Surprises of 2007

We're one week away from the Iron Bowl, and while Alabama's record is about where we thought it would be at this point, the road the Crimson Tide has taken to get here is wildly different than what we imagined. The same goes for a few key players on the Alabama roster.

We're 10 games into the season, so it might seem a little late to evaluate this Alabama football team based on its performance thus far. But given that this week's opponent is little-known non-conference foe Louisiana-Monroe, this seems like about as good a time as any.

The Crimson Tide is about where most of (the rational ones, at least) thought it might be at this point, 6-4 with a chance to get to eight wins and a upper-mid-level bowl game. But as with almost every season, the path Alabama has taken to this point has been far from predictable.

How does a team that stomped Tennessee fail to score an offensive touchdown against Mississippi State? How does a team that took Georgia to overtime struggle to beat Ole Miss?

I could say "that's why they play the games" and be done with it. But there's probably more to it than that.

As coaches like to say "you win with players" and "players make plays."

Several players on Alabama's roster have played better than we thought they might have this season, and others have perhaps underachieved. In keeping with the "5" theme we've established throughout the season, here are five players who have surprised us and five who have perhaps disappointed us in 2007.

First the good --- here are the Crimson Tide's five most pleasant surprises:

Rashad Johnson: Everyone knew Johnson was a good kid and hard worker heading into this season, but I don't know anyone who thought he'd be an All-America candidate. But here we are 10 games into the season, and Johnson leads the Crimson Tide in tackles and leads the Southeastern Conference in interceptions.

That's not bad for a former walk-on running back, albeit one with serious foot speed. Johnson showcased that ability on kick coverage the last two seasons, then worked his way into the secondary rotation in 2006.

Along with his play-making ability, Johnson's also the brains of the operation in the secondary. Alabama's defense has been nothing special overall this season, but think of where it might be without Johnson.

Ezekial Knight: After two years at receiver and another injury-plagued one at defensive end, Knight has finally found a home at outside linebacker. And after Johnson and defensive end Wallace Gilberry, he's probably been the Crimson Tide's most-valuable defensive player this season.

Knight struggled to execute Alabama's defensive calls on a consistent basis early in the season, but things started to click for him around the Florida State game. He's been on a play-making tear ever since, whether it's intercepting passes, sacking the quarterback or stopping the run.

Thanks to a medical redshirt granted after the 2006 season, Knight still has another year of eligibility after this one in which to hone his game. But had he been at linebacker from the beginning, he might have developed into an all-time great.

Evan Cardwell: Cardwell was one of the least highly touted of the half-dozen or so linemen Alabama signed the last three years, but he's turned out to be one of the most crucial this season. He stepped into the starting lineup for an absent Justin Britt for the Ole Miss game, and then stayed there after All-SEC center Antoine Caldwell was suspended the following week.

Cardwell had played sparingly before this season, mostly in passing situations due to his aptitude with the shotgun snap. He's held his own as a full-time player the last few weeks, though, even against the likes of LSU's standout front four.

Caldwell may or may not return for the Auburn game, but when he does, he's probably going to have to find a new position. Cardwell is likely to hold down the center spot for the next two years.

Matt Caddell: Caddell spent the first three years of his career as a part-time player, showing an alarming inability to hold onto the ball in those rare instances he did get the pigskin thrown his way. But he's developed into a solid go-to option as a senior, as adept at catching the short underneath pass as any Alabama player in recent memory.

Caddell ranks second in receptions and yards on the team to All-America candidate D.J. Hall, and seems to have developed a solid rapport with quarterback John Parker Wilson during crunch time. Caddell will always be remembered for his game-winning touchdown catch against Arkansas, a leaping grab in the end zone that gave Alabama a 41-38 victory.

Caddell's far from the most talented receiver on the team; in fact, he probably ranks at least sixth or seventh after Hall, Keith Brown, Mike McCoy, Earl Alexander, Nikita Stover and Will Oakley (and maybe some others). But he's proof that hard work and perseverance can make up for a lot of limitations.

Kareem Jackson: When the season began, the Crimson Tide freshman everyone was talking about was linebacker ,b>Rolando McClain. "Baby Ro" has been solid, but Jackson has been a real find at cornerback.

He's started every game as a true freshman, and ranks among the team leaders in tackles and interceptions. Jackson has earned so much respect so fast that opposing quarterbacks rarely throw his way anymore, choosing instead to pick on the Tide's nickel backs and safeties.

Jackson has made a few outstanding individual plays, though, notably a game-changing interception in the third quarter of the Tennessee game. He's probably Alabama's best freshman defensive back since Fernando Bryant, which is high praise indeed.

And now the bad --- here are the five biggest disappearing acts of 2007:

Jimmy Johns: Head coach Nick Saban has been dancing around the topic of Johns' diminished playing time most of the season, but he was unable to ignore it after the loss to Mississippi State. With Glen Coffee suspended and Roy Upchurch hurt, it seemed logical that Johns might get a few carries in goal-line and short-yardage situations.

Johns didn't, and Bama Nation was left scratching its collective head. Many argued that Johns would have scored on either of the two running plays Alabama called at the end of the first half against MSU, rendering the ensuing pass-play call --- which led to the disastrous 100-yard interception return by the Bulldogs --- moot.

While we'll never know what might have happened had Johns played against MSU, it's pretty obvious that Johns hasn't shown the coaching staff he deserves to be on the field in crucial offensive situations. Nevertheless, he remains one of the best athletes on the team, and they should have figured out a way to utilize him by now.

Keith Brown: This one is a real mystery, even bigger than Johns. How does a guy with almost 100 career catches and 1,500-plus yards before this season all of a sudden become the team's fourth or fifth receiving option?

There are always players caught in the shuffle during a coaching staff, and perhaps Brown is an example of that. But he's far too talented to have only 14 receptions 10 games into the season.

Brown didn't help his cause by getting suspended for the season-opener, but the staff has let bygones be bygones with other players --- notably Prince Hall --- so it's doubtful Brown remains in the doghouse. More likely, suspect hands and blocking have cost him playing time.

Justin Woodall: Another stunner, especially considering Alabama's trouble finding consistent fifth and sixth defensive backs this season. Woodall was one of the most highly touted defensive recruits of the Mike Shula era, but he's been little more than a part-time special-teamer this year.

As with Brown, perhaps Woodall's skills don't fit with the new coaching staff's schemes. Maybe he's not a good practice player.

Certainly Woodall would be on the field if the coaches felt he had earned it. Given Alabama's modest overall talent on defense, it's surprising that he hasn't.

Greg McElroy: Not that anyone felt like McElroy would get extensive playing time this year, but I think most of us figured we'd have seen more of him by now. But after playing most of the fourth quarter in Alabama's season-opening win over Western Carolina, he's been on the field only for a run-out-the-clock series against Tennessee since.

Trouble is, Alabama hasn't had many opportunities to play McElroy this season. Other than the previously mentioned two, every other Crimson Tide game has gone down to the wire, or nearly so.

Given Wilson's recent struggles, it might be wise to get McElroy on the field at some point on Saturday. The Tide is currently one play away from putting a quarterback with nine career pass attempts on the field.

Simeon Castille: Castille hasn't had a bad senior year, it's just that he hasn't had the huge showing that most figured when he was a preseason All-SEC and All-America selection. He's been good, just not as good as we thought.

Castille has two interceptions this season, including a huge one to save the Tide's 30-24 win over Houston. Other than that, though, he hasn't made a lot of big plays all year.

Defenses have mostly thrown away from Castille this year, but there have been a few games --- LSU, Georgia, Florida State --- where Alabama might have won with a big defensive play in the passing game. Castille needs to take advantage of his limited opportunities.

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Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for numerous print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at

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