Juggling two sports & classes isn't easy

Playing college football today is a full-time job by itself--just keeping up on the playing field and in the classroom isn't easy. Of course that's especially true for Spencer Pennington, Alabama's latest two-sport athlete who has been juggling quarterback and first base for the last several months. <br><br>"I thought it was going to be a little easier than it has been," Pennington admitted. "It's been a lot more on me that I thought it was going to be.

"The main thing is keeping my grades up--that was the worst part. Practicing over here (at the football complex) and also playing the baseball games at night. Studying and keeping my grades up has been tough. But other than that (the spring) went really well."

Pennington lets one fly during football practice. Juggling sports and academics this spring has been a challenge for the two-sport star.

Interestingly, Pennington's body held up fine--his only injury occurring on the baseball diamond. He explained, "I held up physically with no problems. Of course at South Carolina I got a concussion playing a baseball game. I got hurt worse in baseball than in football. I dove for a foul ball and (catcher) Jeremy Brown was coming out. His knee hit me, which is a good way to get a concussion. He's a little bit bigger than I am."

As a precaution, Pennington missed a little football practice with the slight concussion. But nobody excused him from his weight-room responsibilities. "On my off days when I didn't have baseball practice I came in with Coach Pollard and I got it done," Pennington said. "Or between classes I'd come over. So it really wasn't that big of a deal. I got just as much lifting in as the other guys did.

"Of course you couldn't cut any corners when it is just one-on-one with Coach Pollard. That might have made it a little bit harder."

Just like now, Pennington starred in two sports in high school. And actually, many scouts believe his long-term pro future lies in baseball. But the Fayette native turned down a signing bonus from Major League Baseball to accept a Crimson Tide football scholarship.

"I never really got behind this spring with my reps at quarterback--not at all," Pennington said. "My first priority is football. That's where my scholarship comes from. I'm not on a baseball scholarship. I'm with football first, but when I'm not at the (football) practice field I'm with the baseball team."

With some help from Tyler Watts and Matt Miller, Pennington led the Crimson squad to a 20-6 win in Saturday's game.

In high school, Pennington led his football team to the 4A state championship his senior season, passing for 2,433 yards and 20 TDs. But the versatile athlete also starred in baseball, hitting .430 his junior season and driving in 57 runs.

Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione required that his young quarterback not miss any days of spring practice. So once his work was done on the football field, Pennington would have to hurry off to join his baseball teammates.

And on weekends when Bama baseball was playing out of town, those travel plans were not all that easy. "Spencer will get on a plane sometime tonight to fly to Kentucky to play baseball," Franchione explained, following Saturday's A-Day contest. "It takes a special young man to juggle academics and play two sports at the same time. But it was vital for him to go through spring and get in 15 practices, if he was going to be a quarterback that could help us next fall. He's done an outstanding job at that."

Pennington is currently a part-time starter at first base for Coach Jim Wells' baseball squad. And his ultimate goal is to start in both sports. "Brodie (Croyle) and I are both chasing the No. 1 position," Pennington said. "Anybody that tells you they don't want to be No. 1 is telling you a story. That's just the competitive spirit in both of us. We both want--if not the No. 1--then the No. 2 position. Every day that's what we strive to do. We're pushing each other as hard as we can to get that top spot."

At this point senior Tyler Watts has a firm grip on the starting role. But Saturday's A-Day contest highlighted the ongoing battle between Pennington and Croyle for the back-up position. "Spencer's a man," Croyle commented on his friend and rival. "To do what he's done, playing both sports is impressive. And I heard he hit a shot (homerun) the other day.

"He doesn't ever complain about it, but you can tell the boy's tired. But he's handling it well. He flew out to Kentucky Saturday after the A-Day game. I don't know about that. I think I'd have to just let that one go."

With A-back Shaud Williams to his right, Pennington waits on the shotgun snap.

Both redshirt freshmen quarterbacks showed flashes in Saturday's game, with Pennington going 6-of-12 passing, with one touchdown pass and one interception. "This year I know a lot more about the game," Pennington said. "Last season was kind of a learning year. Now that I've got the offense a little bit down pat I've seen a lot more progress in my game. I think I'm especially throwing the ball a lot better. From last year to this year is like comparing apples to oranges--mainly because of my understanding of the game."

"Spencer is a fiery competitor, and that showed," Franchione said. "I thought he did some nice things Saturday. I was encouraged by his play."

Most college athletes show the greatest improvement in their second year on campus, and Pennington is no different. He explained, "It's a lot different coming from high school ball, coming to play with the best athletes in the world. The SEC is the best conference there is in college football. It has the best athletes."

Adjusting to the speed of the game has been crucial. "You've got to get rid of the football quicker," Pennington said. "Being able to check out of a play with an audible. You don't do a lot of that in high school ball, because it really doesn't matter what defense they're running. But here you've got to be able to check. It's a lot more mental than physical."

Pennington turned down Major League Baseball to play quarterback at Alabama.

Batting .273 with one homerun and four RBI, Pennington's baseball stats are so far modest. But the former Major League draftee is adjusting to college baseball as well. "High school pitchers were throwing 70 mph to the mid-80s, whereas in college they're faster," Pennington said. "I've been playing baseball since I was five years old. I wouldn't say it comes natural to me, because it's a lot of work. But it's not nearly as hard adjusting from high school baseball to college as it is with football."

And Pennington is not one of those that believes playing both sports will affect his throwing motion at quarterback. "In football you come a little bit more over the top, while in baseball it's more of a 3/4s angle," he related. "But it doesn't affect me that much. Freddie Kitchens played quarterback here and then pitched the next day. So it's not that much of an adjustment. You get a few warm-up throws in before the game, and you're ready to go."

For now, Pennington's football time is taken up mastering the Alabama playbook. And both Franchione and Les Koenning are never far from his side. "You have to check with both of them before every play," Pennington explained. "Of course Coach Koenning is the offensive coordinator. He prepares the practice script in advance. But whatever the head man says is what you have to do.

"When you throw an interception, I can't repeat their comments for a family audience. But they just tell you what you've done wrong, and what you need to do for the next time--which read you should have made."

"I need to eliminate my mental errors," Penning continued. "I threw too many interceptions (this spring). I need to make better reads. Sometimes I try to make too much happen on one play. I need to just move the chains down the field ten yards at a time, instead of trying to get it in one play.

"My biggest goal is to be a smarter quarterback."


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