After Three Days

Three days worth of observations at Camp Shula: 2006. Forgive me for starting with the obvious, but in the case of Andre Smith, where there's hype, there's hope. The big guy reported for camp a few supersized Snickers over his target weight, but the excess pounds haven't prevented him from dominating. Nobody has whipped him in one-on-one pass rush drills yet.

Andre Smith and sophomore center Antoine Caldwell were clearly the top pass protectors with the shoulder pads in place at Alabama football practice on Thursday. Big Andre completely stymied Bobby Greenwood and Ezekial Knight in consecutive turns. Later, when Greenwood tried an inside move, Smith went low with him and buried the guy who had a pretty flashy freshman year.

As Mike Shula pointed out after Thursday's work, Smith isn't always blocking the right man on all the inside runs, but the 335-pounder is getting after the guy he does block. When the playbook sinks in, the kid is a fixture in the starting lineup until his college days are done, and that is obviously sooner rather than later.

Smith's ascension to the starting lineup might come before the September 2 opener or it might be a little later. The question becomes, whose job is most in jeopardy?

Smith is taking reps behind Chris Capps at left tackle, but based on Thursday's work, Capps was protecting better than senior right tackle Kyle Tatum. As we know, Line Coach Bob Connelly will flip sides of the line and experiment -- as he's doing with presumed starting guards B.J. Stabler and Justin Britt -- so Tatum better buckle it up tight and work on his balance and flexibility.

On the subject of the O-line, just when Connelly looked to have the best depth of his tenure, something hinky's going on. Trent Davidson has missed the last two full practices for ``personal reasons'' and some believe he is contemplating whether to stick it out after being moved from tight end to tackle and winding up at least third on the chart.

Though you feel for Davidson, who was a contributor at tight end as a true freshman in 2004, his predicament is indicative of the budding depth that has come the last two years.

Marlon Davis, thrust into a part-time starter's role as a rookie last season, missed Thursday's practice for personal reasons as well, so we'll have to monitor his situation as well.

What to do at running back? Sparky Woods is one and a half years removed from the spring that featured Aaron Johns, walk-on Theo Townsend and little else, and now his bounty in the backfield looks boundless.

The dilemma is how to sort out carries and keep would-be workhorse Kenneth Darby and his running mates Glen Coffee, Jimmy Johns and Roy Upchurch busy, happy, and productive. This doesn't even include Ali Sharrief, who has looked good in camp, and true freshman Terry Grant, whom Shula described as smooth, fast and in great shape. It also doesn't include fullbacks Le'Ron McClain and Tim Castille, whose playmaking pasts prove they deserve more than token touches in the games.

Maybe it sounds crazy, but could it be a good thing that Mike Ford didn't qualify this season?

If Shula, David Rader and the offensive coaches haven't developed a quality screen package and other ways to exploit the bursting-at-the-seams talent in this backfield, they should be docked some pay.

Those grave concerns about depth at receiver are slowly being allayed, though the position can ill afford injuries at any point this season.

D.J. Hall showed up in marginal condition, but that's of little concern. He knows how to play, and he'll be ready when the time comes. The key with Hall is that he's here.

Keith Brown's hands have looked good, so maybe he'll find consistency as a junior. Shula raves over Matt Caddell's conditioning, which is a fine shot of confidence, but the junior has to hold on better in traffic, period, if he's going to contribute more than a catch or two per game.

The real bonus from this corps has come from Will Oakley, who appears to be over the hamstring issues that stole his first two years. Oakley has made leaping and diving catches, has gone over defensive backs, and has been generally impressive each day. Nikita Stover made a couple of fine grabs on Thursday as well, and cannot be dismissed from top four or five consideration.

Aaron McDaniel has looked much more comfortable at wideout than defensive back and may yet find his way to the field. Shula was touting Earl Alexander and Mike McCoy as potential true freshmen contributors, and they have shown nice rookie skills, but their path to the playing rotation will not be a walk in the park.

One more position before we wrap: defensive backs. Effervescent Chris Ball has got his positive mojo going with this group. They won't have near the experience of last year's secondary, but their drive and their head-knocking skills are easily apparent. Ramzee Robinson is spending time after the workouts with freshmen like Tremayne Coger and Marquis Johnson, adding to his growing legacy.

Simeon Castille looks newly committed after his Cotton Bowl eligibility blowup last winter. Jeffrey Dukes is maturing into the leader the team needs at free safety. And the cast of thousands at strong safety is keeping Marcus Carter on his toes. The coaches love the play of Rashad Johnson, who is in a good battle with Lionel Mitchell for the nickel spot, so mark down Johnson as a player to watch this year.

Editor's Note: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register. He contributes to and to 'BAMA Magazine.

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