How Many Answers?

Fall camp, for all practical purposes, is now over at Alabama. Sure, there will be an expansion of the roster now that school is in session. Rosters will bulge beyond their current limits of 105 as true freshman walk-on hopefuls and veterans who were with the team in the spring (some who probably feel slighted they were left off the 105 fall roster) report for duty.

But it's rare that new players suddenly emerge after rosters expand. The most recent example of anyone that made a significant difference was probably prior to the 2000 season, when placekicker Neal Thomas, left off the 105 roster, came back in the fall to find Alabama's kicking situation in disarray. Thomas took over the job in short order and had a successful campaign.

It's easier to make such a move when you're a kicker, though. For the most part, the playing rotations along the offensive line, linebacker corps, etc., have already been set, if not formally announced by the coaches. Breaking in at one of those positions at this point would be nearly impossible.

So if Alabama has already made its bed, how pretty were the sheets? Alabama entered fall camp with five significant question marks. Let's take a look at how well Alabama answered those questions – or if the Crimson Tide even answered them at all.

Question #1: Will one player step up and take the right guard position, helping to stabilize the OL?
Answered: No
At times, the right guard position looked like a game of junior high school four-square: One player would step up, stay awhile, then do something to knock himself back down to square one. Heading into the fall, all eyes were on redshirt freshman B.J. Stabler, even though he wasn't listed as the starter coming out of spring. That honor went to fifth-year senior Mark Sanders, but with Stabler widely considered to have more upside, the question was not whether Stabler would knock off Sanders, but how quickly.

Unfortunately, Stabler's knee did not keep up its end of the bargain. Just as Stabler started to go past Sanders, he was injured and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. He'll be out until the South Carolina game at the earliest.

Sanders went back to the top, but inconsistency and a bout with a viral infection brought former walk-on Taylor Britt, redshirt sophomore Justin Moon and true freshman Marlon Davis into the picture. And just when things started to get back to normal, left guard Antoine Caldwell suffered an ankle sprain, which forced Tide coaches to reshuffle the order at both positions. Caldwell figures to return in time for game preparation for MTSU, but the damage has been done – Alabama hasn't been able to put the same five linemen on the field for any length of time, disrupting continuity.

Alabama has the ability to have a decent offensive line in 2005, but the team must identify its best five soon. At this writing, it appears Marlon Davis could be the opening day starter, although Sanders is still closely in the mix.

Question #2: Can Alabama get its offensive backfield healthy – and keep it that way through camp?
Answered: Yes
Fate seemed to smile on Alabama for once, as two-a-days ended with only one significant injury, to backup tight end Greg McLain. In the offensive backfield, Alabama got news that was about as good as the Tide could have hoped to expect. Quarterback Brodie Croyle appears fully recovered from a knee injury and running back Kenneth Darby was hitting holes with authority.

But the biggest surprise of all was probably fullback/tailback combo player Tim Castille, who is ahead of schedule as he recovers from major knee surgery. Castille has looked strong throughout camp and has surprised many – including his coaches – with his performance. Reserve fullback Vic Horn, also on the mend from a broken leg suffered last fall, has been healthy and has practiced well, too. With the arrival of freshmen Roy Upchurch, Glen Coffee, Ali Sharrief and Jimmy Johns, Alabama has been able to build depth. Reserve quarterbacks John Parker Wilson and Marc Guillon have performed well, and Johns and Jimmy Barnes are getting their feet wet. If Alabama can avoid any fluke injuries between now and a week from Saturday, the Crimson Tide will have one of the strongest overall backfields in the conference.

Question #3: Can Alabama build depth along its defensive line?
Answered: Yes
Almost as important as the questions about the offensive line were the questions about the Tide's defensive line heading into fall camp. The problem on defense was more a numbers issue than a quality issue, as the Tide lost only reserve tackle Anthony Bryant and starting end Todd Bates to graduation. Alabama returned starters Jeremy Clark, Rudy Griffin and Mark Anderson, and had phenom Wallace Gilberry waiting in the wings to replace Bates.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the MTSU game: Alabama has actually put together three solid teams of players and has a very good chance at being better up front in 2005 than the Tide was in 2004. To go along with Clark, Griffin, Anderson and Gilberry, tackle Justin Britt and ends Chris Harris and Keith Saunders figure to be much improved from their 2004 seasons. Dominic Lee seems to be healthy again inside, although his camp has been overshadowed by the one put together by walk-on J.P. Adams, who has displaced Lee and will get a good number of snaps with the first defense on game days.

The bigger story, however, is the arrival of the signing class, which includes Lorenzo Washington, Brandon Fanney, Byron Walton, Bobby Greenwood, Baron Huber and Brandon Deaderick. All but Huber figure to have a shot to play early and often. In one recruiting class, Alabama virtually doubled the number of available defensive ends.

Question #4: Can Alabama settle the placekicking and punting positions before the start of the season?
Answered: No
Unfortunately, the jobs of punter and placekicker are still very much up in the air – no pun intended.

Alabama entered fall camp with three able kickers vying for the starting job. One of the three, C.J. Rhody, who perhaps had the most upside of the trio, gave up football midway through camp, perhaps due to the lingering effects of a leg injury suffered a year ago. That left last year's kickoff man, sophomore Jamie Christensen, and senior Ryan Saxby, who has yet to kick in a game.

A report in state newspapers Tuesday claimed Christensen would miss the opener due to a disciplinary suspension, however, meaning Alabama's kicking trio just became one man – Saxby. Saxby seems to be slightly more accurate than Christensen, but doesn't quite have his leg. True freshman Andrew Friedman is also in the mix, but appears to have fallen well behind the others.

Things aren't much clearer at punter, where senior Jeremy Schatz and junior Jeff Aul are still battling for the position. True freshman P.J. Fitzgerald was in the competition, then he wasn't, then he was again, but the smart money is on Fitzgerald taking a redshirt and competing for the job in the spring.

Schatz has game experience, both at Alabama and formerly at Troy State, but experience hasn't translated into success. Schatz has a small build and below-average leg strength, and is a liability unless punting in plus territory. Aul, who was briefly Alabama's kickoff man in 2003, hasn't punted in a game yet. He is bigger (6-2 and approximately 205 pounds) and has a stronger leg, but may not be as consistent as Schatz. Aul probably holds a slight lead for the job now, with coaches possibly tipping their hand this week by having him take over for Schatz as the second-team holder for placement kicks.

There were other kickers and punters competing for the job in the spring, and this is one area where a late arrival to the team could jump in and compete. Patrick Eades and Joseph McPhillips punted in the spring, and Matt Ryals showed a strong leg as a potential kickoff man, but it is unknown whether any of them will report back to the team once classes start.

Question #5: Can Alabama solidify its tight end position?
Answered: Yes and no
Alabama was well on its way to a "yes" answer here until senior Greg McLain suffered a separated shoulder. But it wasn't McLain's injury that has thrown this question into limbo.

Doubt started early when Trent Davidson underwent foot surgery, knocking him out of camp and the first four games of the regular season. But Nick Walker, who had put together an impressive spring, particularly as a receiver, stepped nicely into the void. When extra blocking was needed, Tide coaches could go to McLain, who was having his best fall camp in years.

With McLain hurt now, however, things are a mess again. Walker has been a constant for all of fall camp, and has improved his blocking skills. But when Alabama needs to go to two tight ends, the Tide will have to do it with one of a pair of true freshmen, Charles Hoke and Travis McCall. McCall is the better blocker, but Hoke has had the better fall camp. It will be a shame to take the redshirt off both players, but that's apparently what is about to happen.

If the coaches feel they should keep the redshirt on one of the two signees, walk-on Will Denniston will likely be next in the pecking order.

As it stands, Alabama seems to have found its starting tight end in Nick Walker, but depth is another matter entirely.

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