Game Week

Things are back to normal. It is football game week in Tuscaloosa, the start of the 2006 season just days away and Alabama has entered the third general phase of pre-season practice. And yet there are, as always, new things about the beginning of a new football year. There is an unusual opponent, a new look to the stadium, and an eye on the weather.

Alabama began practice in early August in the first phase of pre-season work with the mandated non-contact work. Then game pre-season camp, the heavy lifting phase in which the Crimson Tide had both drills on fundamentals and the implementation of offensive and defensive schemes and the kicking game.

Last Wednesday was the start of classes at The University and that ushered in the new phase, preparation for the opening opponent, Hawaii. That is a slightly blurred beginning because it is also a time when a couple of dozen additional players (som returning players, some newcomers) are added to the original 105 reporting roster. It is the end of any opportunity for two-a-day practices. And it is slightly extra tie for work on a specific opponent.

Alabama opens the season at 6 p.m. CDT Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium hosting Hawaii. The only telecast of the game will be on a pay-per-view basis. Some 92,138 will be on hand for the game in the remodeled and expanded stadium, the largest crowd ever to see a football game in the state of Alabama.

And the game against the Warriors marks the start of 12 consecutive Saturdays Alabama will play football games.

While the Tide had a few extra days to put in the specific game plan for the opener, the true game week routine began following Saturday's off day. Bama was to be back on the practice field for a Sunday evening workout, have Monday off, and then have its regular workouts through Friday's walk-through.

Hawaii was reportedly headed to Atlanta for a couple of days of work this week before busing to Tuscaloosa for a walk-through at Bryant-Denny Stadium Friday.

One thing that changed last Wednesday was that practices previously open to the media are now closed. Reporters get to see about 20 minutes at the beginning of practice and a few minutes at the end, but the nuts and bolts of game preparation are off limits to all outsiders.

No problem. Anyone paying attention has a sense of what the 2006 Alabama football team can be.

It starts with quarterback. John Parker Wilson is not Brodie Croyle. Croyle broke the passing records of numerous outstanding Alabama quarterbacks. Wilson has never started a Bama game, never played when the game was on the line. But he has a lot of good attributes and is not considered a liability. His ability to turn a potentially bad play into a good play with his running ability adds an extra dimension.

But when it comes to running, all eyes should be on Kenneth Darby. Just as Croyle broke records of past Crimson Tide quarterbacks, Darby has a chance to set new marks for all Alabama running backs, including Shaun Alexander—last year's NFL Player of the Year.

Although Darby was overlooked on many pre-season all-star teams, anyone watching Bama practices would conclude that he is more impressive than he has been in his three previous years.

It would not be a shock to see Alabama attempt to control games with a running game. In addition to Darby, the components leading to that conclusion include:

· Andre Smith and Justin Britt added to an otherwise veteran offensive line.

· Three fine tight ends in Travis McCall, Nick Walker, and Charlie Hoke.

· Excellent blocking fullbacks in LèRon McClain and Tim Castille.

Although Hawaii has an interesting running game that features huge backs, the defense must be first and foremost concerned with the Warriors' passing attack. While Bama is replacing no fewer than seven starters in the opener, almost everyone who will be playing substantial minutes Saturday has been in the fray. It would be a huge surprise if most of the evening does not see the Crimson Tide defense primarily in nickel and dime packages, five and six defensive backs.

One matter to be resolved in the next couple of days is placekicker Jamie Christensen's health. He has been nursing a groin injury. If he's unable to go, freshman Leigh Tiffin is expected to do the extra point and field goal kicking and Andrew Friedman will kick off.

An extra element this week will be hurricane watch. Ernesto is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico and could make landfall mid- to late-week with the Alabama coast a possible victim.

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