Reasons For High Expectations
Some have put forth the theory of "Every third year." That is, since 1997, Alabama football teams have had a bad year, followed by a mediocre season, followed by a 10-win campaign. In 1997 Bama was 4-7, followed by 7-5, and then 10-3 in 1999; in 2000 it was 3-8, followed by 7-5, and then in 2002 it was 10-3; up to the present, 4-9 in 2003 and 6-6 last season.
Another theory is that many Alabama football coaches have had good seasons in their third years–Wallace Wade 10-0 in 1925, Frank Thomas 7-1-1 in 1933, Paul Bryant 8-1-2 in 1960, Ray Perkins 8-2-1 in 1985, Bill Curry 10-2 in 1989, Gene Stallings 13-0 in 1992, and Mike DuBose 10-3 in 1999.
And so Mike Shula comes to his third season with both "theories" in place. These theories are actually only casual observations, not likely to hold up to thorough examination.
Shula is actually coming into something just short of his third year since he was not on board for the spring practice prior to his first season in 2003. That spring was under the auspices of the unfortunate Mike Price.
But Shula agrees that there should be an anticipation of success in his third season as head coach of his alma mater. And he cites the physical rather than the metaphysical.
Things are in place to encourage optimism about 2005. It would be a challenge to find any pre-season report of Alabama that did not include a phrase along the lines of "If Brodie Croyle can stay healthy." Well, Brodie Croyle is healthy. True, Croyle has had two knee injuries in the past five years. But he also played football a lot of years without a knee injury, and team doctors say his knees are strong and ready. That doesn't mean he won't have a knee injury in his final year at Alabama, but there's no reason to hold one's breath every time he has to scramble out of harm's way. Or every time he doesn't.
There are also healthy runners who were out in last year's stretch run, when Bama couldn't hold it together. Kenneth Darby gained over 1,000 yards in under a season. Tim Castille was out almost half a year. Both are back and both have fine looking associates in the halfback and fullback spots.
Wide receiver was a question mark last year, but because of the performance of young players in 2004, that is a strong point this year. Tight end will be young, but there is exciting skill in the likes of Nick Walker.
The offensive line is the big question mark this year, but Assistant Coach Bob Connelly has a good track record of cobbling a front.
Everyone expects a veteran defense to perform at least as well as last year, which would mean at least as well as any team in the nation. Even kicking has been satisfactory.
Alabama has had high hopes dashed before. Most recently, in 2000 there were thoughts of a national championship dancing in the heads of those who "Remember the Rose Bowl." Actually, Bama hopes crumbled in the Rose Bowl that year, in the opening game of the season, a 35-24 loss to UCLA that cascaded into a 3-8 record and the end of the DuBose Era.
Shula has kept his coaching staff intact in these three years, a major component in establishing stability in a football program that was rocked from the inside (Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price) and the outside (NCAA sanctions, horrendous injury luck).
Last year Alabama was respectable in the sense that a wounded Bama was able to stay within striking distance of nationally-ranked opponents. But the bottom line is that there was a measure of distance between Alabama and Tennessee, Alabama and LSU, Alabama and Auburn. And that doesn't include losses to the likes of Arkansas and South Carolina.
No one knows better than Mike Shula that it is important that Alabama begin to have wins, in quantity and in quality. And no one is in a better place to achieve it.
So how many games will Alabama win this year? Well, if Brodie Croyle can stay healthy…
Time to Find Out a Few Things
The month of August has always been a welcome time in Tuscaloosa and anywhere else college football is revered, but August 2005 has been especially exciting for Crimson Tide football fans this year, with a mix of surprises and expected - but nevertheless pleasing news, too.
Fall's hopes began rising in Alabama's offensive backfield. Tim Castille's return from season-ending knee injury in late October was in serious doubt when fall camp opened, with a potential redshirt year for the junior seeming as likely as him playing in 2005. Castille had hoped to be fully recovered from multiple ligament tears in May or June, but he was still limited at the beginning of fall camp.
Castille will be an invaluable player at halfback and fullback for the Tide this year. After being held out of the first scrimmage, Castille returned to live action for the second fall scrimmage, and was the leading rusher in the shortened third scrimmage. All talk of a redshirt for Castille has ceased.
And the good news didn't end there.
The return of Kenneth Darby could be called anti-climactic, but that's considered a good thing for Head Coach Mike Shula. Throughout fall camp there was a steady progression for Darby. An early run by Darby in Alabama's first scrimmage where he twisted a drug a tackler ahead for an extra yard signaled his return to full-speed action.
Just as big a positive for Alabama, if not as surprising, was the full participation and sharpness of Brodie Croyle. The senior will be the crux of the Tide offense. Consider that Croyle threw six touchdowns in the first three games last year while Marc Guillon and Spencer Pennington combined for six in the remaining nine games and you will have a full view of Brodie's importance to the squad.
The offensive line have to pass protect and run block. The running backs have to provide a balance. The receivers live up to their potential. But if number 12 is out of the lineup the offense will take a productivity hit similar if not as bad as a last year's.
The rising star of Nick Walker is another non-surprise consider how well he played in spring, but it was a big fall story nevertheless. Walker can run, jump and catch, making him a powerful weapon in the Alabama offense.
He's also big enough to be able to block effectively, but blocking is the part of his game that needs the most work. Walker's ability became crucial when Trent Davidson was forced off the 105-man roster after having surgery on his foot. Davidson could be back in the first half of the season, but Walker was thrust into the number one role to start.
Jimmy Johns began his Alabama career at quarterback, where he looked raw but very promising. Just over a week into fall camp, Johns began working in special teams drills instead of throwing with the quarterbacks in early practice periods, and the next day he was out of the yellow, no contact jersey worn by quarterbacks and into a red jersey with the running backs.
Johns never put up any big numbers in either of the Tide's final two scrimmages, but he showed flashes of being a powerful, hard-to-bring-down running back in each one. On special teams he will contribute often, and exactly where this athlete would get on the field was another big story this fall.
Sticking with the offense, it seems like there was constant shuffling along the offensive line during fall camp. In reality the right tackle (Kyle Tatum), center (JB Closner) and left tackle (Chris Capps) were in the same spots from start to finish without missing a beat.
Cody Davis didn't challenge Capps for the left tackle spot after spending fall camp with an injured hamstring as hoped, but that could still happen later.
B.J. Stabler was in one day and out the next nursing the knee he had arthroscopic surgery on in the spring, trying to win the right guard position outright over Mark Sanders. Stabler had fluid drained from the knee and ultimately the decision to have another surgery was made, putting him out for 3-4 weeks or more. That left room for true freshman Marlon Davis to step in and share time with Sanders at the spot, and to draw the coaches' attention. Davis will play on Saturday.
Almost all of the talk has been about the offense, a still incomplete section in Shula's third year because of injuries a year ago and because of an impossible timing situation in his first season. This year should paint a much clearer picture.
The defense has had some encouraging surprises, too. Matt Collins was a spring training standout and he's rolled that into being an up-and-coming on-field contributor this fall. Collins answers any lingering questions about his ability every time a back runs between the tackles. True frosh Prince Hall might eventually be better suited in some situations, but Collins used fall camp to establish himself as a quality back-up to Freddie Roach, especially in short yardage situations.
Prattville freshman defensive end Bobby Greenwood has been a surprise upstart. He became the most likely true freshman player in the defensive front seven. Defensive coordinator Joe Kines said Greenwood was a little bit ahead of the other young lineman following the first scrimmage, and he reiterated the statement after the second scrimmage. Alabama fans should hope for similar results during the regular season.
The kicking game is another area to look at. Jamie Christensen vs. Ryan Saxby for placekicking duties, while Jeff Aul has taken over as the punter after Jeremy Schatz went out for a few days with a heart condition.
The question on both these positions is whether or not there will be enough consistency for the kicking game to remain an asset, as it was last year, rather than a liability like in 2003.
Saturday's opener will be the first step in culling more information for the rest of the year. The game will not be about Middle Tennessee, although they are the listed opponent. It will be about Alabama players, coaches – and to some extent fans and media – finding out what this team is made of.
2005 PRE-SEASON FOOTBALL DEPTH CHART
11 Matt Caddell (6-0, 181, Soph)
84 Zeke Knight (6-3, 210, Soph)
81 Keith Brown (6-3, 185, Soph)
37 Matt Miller (6-3, 210, Senior)
72 Chris Capps (6-5, 293, Soph)
75 Cody Davis (6-7, 282, Freshman)
59 Antoine Caldwell (6-3, 281, Freshman)
52 Taylor Britt (6-4, 278, Senior)
73 Justin Moon (6-5, 296, Soph)
74 J.B. Closner (6-4, 290, Senior)
52 Taylor Britt (6-4, 278, Senior)
70 Evan Cardwell (6-3, 290, Freshman)
63 Mark Sanders (6-7, 328, Senior)
76 Marlon Davis (6-4, 315, Freshman)
61 *B.J. Stabler (6-4, 292, Freshman)
58 Kyle Tatum (6-7, 298, Junior)
78 Mike Johnson (6-6, 285, Freshman)
79 Drew Davis (6-6, 285, Freshman)
88 Nick Walker (6-5, 238, Freshman)
83 Travis McCall (6-2, 260, Freshman)
89 Charles Hoke (6-6, 240, Freshman)
80 *Trent Davidson (6-5, 270, Soph)
31 *Greg McLain (6-2, 243, Senior)
12 Brodie Croyle (6-3, 205, Senior)
14 John Parker Wilson (6-2, 215, Freshman)
18 Marc Guillon (6-3, 212, Junior)
34 Kenneth Darby (5-10, 205, Junior)
38 Glen Coffee (6-0, 207, Freshman)
10 Jimmy Johns (6-2, 225, Freshman)
27 Roy Upchurch (6-0, 207, Freshman)
28 Aaron Johns (5-10, 185, Soph)
29 Theo Townsend (5-9, 172, Freshman)
19 Tim Castille (5-11, 228, Junior) OR
33 LéRon McClain (6-1, 258, Junior)
17 Vic Horn (6-1, 233, Senior)
48 Kyle Bennett (6-2, 231, Junior)
22 D.J. Hall (6-3, 183, Soph) OR
4 Tyrone Prothro (5-8, 176, Junior)
7 Will Oakley (6-1, 192, Freshman)
82 Marcus McKnight (6-2, 186, Junior)
5 Brandon Brooks (5-5, 165, Senior)
86 Jamie Christensen (6-0, 170, Soph)
43 Ryan Saxby (6-1, 180, Senior)
37 Matt Miller (6-3, 210, Senior)
25 Jeremy Schatz (5-7, 151, Senior)
95 Drew Lane (6-1, 230, Senior)
66 Luke Spalding (6-0, 217, Junior)
47 Mark Anderson (6-5, 253, Senior)
91 Chris Harris (6-5, 251, Junior)
94 Keith Saunders (6-3, 242, Soph)
50 Justin Britt (6-4, 285, Soph) OR
99 Jeremy Clark (6-3, 296, Junior)
97 Lorenzo Washington (6-4, 265, Freshman)
90 Rudy Griffin (6-0, 286, Senior)
67 J.P. Adams (6-3, 267, Junior)
96 Dominic Lee (6-2, 283, Junior)
98 Brandon Fanney (6-5, 270, Freshman)
92 Wallace Gilberry (6-2, 251, Soph)
93 Bobby Greenwood (6-6, 255, Freshman)
95 Brandon Deaderick (6-4, 230, Freshman)
40 Baron Huber (6-4, 228, Freshman)
35 DeMeco Ryans (6-2, 232, Senior)
55 Terrence Jones (6-0, 216, Junior)
46 Zach Schreiber (6-2, 220, Freshman)
8 Freddie Roach (6-2, 239, Senior)
56 Matt Collins (6-1, 236, Soph)
21 Prince Hall (6-0, 240, Freshman)
45 Juke King (6-2, 234, Senior)
42 Juwan Simpson (6-2, 220, Junior)
44 Demarcus Waldrop (5-11, 193, Soph)
6 Marcel Stamps (6-3, 190, Soph)
23 Jake Wingo (6-0, 203, Freshman)
2 Simeon Castille (6-1, 187, Soph) OR
1 Ramzee Robinson (5-10, 192, Junior)
24 Travis Robinson (5-10, 180, Soph)
9 Anthony Madison (5-9, 180, Senior)
16 Lionel Mitchell (6-1, 172, Freshman)
36 Eric Gray (5-11, 186, Soph)
17 Chris Rogers (6-1, 178, Freshman)
26 Charlie Peprah (5-11, 193, Senior)
20 Marcus Carter (6-1, 190, Soph)
30 Bryan Kilpatrick (6-4, 193, Senior)
13 Cory Reamer (6-4, 208, Freshman)
41 Roman Harper (6-1, 197, Senior)
3 Jeffrey Dukes (6-3, 190, Junior)
32 Chris Keys (6-2, 205, Freshman)
25 Aaron McDaniel (6-1, 166, Freshman)
14 Jeff Aul (6-2, 208, Soph)
25 Jeremy Schatz (5-7, 151, Senior)
*B.J. Stabler, Trent Davidson, Greg McLain injured and will miss early games
Coach Mike Shula Says
Alabama Head Football Coach Mike Shula said, "Our football team is ready to go. We've had a real good training camp. We've had a lot of good things happen. We're getting back healthy. We're probably as healthy as we've ever been. We've got a few nicks and bumps but our team is excited to go play against somebody else.
"We've had some scrimmages against each other, so a lot of hard work, a lot of conditioning."
Shula added, "Our football team has prepared pretty hard for the last three weeks. We are excited about the start of the season. I think our team has real good leadership and experience from our upperclassmen. We still are going to play a lot of young guys. We are looking forward to this weekend."
Shula, who will begin his third year as head coach of the Crimson Tide when Bama hosts MTSU at 6 p.m. CDT Saturday, said, "I feel more comfortable with some things than I did two years ago. Now I know what I can expect from Tyrone Prothro. Now I know what a healthy Brodie Croyle can do. We've had some success with guys who are playing on defense."
He said he had some of the same feelings of anticipation for his first game that he has for the opening game this year. But, he pointed out, "Now we are going into our third season. We have a lot of defensive people back who earned a reputation last year. We have a healthy Brodie Croyle at quarterback, and John Parker Wilson is ready to be number two."
Shula also has some concerns. "You are always nervous about young people playing, and we'll have three men starting for the first time on the offensive line," Shula said. "But I think (Assistant Coach) Bob Connelly has done a great job with them. I feel a lot better about the offensive line after the past seven or 10 days. We are going to be young, with three new starters there. Then we got a few guys hurt, that was disappointing. We wanted to get as much competition as we could for these guys. We feel better about them. We have to use the guys around them to help them look good."
Shula said, "There are also questions in the kicking game. Can our place-kickers, Jamie Christensen and Ryan Saxby, do the job that Brian Bostick did? Both have days where they do well and both have had days where they didn't do so well. Can Jeff Aul do the job as punter?"
He added, "Of course, it's a new year for the defense. They have a reputation from last year, but now they've got to do it again."
Shula called the return of halfback Kenneth Darby "a wonderful surprise… because I went in with low expectations…I think our doctors and our trainers and our strength coach did a great job, as well as did KD as far as his rehab…We gave him I think every bit of work he needed and yet not a snap more where it wouldn't overwork him. I think he's going to be feeling real fresh.
Shula said a handful of freshmen are "bubble guys" insofar as being redshirted. Although no determination has to be made, Shula will be careful about using freshmen in the early going. He remembers playing 19 plays in the second game of his freshman season, the only snaps he had that year.
"I still get mad at Coach (David) Rader," Shula said of his offensive coordinator. Rader was Alabama's quarterbacks coach in Shula's playing days. Shula added, "At the time, I was glad, because it meant I wasn't going to be redshirted. But after my senior year, I would have loved to have had that additional year to play."
He also noted that he came close to playing Nick Walker last year, and instead Nick Walker is a redshirt freshman as Alabama's starting tight end.
Shula said that freshmen who would definitely play include defensive end Bobby Greenwood, back-up halfbacks Glen Coffee and Jimmy Johns, back-up tight ends Travis McCall and Charles Hoke, offensive guard Marlon Davis.
"We've got thoughts on others, but we have to be flexible," Shula said. He noted that some guys are ready to play, but that if depth in front of them is good, they might be held out. Among those he mentioned as "on the bubble" are defensive backs Chris Keys and Cory Reamer, halfbacks Roy Upchurch and Ali Sharrief, and defensive linemen Brandon Fanney and Lorenzo Washington.
He said that Prothro would be the deep man on punt returns and that Prothro and D.J. Hall would be the deep men on kickoff returns. (He noted that some freshmen might play on special teams and pointed out that Jimmy Johns would be on at least three–kickoff returns and kickoff and punt coverage.)
Once again, Shula said that he believes freshman quarterback John Parker Wilson is ready to play, but said he didn't want "to get off the fence" on having a pre-game decision. "It will depend how the game goes," Shula said.
Shula had nothing but good things to say about Saturday's opponent, MTSU, saying the Blue Raiders would present a challenge with "one of their best teams." He particularly noted MTSU quarterback Clint Marks as having been one of the most efficient and accurate quarterbacks in the nation last year. He noted MTSU's big offensive line and a number of offensive skill position players. He also noted that MTSU's no-huddle offense presents some problems in preparation.
Defensively, Shula said, MTSU has a big defensive line, experienced linebackers, good cover corners in the secondary, "and a new defensive coordinator, so we've got to be ready for everything."
Scouting Report: Blue Raiders Move by Air
Offense: Middle Tennessee (5-6, 4-4 Sunbelt in 2004) returns eight starters on its offense: five skill players, both tackles and the center, but the spokes turn around the skilled passing ability of Junior quarterback Clint Marks.
Some teams run to set up the pass, others pass to set up the run. Middle Tennessee will pass to set up the pass, to set up more passing. Their run/pass ration was a respectable 52/48 (404 passing plays, 360 running plays) a year ago, but the ratio of yards gained passing/yards gained rushing was an imbalanced 72/28 (2945 passing yards, 1172 rushing yards).
After completing 69.6 percent of his passes (259-of-368) en route to 2,749 yards, there aren't many questions about Marks' ability. Marks randed third in the nation in completion percentage, sixth in completions per game, 13th in passing yard, 21st in total offense and 25th in passing efficiency.
Marks had a one-to-one TD-to-INT ratio last year (14 each), but he was complimented for his improved decision making in the spring. If there are any remaining questions about Marks' ability, it is in his arm-strength. Marks isn't known for rushing ability, but he did end the season with 113 net yards, indicating he has the ability to run away from a good pass rush.
Protecting Marks will be key, as Tide defensive coordinator Joe Kines will try to stress pressuring the signal-caller with four down linemen as much as possible. Two returning starters at the tackles, a returning starter at center and two new starters at guard have the chief responsibility of protecting the quarterback.
Left tackle Willie Hall is a two-year starter and will make his 12th consecutive start for Middle Tennessee Saturday. Some think Hall, at 6-6, 310 pounds, has NFL potential. He did not compete during weekday practices in the spring due to academic concerns, but was back full-time in the fall.
Opposite Hall, at right tackle is another ultra-experienced player in Germayle Franklin. The 6-4, 312-pound junior has started 17 straight games, and will be protecting the southpaw Marks' blind side on passing plays.
The center, 6-2, 273 pound junior Marcus Gates is considered undersized in today's game of mammoth linemen, but not many players will be tougher.
Gates broke the hand he used to snap the ball to the quarterback in the spring, so he began using his other hand to snap and did not miss a beat.
Alabama can exploit weaknesses in guards Brandon Nix (6-4, 286 soph) and Brian Smith (6-5, 318 senior). Nix was a defensive lineman last year, and made the swith to guard in the spring and was in the mix to be the starter immediately. Smith played in 11 games as a junior in a total of 206 snaps. His quickness and agility are question marks.
Middle Tennessee lost its 2004 leading receiver Kerry Wright, but the Nos. 2-4 from a year ago, plus two other men who caught passes return.
Chris Henry caught 60 passes for 586 yards. The slight 5-8, 167-pound senior will be Marks' number one target.
Cleannord Santil is a slightly bigger target at 5-11, 197 pounds. The senior was the third-leading receiver a year ago with 40 catches for 376 yards from the slot position. He is expected to be split wide in the offense this year.
Freshman receiver Bobby Williams is listed as the third of four starters at the wide receiver positions. Williams didn't join Middle Tennessee's squad until Aug. 9 this year. The 6-3, 183-pounder is from Raines High School in Jacksonville, Fla. He averaged 41 catches a season in his last two years of high school for a two-year total of over 1,700 receiving yards.
Sophomore Taron Henry, 6-0, 190 pounds is also listed as a starter at receiver. He had a good spring and fall after catching just two passes last year as a redshirt freshman.
Tight end Stephen Chicola is known more for pass-catching than blocking. The 6-5, 238-pound soph started four games in 2004 and had 14 receptions for 152 yards. He is one another receiving threat on the field.
Eugene Gross was MTSU's leading rusher in 2003 and 2004, but in the pass-heavy attack that meant just 412 yards on the ground last year and 735 two years ago. Gross is 5-9, 206 pounds, and is another player on the field who can catch. He had 24 receptions for 233 yards a year ago.
Middle Tennessee lists 12 positions as probable starters (4 WR, 5 OL, QB, TB, TE), but the fullback spot is not among those, even though Nick McAfee started five games there last year. McAfee worked at fullback and tight end in the spring and will play both positions.
Defense: The defense is under first-year coordinator Mark Criner, but Criner, who wason staff last year, is expected to use a similar system as former DC Dale Peveto, who joined LSU's staff.
Nine starters return on the defensive side, the biggest and best being defensive tackle Jeff Littlejohn, at 6-2, 318 pounds. He had 17 tackles last season but almost always drew a double team from the nose tackle spot.
Middle Tennessee will most likely use a four-man front, with senior Quinton Station (6-2, 270 pounds) moving over from offense where he was a second-team All-Conference guard to the defensive tackle spot alongside Littlejohn.
Devarick Scandrett (6-4, 281) beat out two other players to win the starting spot at left end. The senior started four games in each of the past two years and made 23 tackles a year ago.
Right end Erik Walden (6-2, 238) led MTSU with six sacks a year ago.
The linebacking corps consists of three players who were not in action for MTSU much of last year. Jonathan Bonner (6-0, 222) played in just one game before suffering a season-ending knee injury, but he is considered the Raiders top linebacker and plays on the strong side. J.K. Sabb (5-11, 230) is a transfer from Georgia Military Academy who will start in his first game for MTSU in the middle linebacker spot. Justin Rainey (5-10, 215) is a junior who played at Middle Tennessee in 2003, then wint to junior college in 2004 and is now back with the team. He should start at weakside linebacker.
The only new starter in the secondary is right-side cornerback Keon Raymond (5-11, 187), a senior from St. Louis, Mo. Left corner Bradley Robinson (5-10, 170), left-side safety Jeremiah Weaver (5-11, 187) and right-side safety Jonathan Harris (5-10, 207) all started a year ago. Harris is considered the among the hardest-hitting MTSU defenders, while Weaver was sixth in tackles with 43 last year.
Special Teams: Colby Smith might be familiar to the most avid Tide fans. He kicked for the Blue Raiders in 2002 when Alabama and MTSU faced off. He is a Lou Groza Award candidate this year, and will handle placekicking and punting.
Chris Henry will return punts and kickoffs after just one return in 2004, and Cleannord Saintil will return kicks again in 2004 after averaging 20 yards per return in 2004.