Former Option QB Finds His Niche
Though it may be difficult for some fans to understand, simply being an outstanding athlete is no guarantee that a player will start. Some players take a season or two to find their position, which appears to be the case with Thurman Ward. A star at both defensive back and quarterback in high school, Ward was one of the most highly touted members of the 2000 Alabama signing class. A dual-threat QB, the Starkville, Mississippi, native accumulated 1,074 yards passing and 924 yards rushing his senior year. He also had 25 touchdowns, 12 rushing and 13 via the pass.
But the previous coaching staff saw him as a cornerback, and that's where he spent his first two seasons at Alabama. After redshirting in 2000, Ward saw action on defense in every game last season. He finished the year with 10 tackles, two quarterback pressures, one pass break up, one forced fumble and a spectacular 60-yard touchdown return of an interception versus Arkansas.
But Franchione's staff finally decided that Ward's future was on offense, and he's been working there since last spring. Very fast and also elusive, Ward could have the greatest potential as a deep threat of any Tide receiver currently on the roster. But he's had to work hard on his consistency catching the football. Limited action this season has resulted in limited stats. He's played in eight of Bama's 11 games, totaling 26 offensive snaps. He's caught only one pass, but he has also been used twice on end-around pass plays. Neither time did Ward end up throwing the ball, once taking an 18-yard sack and the other time tucking the ball and running for 24 yards and a first down.
With a senior (Sam Collins) and two juniors (Dre Fulgham and Triandos Luke) making up Bama's "starting" receiving corps, fans are fixated on efforts to attract blue-chip receivers to Alabama. But if Ward continues to progress, he should definitely factor into the depth chart the next two years.
Walk-on Numbers Swell
Given the strictures imposed by the NCAA on Alabama scholarships, fans understand the importance of attracting quality athletes, willing to walk-on for a chance to play Crimson Tide football. Several players with very good potential joined the squad this past August.
A partial list of new walk-ons with a good chance of one day contributing would include Josh Woodard (PK), Dennis DuBois (FL), Jeff Aul (P), Zac Wakefield (FL), Trevis O'Neal (FB), Grant Nailen (CB), Kyle Robinson (PK), Cody Grammer (C), T.J. Shaddix (DT), J.P. Adams (DE), William Hold (WR), Jason Bolding (FL) and Jonathan Brunson (DE).
Normally, schools may have up to 85 players on scholarship at any one time. Sanctions limit Bama's total to 80. There is no mandated ceiling on squad size, but obviously there are only so many coaches to go around and keep everyone organized.
Last season Alabama's squad size hovered near 135 for most of the year. Invariably a few walk-on athletes leave the team during the season, but back in October Alabama's 2002 squad included 147 players, an increase of 12 from last season.
Also, an additional 30 or so walk-on players were asked to spend the fall semester in the weight room, lifting weights and conditioning. Those players will join the squad for spring drills.
Originally signed out of Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1999, Leslie Williams has been another good athlete in search of a position. Standing 6-5, his weight has never been higher than 220 pounds or so, which is a problem when you want to play defensive end. With the previous staff Williams bounced back and forth from D-End to linebacker, while also playing some on special teams.
He left the team and dropped out of school briefly, returning home to take care of a family matter. And when Leslie Williams rejoined the Alabama squad earlier this year, at the time many fans frankly wondered whether he was on scholarship or not.
Williams spent spring practice at wide receiver, but that experiment didn't work out, prompting some to wonder why Coach Franchione let him return on scholarship.
After all, sanctions made things tight, and what use was a 215-pound defensive end?
Good use, as it turns out.
Williams has been a fixture on Tide special teams this year, using his size and good speed to cover kicks. He's played in all 11 games so far, including defensive action versus North Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. The lanky athlete has seven tackles to his credit, the majority on special teams. He is also credited with two tackles for a loss. And of course his blocked punt versus Oklahoma was one of the key plays in that game.
"Find a way to help your team," is how Franchione puts it. And to his credit Williams has found several.