Shula At SEC

There were a lot of numbers thrown out as Alabama Head Football Coach Mike Shula was the first coach to address sportswriters at Southeastern Conference Media Days in suburban Birmingham Wednesday. Shula will begin his fourth season as Alabama's head coach this year.

Shula said that last year he hoped that Alabama would be at the 85 level on scholarships, but that the Crimson Tide made it only to 77. This year, he said, he thinks that 85 level will be reached.

He also said that he expected some "five or six" freshmen to play a role for the 2006 Crimson Tide. "We will be a young 85," he said. "We played 11 true freshmen in 2005 and we played 10 last year and this year I think it will be five or six. And from talking to other people, that's where you want to be—playing freshmen because you want to, not because you have to."

Two of those freshmen came in for mention. Not surprisingly, one of them was Andre Smith, considered the number one offensive line prospect out of Birmingham Huffman last year.

"Could Andre Smith be a factor," said Shula, repeating the question. "He could be. We don't know because we haven't had him in practice. But he could be."

Earlier this summer Earl Alexander of Phenix City Central told that he wanted to play as a freshman. Although signed as a quarterback, Alexander said he would be willing to change position in order to get on the field as a freshman, adding that his position of choice for such a change would be wide receiver. Wednesday Shula said, "Earl Alexander seems to have the mindset that he can play at wide receiver. We think he could be one of those guys like Jimmy Johns that we want on the field and want the ball in his hands. But we're not ruling out quarterback for Earl Alexander. Or Jimmy Johns, for that matter."

Several other wide receivers were mentioned by Shula, who pointed out that depth could be a prolem at the position. The Tide coach made quick work of all questions regarding junior D.J. Hall, who made news by not being on campus this summer. "I think he'll be back," Shula said in answer to several questions in the D.J. Hall area.

Shula also opened the door a crack for Tyrone Prothro to be redshirted this year and return in 2007. Prothro suffered a season-ending broken leg on October 1, 2005. Some of his teammates have suggested he will not play this year. Shula said, "If we had to play today, he couldn't play. If we had to play in a month, he probably couldn't play. We're taking it day-by-day. It was a serious injury. And if he can't play this year, he's got another year and could be redshirted and play in 2007."

He also noted that freshman Mike McCoy is expected to be in the mix, and said he expects Keith Brown and Matt Caddell, as well as Hall, to be improved. And, he said, he's anxious to see two wide receivers who were injured much of the spring—Will Oakley, who has been injured most of his career, and Nikita Stover, who transferred to Bama in time to participate in spring practice.

Almost as an aside, Shula reminded that Ezekiel Knight had moved from wide receiver to defensive end in the spring. And, he said, Knight is now up to 237 pounds, about 20 pounds his last year playing weight.

Also on the injury front, Shula said halfback Glen Coffee "was almost 100 per cent" in recovering from his sports hernia injury.

As for linebacker Juwan Simpson, whose legal problems have been big news this summer, Shula said only, "I think he'll be back."

In pointing out the youth of his team, Shula noted that Alabama has nine returning starters on offense and only four returning starters on defense. But, he said, the defense will have more seniors starting than the offense, which will probably have only three senior starters: halfback Kenneth Darby, fullback Le'Ron McClain, and offensive tackle Chris Capps.

The Tide coach said a key to Alabama success this year will be the roles played by young players. "Not necessarily as starters," he said, "but in playing important roles."

He said Bama will have seven new starters on defense, but pointed out that at only two positions—middle linebacker, where Matt Collins and Prince Hall are competing and strong safety where Marcus Carter had the lead at the end of spring practice—is there a great lack of experience.

Shula said he expects the offensive line to be improved. He said that Antoine Caldwell's spot at left guard would be taken by Marlon Davis with Caldwell moving to center. He said he expected tackle play to be improved with Kyle Tatum and Chris Capps having shown improvement and competition coming from others, including Mike Johnson, Cody Davis, Drew Davis, and Andrew Smith. He noted that Tatum and Capps had gone through tough times and that the experience would make them better. He also pointed out the move of Justin Britt from defensive tackle to offensive right guard.

One of the big questions of the week is the 12-game schedule, and particularly how it works for Alabama (and Auburn and Vanderbilt) not having an open week. Shula said it takes him back to his early days in the NFL when there was no bye week. "We'll address it and then get it out of the mindset," he said. "We'll handle it. We'll make it a non-issue with our players. Depth is a factor and the way you prepare may be adjusted."

It was not lost on the media that Shula's entrance (along with players Kenneth Darby and Ramzee Robinson) into the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover was a gauntlet run through fans. Shula said, "It's unique. Truly unique. I wish I had been exposed to that when I was a player in the off-season. But with that comes a responsibility, and we're reminded of that every day."

Asked what the perception of Shula is among Alabama fans, Shula said, "The minute you think you're not on the hot seat is when you can be in trouble." He said he thinks Alabama is headed in the right direction, but not where he wants Bama to be.

He also said, "I continue to be amazed at support we receive from our president, Athletics Director Mal Moore, and our Trustees, providing us with what we need. This year stadium expansion is the big one. And we've added other facilities that will be perfect for Alabama. It sends the message they want the best for our football team."

He said Bryant-Denny Stadium would be magnificent this year, but "after the kickoff it's up to the team to keep the atmosphere."

Academics has been in the news. Shula addressed it briefly in his opening remarks. He said, "Last year had 14 guys in Cotton Bowl with degrees. This year by mid-December we should have 11 with degrees. A couple of years ago we were below average on APR. Last year we improved to above the line and we've improved it since then. Players and staff have done a good job. We're still not where we need to be, but we're headed in right direction."

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