It's a matter of record that the previous staff wasn't much wedded to the idea of a redshirt season. "Play ‘em early or lose ‘em late" was the idea, referring to athletes with academic problems and NCAA rules requiring academic progress throughout an athlete's college career.
The goal was to make sure an athlete got in four seasons of playing time before degree-progress regulations made him ineligible as a redshirt senior. And there was admittedly some logic to the idea.
But besides burning an athlete's first year of eligibility on a limited number of plays as a backup and/or on special teams, the theory put players on the field before they had proven their worth in practice.
And anything in life that comes easily and without effort is rarely appreciated.
Defensive Line Coach Stan Eggen commented, "It's my job as a coach to make sure I don't put anybody out there that hasn't earned the opportunity."
"We talk about that as a defensive line," Eggen continued. "You earn the right to play for The University of Alabama on game day. If I'm comfortable with you and have trust that you will perform, along with your teammates, then you'll get out there.
"If not, then no."
Standing all of 6-5 and weighing in the 240-pound plus range, Gerard Clark arrived on campus an impressive-looking athlete. Playing prep sports in Daytona Beach, Florida, Clark accumulated 12 sacks in both his junior and senior seasons of high school. Upon graduation, academic problems had sent him to a prep school to gain eligibility, delaying his entry to college a full year. When he finally arrived on campus, practice observers predicted big things from the big athlete.
But Clark needed time to develop.
"We're starting to see some consistency from Gerard Clark," Eggen said. "He's making progress in the weight room. Gerard is starting to understand what accountability is in all phases, whether it's academic, in the weight room or at practice."
With the new staff you hear those words a lot: accountability and trust. And they're not just talking about an athlete remembering and carrying out his assignments on the playing field. Coach Franchione must also "trust" an athlete to take care of business in the classroom and with his personal strength and conditioning.
In other words, players have to earn their way onto the field--on the practice field and beyond.
"To play at this level, that was Gerard's biggest challenge," Eggen said. "It wasn't athletic ability. His biggest adjustment to college football was that he had to stay focused and concentrate in those areas all the time. He just had to become more consistent in everything that he did.
"He has made nice strides. He still has a ways to go, but he's making progress."
Clark will be entering his third season at Alabama this year, and the opportunity is there for him to contribute. Kindal Moorehead, Nautyn McKay-Loescher and Antwan Odom are clearly the top players at defensive end. But to keep everyone fresh, Eggen would like five athletes to rotate in the game.
As he continues to recover from injury, sophomore Todd Bates may or may not be available this season, which opens the door for Clark.
Eggen explained, "Personally I don't like to talk about first teamers, even though it's obvious that we have several guys returning. I don't want four guys thinking they're starters and then the next four thinking that they're not as good.
"I want all of them ready."
Clark was ready this past spring, enjoying his best spring practice since arriving on campus. And despite playing with a sprained ankle, the fleet end consistently pressured the quarterback during the A-Day scrimmage. "We knew that Gerard was someone that had some ability," Eggen said. "We just had to see if he was going to work hard to get everything out of his ability--in terms of trust and accountability."
In life and on the playing field, catching up after falling behind can be a tough task, and Clark still has obstacles to overcome. But if he does contribute this year for the Tide, his coaches will have made him do it the old-fashioned way.
By earning it.