What about the health of some key players?
Overall the squad is in excellent shape, with virtually all injured players from last season completely recovered. But defensive end Todd Bates, the only true freshman to see game action in 2001, remains a question mark. He underwent surgery at the beginning of the summer to repair a serious groin problem. The procedure was successful, but Bates' availability for the season has yet to be decided. He'll definitely participate the first week of two-a-days, but those early sessions take place in shorts and helmets only.
If Bates can play this season, then suddenly some of the depth questions on the D-Line are answered. If not, he'll redshirt, opening up an opportunity for this year's group of freshman lineman to earn a spot in the playing rotation.
Hirchel Bolden had shoulder surgery last January to repair a separated shoulder. The senior cornerback is completely recovered from that problem, but Bolden suffered a torn meniscus cartilage in his knee earlier in the summer. He may or may not be full speed by next week. If his return is delayed, then that will just mean that younger cornerbacks like Charlie Peprah and Anthony Madison must step up that much sooner.
Contrary to Internet speculation, fullback/W back Donnie Lowe is 100 percent and anxious to begin. The junior starter required an uncomfortably long time to recover from a concussion, so obviously he'll be watched closely by the training staff. If he stays healthy, then many of the concerns regarding depth at W will be alleviated.
Academic questions and the numbers game
According to Coach Franchione, five Tide players had work to do over the summer to stay eligible, with serious questions surrounding two. And Franchione indicated Thursday at Media Days that the status of those two players is still not resolved.
Beyond the possibility of losing two veteran athletes, their status could also affect the number of new players brought in this fall. NCAA sanctions limit the Tide to no more than 80 scholarshipped players, and it's possible that if all returning players remain eligible then there won't be room for 17 new scholarships this fall.
Earnest Nance, a linebacker signed out of Courtland, may delay entry into The University until January of 2003. If that happens, then the Tide coaches would have the option of counting him against either this year's total or 2003's. The official word on Nance is that he might take the extra time to rehabilitate from knee surgery. But from the beginning he's been told that he may be asked to wait, which provides some leeway one way or another for the Tide staff.
Fans will also be watching to see whether two other newcomers report Sunday. Defensive end/linebacker Chris Browder has issues with the NCAA Clearinghouse, and it's possible (maybe probable) that he won't be on hand for the start of two-a-days. And JUCO transfer defensive tackle Ahmad Childress had to pass nine hours this summer at Tennessee State before he could enter The University.
Interestingly, Franchione has not chosen the most common option for dealing with that type problem. At the other Alabama SEC school for instance, every year several veteran players either leave the team or are placed on "medical scholarships," to make room for a full complement of incoming freshman (one way that squad remains perpetually "young"). But so far at least, not a single returning scholarshipped player from last year's Tide squad has left the team or "retired" with "injury."
However, as Alabama faces the reality of reduced scholarships over the next two years, that could change.
Who will handle placekicking duties?
If anyone has the definitive answer to this question, Special Teams Coordinator Mark Tommerdahl would appreciate a phone call.
Seriously, at this point the Tide coaches do not know which of several candidates will end up handling the job versus MTSU. Of the returning players, walk-on sophomore Brian Bostick finished spring slightly ahead. But fellow walk-on Michael Ziifle has the strongest leg. And the only scholarshipped placekicker on the squad, Mike McLaughlin, is in the thick of things as well.
Junior college transfer Kyle Robinson has been on campus all summer, taking part in voluntary workouts with the team and practicing his kicking every day on the Drew-Thomas fields. Except for Strength and Conditioning personnel, staff members are prohibited from coaching during the summer. But Robinson's daily sessions have taken place scant yards from the Football Complex, within easy eyesight of Tommerdahl's office window.
No, Tommerdahl is not charting anyone's summer progress. But it's a safe bet he's aware of the work Robinson has put in.
Franchione has said that only five slots for kicking specialists are available on the 105 roster, and two will certainly go to deep snapper Nick Ridings and punter Lane Bearden. How the following few places will be allotted should provide an important indication of which placekicking candidates have the edge.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Obviously there are other key questions, regarding the 2002 team. Check back over the next several days as BamaMag.com shares what we'll be looking for with our readers.