Flexible Plans

Now is the time when they wait and wonder. Now, the hard work on their end is done. Now, it's out of their hands.

Now, the Alabama football program must wait – for test results, NCAA Clearinghouse decisions and a general thumbs-up from the world of academia.

Sometime between now and the beginning of two-a-days in early August, the 33-member class University of Alabama football coach Mike Shula signed in early February must shrink to a manageable 25-member group.

And for all of the hand-wringing and wondering-out-loud that has gone on over the past three months, the real fun starts now.

This is crunch time, a period of final exams, state graduation exams and repeats of ACT and SAT tests, with hopes of achieving a score on the NCAA's sliding scale that will allow them to play football for the Crimson Tide this fall, not some prep school or Mississippi junior college.

With each prep school assignment or junior college signing, the woe-is-Alabama cries will begin anew among the fan base, and that's understandable, considering the combination of an information vacuum and the considerable passion Tide fans have for their team.

Understand this, however: The anguish is built-in.

There are no magic quirks that allow a team coming off of a nasty NCAA probation (as Alabama is) to bring more than 25 new scholarship players on campus at one time.

Shula and his staff know this.

That's why Shula says ad nauseam, like a broken record, that he "has a plan" for each signee. It might be on the roster now. It might be at Hargrave Military Academy.

And it might be delaying enrollment and re-signing with the Class of 2006.

But whatever it is, at least eight players who signed with Alabama won't be there come August.

Who they will be remains a mystery, a cloudy one at best. Speculation is all fine and well, but it is far from an accurate measure of who will end up in Tuscaloosa this August and who won't.

A perfect example is the case of Lorenzo Washington.

Washington, a highly-touted defensive line recruit from the Atlanta suburbs, was considered a lock to qualify last year – until he received a poor grade in senior English, which ultimately doomed him to a year of seasoning at Hargrave (Va.) Miltary.

He re-signed in February and will be in Tuscaloosa this fall, but his travails are the perfect reminder that nothing is set in stone until the NCAA Clearinghouse approves a recruit.

Trying to predict which recruits will get in and which won't takes a perfectly tuned crystal ball, thanks to the NCAA's sliding eligibility scale, which combines grade-point average from core classes and a recruit's ACT or SAT score.

A higher test score excuses a lower grade-point average, and vice versa.

It makes predicting eligibility like defusing a time bomb.

A twist here, a cut there, and you have the perfect score – one which gets you eligible.

One wrong move, one bad grade, though, and you're toast.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that players can take and re-take standardized tests until they achieve the score they're looking for.

That can make life positively maddening for coaches like Shula who play the numbers game right up until players report for camp in early August.

In each of his two seasons, a prominent recruit has reported, then been forced to wait on the sidelines, hoping a test score is high enough for eligibility.

In 2003, it was fullback Le'Ron McClain and the Alabama high school exit exam; last fall, receiver Ezekial Knight had to wait for his results from the same test before getting on the field.

Both players contributed as freshmen, but both were hampered by their delayed eligibility.

Chances are, a key recruit will meet the same fate this fall. Will it be defensive lineman Antonio Forbes? Star running backs Mike Ford or Roy Upchurch? Talented defensive back Michael Ricks? Or linebacker Prince Hall?

The names remain uncertain, but the fate seems predetermined. At some point this summer, a big recruit will bite the academic dust, and the furor will rise.

That's just the way life is when you sign more than you have room for.

As Shula himself might say, it's all part of the plan.


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