not much was lost from 2004's 6-6 group that finished with a disheartening Music City Bowl loss to Minnesota.

An impressive recruiting class, loaded with young running backs, defensive linemen and defensive backs, is on its way in August.

How it all fits together remains to be seen.

Will Darby be healthy enough to carry the load?

Will Croyle's knee hold up long enough to bring home a major bowl berth?

Will Castille's knee heal quickly enough to compete effectively this season?

We'll see come September.

For now, though, the Tide's 2005 forecast remains partly cloudy. Spring practice didn't do much to relieve that. Only fall's trials will tell us this team's true story.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com

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