Tide Must Replace Some Playmakers

When the 2008edition of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team runs onto the field at The GeorgiaDome August 30, there will be some experience on both sides of the ball that Bama Coach Nick Saban can call on. There will also be some playmakers to replace.

Despite the lack of success in the win-loss category, and despite all the talk of lack of senior leadership, there will be some Alabama cleats that will need to be filled before the Tide and the Clemson Tigers get it on in the dome on ABC. There is no substitute for experience in the Southeastern Conference, and, yes, it helps if that experience is talented.

Offensively, for quarterback John Parker Wilson to survive and thrive in his last season at The Capstone, two big sets of cleats will have to filled at the wide receiver position. To wit:

Playmaker: D.J. Hall

In four years in Tuscaloosa, Hall re-wrote the Alabama receiving record book. Hall had no finer three hours than during the 41-17 thrashing of Tennessee October 20, when the senior caught 13 balls for 185 yards and a pair of touchdowns. For the season, the 6-foot-2 Hall gathered in 67 passes, for 1,005 yards and six scores. Hall is currently attempting to make the roster of the New York football Giants, and has gotten good early reviews.

Replacement: Nikita Stover

Stover battled injuries all spring, but he is a proven commodity at the SEC level. The rising senior averaged 13.1 yards per catch on ten receptions, and scored twice, including a memorable catch-and-run for a touchdown in the victory over Colorado in the Independence Bowl. That somersaulting adventure at the goal line didn't draw the penalty it should have, but nevertheless the showboating didn't please Coach Saban (though his teammates seemed okay with it).

During his sophomore season, the 6-foot, 207-pounder from Hartselle tallied similar numbers: 12 catches, 192 yards and two scores. One thing that can be said about Stover is that he seems to come up big in big games. The first catch of his career is such an example. With the Tide facing third-and-18 against Vanderbilt at home in 2006, Stover trotted on the field, got open, and calmly snared a 36-yard dart from Wilson. Later that season, he scored on a 52-yard catch-and-run against Auburn.

A healthy Stover can go a LONG way towards making up for the absence of the sticky-fingered Hall.

Playmaker: Keith Brown

Brown didn't have the greatest senior year. In all four years at Bama, the fleet and tall receiver seemed to be battling either injury or disciplinary action (if not both). However, he was effective when healthy in both mind and body. Brown finished last year with five touchdowns on 22 catches for 336 yards.

The play Brown will likely be most remembered for occurred during his sophomore season in 2005. Bama was hosting the vaunted Florida Gators, and Bryant-Denny Stadium exploded when Brown caught a quick slant from Brodie Croyle, turned up field, and ran to pay dirt. Much the same occurred against Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, when he turned a short pass from Croyle into a 76-yard touchdown play from which the Red Raiders never seemed to recover.

Replacements: Darius Hanks, Julio Jones

Hanks turned heads all fall on the scout team and all spring in the revamped wide-out rotation. He made four catches for 102 yards and a TD at A-Day, and is one of the few receivers who is a threat to "take it to the house" on any given catch. Hanks was a co-recipient of the Ozzie Newsome Most Improved Freshman Award presented after spring practice.

Coach Nick Saban publicly says the media shouldn't put this type pressure on true freshmen. And maybe he's right. But the 6-foot-4 Julio Jones from Foley has already achieved cult status in Tuscaloosa and much of America. He's already known just by his first name, and "Julio" will be counted on early and often in the 2008 offense of new Offensive Coordinator Jim McElwain.

In his junior and senior seasons combined at Foley, Jones – err, "Julio" – caught 126 passes. He gained 2,487 yards and scored 32 times. While those numbers aren't likely to transfer to his first two college seasons (this is not Texas Tech), Jones will play. A lot. Against Clemson. It's not a stretch. He can stretch for passes, though.

Playmaker: Wallace Gilberry

Wallace Gilberry was a guy who got the most of the ability the Lord gave him. He is now trying to showcase those skills for the NFL's Giants, where he will team with Hall if both make the team. Gilberry was known as one of the SEC's top pass-rushers, and those skills will be both missed and hard to replace. Last year, Gilberry got through double-teams for a staggering 10 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries. How the heck do you replace that? One person probably won't be able to.

Replacements: Bobby Greenwood and Alfred McCullough

Yep, two people, both of whom will get lots of snaps. Greenwood is a proven veteran heading into his senior season. The 6-foot-5 former Prattville star only had one sack and a hurry in 2007, but had three sacks when he made the 2005 coaches Freshman All-SEC team.

Most thought McCullough would land at nose guard, and for a while, he did. A late spring move to end paid big dividends. The 6-2, 317-pounder had six tackles, two pass break-ups and a sack en route to being named the Dwight Stephenson Most Valuable Lineman at A-Day. It was no fluke, as McCullough showed a week before in a closed scrimmage, where he tallied five tackles, a sack, and a quarterback hurry.

Between the two of them, Greenwood and McCullough should be able to help offset Gilberry's departure.

So there you have it—three playmakers gone, and five who will try to replace them. Certainly other names can emerge at the above positions, and they will. Burton Scott and Marquis Maze both stand a good shot at cracking the receiver rotation, for example. Those two could also be huge factors on kick returns along with Javier Arenas. Jonathan Lowe's slot alongside Arenas deep on kick-offs is one that will scrutinized heavily by Coordinator Bobby Williams when he makes out the final depth chart for the Clemson game.

There is a football philosophy, perhaps true, perhaps not: Great teams don't rebuild. They reload.

In any event, Alabama is not back to "great" status. But if the above-mentioned names, and a few more (such as linebacker) are able to step in and contribute, the Tide could take major steps toward a return to greatness in 2008.

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