Tide Full of Optimism

In all my years of covering college football, I've never covered a team that didn't believe in itself wholeheartedly in the middle of summer. Even when straddled with injuries, a major player exodus or coaching changes, they're pumped with optimism in July.

That makes the Alabama Crimson Tide 2006 no different than any other of the 113 teams that preceded it at the Capstone or the rest of the current crop in our football-centric universe.

Sometimes the nation buys into it and the team and coaching staff gets overripe with fame (see Alabama, 2000) with disastrous results.

Sometimes we're acutely skeptical of their enthusiasm (see Alabama, 2005) and they roll off nine straight wins and capture a New Year's Day bowl win.

What to make of the Tide of the here and now?

They believe in themselves.

They believe their backfield, headlined by Kenneth Darby and Le'Ron McClain, can be among the very best in the nation.

They believe that John Parker Wilson can be a leader and a physical asset at quarterback.

They believe their star-depleted defense can find a way to match the play of its immediate predecessors.

They believe their collection of issues at wide receiver will sort out in a productive way.

They believe they can find someone who can secure a punt without a crowd of 90,000 gasping at a loose ball.

They believe their offensive line will become a cohesive unit and plug the leaks it sprung late last season.

They believe linebacker Juwan Simpson will be a model citizen and a leader on defense.

That's a lot of believing folks.

And even the most optimistic Alabama fan realizes the odds of every one of those issues stacking up neatly in the Tide's favor is a longshot.

Adversity will rear its challenging head. It always has, and always will.

While he's growing and improving, Wilson will have his moments of indecision, his mental mistakes, his execution failures.

The defense has a strong coordinator in Joe Kines, who will face his greatest challenge with this unit since the frustrating season of 2003. You don't lose four NFL draft picks and three other starters and just rock on into the next season.

The issues at receiver are real.

Tyrone Prothro faces a medical redshirt season, plain and simple, and to put it bluntly he must learn to walk again before he can run, cut, plant or jump off that damaged left leg. Everyone says DJ Hall will return in the fall, but until he is back on campus and deemed eligible there will be a cloud of speculation. Keith Brown is Keith Brown, perhaps the quirkiest guy on the team and a player who can explode as he did against Texas Tech.

Beyond Hall and Brown, the Tide has the inconsistent Matt Caddell, the oft-injured Nikita Stover and Will Oakley and a collection of hopefuls. That isn't exactly a rosy scenario.

The offensive line should be better. Antoine Caldwell could be a fixture at center the next three years. B.J. Stabler, who is learning the right tackle spot, should provide versatility. Kyle Tatum should have his best year ever. Justin Britt will provide toughness and athleticism. Andre Smith could become a franchise left tackle.

One area where I'm completely buying the hype is in the offensive backfield. In Darby, the Tide has one of those rare gems: a gamer in every sense of the word, a battler, and a back with a juke-step move that is hard to explain and harder to corral. McClain and Tim Castille give Alabama the best fullback tandem around. And behind Darby is a tailback roster loaded with future stars in Glen Coffee, Jimmy Johns and Roy Upchurch.

That looks to me like one of the best backfields in the nation.

The optimism of the Alabama players who conducted mid-summer talks with the media on Thursday was commendable and understandable. The big question is, will that optimism stretch on through the course of the 2006 season against a most-wicked schedule?

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