Early Look: Wide Receivers

Alabama's wide receiver corps prior to the 2004 opener went like this: A pair of oft-injured tight ends, Tyrone Prothro, and a baker's dozen worth of mystery men.

The oft-injured tight ends, unfortunately, lived up to billing. David Cavan, who was practically the Bionic Man anyway, reinjured one of his million already-injured parts and was reduced to little more than a blocker for most of the year. Clint Johnston's repeated concussions and other ailments eventually ended his career. And the next game that Greg McLain plays 100 percent healthy will be his first such game in three years.

The news was much better at wideout, however. Prothro lived up to billing as a dangerous open-field receiver and kick returner, but the real interest was in watching Alabama's four freshmen – redshirt Matt Caddell and signees Keith Brown, D.J. Hall and Ezekial Knight.

The injury bug didn't steer completely clear of that foursome, however. Brown, perhaps the best downfield big-man threat Alabama has had since Albert Bell, or at least Kevin Lee, suffered a scary neck injury midseason when he nailed the end zone fence at Bryant-Denny Stadium while laying out for a touchdown bomb. Brown, who already was developing a reputation as a receiver that didn't particularly like going over the middle, took several games to shake off the effects of his accident, and didn't start to look comfortable again until the very end of the season.

But Brown's spring was much better, and he looked like he was on the verge of becoming at least a scant more aggressive in traffic. That's a good thing, because Prothro was the only Alabama receiver to average more than 2 catches per game in 2004. And no wideout caught more than one touchdown pass; only tight end Johnston (2) and fullback Le'Ron McClain (3) could boast of that.

Heading into 2005, the names are mostly the same. Cavan has graduated and Johnston, as stated before, is out of football for good. But the receiving corps returns completely intact.

Alabama won't employ starters so much as a five-man rotation between two positions. Prothro is a junior and the most veteran of the bunch. He has the most explosiveness after the catch and is probably the toughest player of the five. He has few negatives; he sometimes drops an easy ball for no reason, but his hands are usually reliable. His lack of height works against him a bit in downfield work, but he's good enough to take a three-yard out and turn it into a 20-yard gain almost at will.

Matt Caddell showed surprising big-play ability in 2004, averaging nearly 20 yards per catch. He's very fast, and needs only to continue to strengthen his body and work on lowering the number of drops. Brown has the potential to be a truly special player. In addition to being tall, with great hands, Brown has that extra gear that few players possess while wearing football pads.

D.J. Hall may turn out to be the best all-around receiver. He doesn't mind going across the middle, he's big, and he has good hands. But he dropped two sure touchdown passes in 2004, and one of those – against LSU – came at a crucial time and could have turned the game around. Ezekial Knight is the most intriguing of the five, mostly because he stands close to 6'4", 230 pounds and can clock nearly a 4.5 40-yard dash. Knight played sparingly at first in 2004, but came on strong at the end of the year and capped it with perhaps the best spring training of this group.

Behind these players are a second group looking to crack the rotation. Will Oakley signed last year along with Knight, Brown and Hall, but was injured early in fall camp and followed that up by contracting a viral infection. By the time he was well, it was too late to compete for time. Oakley has good hands and displayed surprising speed in early fall practices, but continues to battle injury and needs a strong fall camp. Marcus McKnight has had two good springs in a row, but has gotten lost in the shuffle once fall arrives. He had perhaps the best A-Day of any receiver, though, and opened some eyes. Former walk-on Matt Miller has good size and reliable hands. He's athletic, but not particularly fast. He could figure into the mix as a possession receiver. Brandon Brooks is limited by his height (5'5"), but could get some work as a slot receiver.

Alabama signed three wide receivers in the 2004-05 class. Desmond Jennings is off to play pro baseball, and Nick Kyles appears to have gotten caught up in academic trouble. That leaves Travis Sikes, who seems most likely to report as a free safety, providing he doesn't grayshirt and join the team in January.

With all the concern over Alabama's offensive line and kicking situation, tight end has been a bit overlooked. Trent Davidson entered and left spring as the starter, but he needs work on his hands. Alabama's offense is built on the premise that the tight end can catch, and Davidson must prove that in a game situation. His blocking skills are not debatable, however, and he seems to spend most of his time fighting off the notion that he's moving to the offensive line.

Nick Walker drew some of the biggest cheers at A-Day with impressive catches. But his blocking needs a bit of work. Still, Walker looks like the best receiving tight end Alabama has had since Lamonde Russell. Greg McLain has a lot of experience and is versatile – he can play either tight end or fullback – but previous injuries make him a question mark. Signee Charles Hoke has good hands, but probably needs a year of weight room work. Walk-ons Will Denniston and Barrett Earnest had their moments in spring, but neither is considered a threat to break into the playing rotation.

Summary: Alabama's wide receivers are young, but they're supremely talented and are getting better with each practice. Provided the injury bug doesn't absolutely hammer the Tide here, Alabama stands to field one of the more dangerous wide receiver units in the conference. Tight end, however, is a trouble spot. Expect Davidson to start there early on, with Walker pushing for more time if he can prove physical enough to handle blocking assignments.

2004 Players: Tyrone Prothro (12 games, 25 catches, 347 yards, 13.9 avg., 1 TD), Matt Caddell (12 games, 17 receptions, 331 yards, 19.5 avg., 1 TD), D.J. Hall (12 games, 17 receptions, 186 yards, 10.9 avg., 1 TD), Keith Brown (10 games, 17 receptions, 295 yards, 17.4 avg., 1 TD), Ezekial Knight (12 games, 10 receptions, 98 yards, 9.8 avg., 0 TD), Clint Johnston [TE] (9 games, 6 catches, 80 yards, 13.3 avg., 2 TD), Marcus McKnight (3 games, 1 catch, 14 yards, 14.0 avg., 0 TD) David Cavan [TE] (10 games, 1 catch, 13 yards, 13.0 avg., 0 TD), Matt Miller (12 games, 1 catch, 0 yards, 0.0 avg., 0 TD), Antonio Carter (no stats), Greg McLain [TE] (no stats), Brandon Brooks (no stats), Trent Davidson [TE] (no stats)

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