Good thing, too, because it is a regular topic of conversation regarding Alabama football. That seems to be particularly true this week since Bama's John Parker Wilson hobbled off the field in the second quarter of Alabama's 38-3 win over Florida International last week. And this week Wilson is expected to lead the Crimson Tide against a physical defensive team in Misissippi State.
Wilson, a sophomore, is a first-year starter for the Crimson Tide. When Shula had his regular Tuesday meeting with sportswriters, an early question concerned the health of the quarterback. Wilson had injured his left ankle against Duke and reinjured it late in the second quarter last week.
Shula is confident that Wilson will be able to play against Mississippi State this week, pointing out that Wilson returned to start the second half against Florida International and noting that Wilson would not have gone back into action if there had been any chance that his situation could have been aggravated.
Alabama will host Mississippi State at Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday in a Southeastern Conference game that kicks off at 11:30 a.m. It will be televised on the SEC's Lincoln Financial network. Alabama is 6-3 overall and 2-3 in SEC games. The Bulldogs of Coach Sylvester Croom are 2-7 overall and winless in five conference games.
Shula said he feels "real good" about Wilson's chances to play Saturday. "I think he feels real good about it," Shula said. "I think he is in no worse position than he was last week."
On Tuesday, Wilson said he took all the normal repetitions with the first-team offense, adding that in practice he was unlimited, completing bootlegs and sprint outs, as well as scrambles when the rush was on.
"It felt pretty good today," he said. "Our practice was normal."
Wilson has completed 139 of 239 passes (58.2 per cent) for 1,809 yards (an average of 201 yards per game) with 12 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
Wilson has also proved adept at running when necessary.
Shula noted that Mississippi State has done a good job of rushing the passer. "Anytime your quarterback is limited, which hopefully he won't be, you have to take that into effect with your game planning and emphasize it with your offense. We've got to stay out of long yardage situations. That's one of the ways to keep a good pass rushing team from getting too much pressure. We feel like we're better on the offensive line going into this game than we were last year. Schmenewise, we've got to make sure we're not going to have the quarterback hold on to the ball too long, because those pass rushers aren't getting further away."
Shula said, "If he's in the game, he's going to be moving around."
The preparation of quarterbacks seems to the layman (everyone but coaches and players) to be short-sighted. Even though football is a physical game in which injuries occur, it is not at all uncommon for teams to be as Alabama, a one-quarterback team. That means that the second quarterback gets no more than mop-up duty during games unless forced into the fray by injury, as was the case last week.
It also means that the number one quarterback gets the preponderance of practice work. As surprising as the relatively effective performance of back-up Jimmy Barnes last week (6-11 for 45 yards and a touchdown) was the post-game revelation that he had been given only 13 repetitions in practice in the week prior to the game.
On Tuesday, Shula indicated that this week Wilson–if physically able–would get all the practice repetitions. Later he clarified his remarks. "I'm just saying all his normal reps," Shula said. "My gut feeling is that Jimmy Barnes will probably get a few more reps, but if John Parker is feeling any better he will probably get all of them. I'm just saying all his normal reps."
He explained that normally on a Tuesday the starting quarterback would get three reps to every one given the back-up quarterback, and that ratio would not change if Wilson was able to go. As the coach has often explained, it is even more important that Wilson get the preponderance of practice time because he has so little experience.
"I think we're probably equal to a lot of teams, except maybe a running quarterback team or a two-quarterback team," Shula said. "You hate to take away reps from your starter. He has to make all the plays. To take reps away from him wouldn't make very much sense either."
He said Wilson "is getting better with every single rep. You go back and look at Brodie Croyle as a sophomore and you can see that John Parker is going to be the same way in improving."
Shula said that he had been pleased with the work of Barnes. "I feel a lot more comfortable with him," Shula said. "He stood in the pocket and took some hits, and for his first time out there he was really throwing the football. That was pretty good."
He said Barnes, a redshirt freshman, "has improved in every area" since arriving at Alabama.
While Barnes gets very little work, for the first half of the year he was getting virtually no work with the offense. He was third team until senior Marc Guillon quit the team.
Back-up quarterbacks do get individual work in practice, but not much time running the offense.
"The third team guy gets zero physical reps," Shula said. "We talk to him about staying up mentally. Greg McElroy (the true freshman who is now third team) does a good job with that. It's hard to do."