Alabama's Hopes Rest On Croyle's Shoulders

HOOVER, Ala. -- Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle has been asked the question so many times this summer, it's getting hard to keep track.

The senior, who has struggled through two injury-plagued seasons, guessed that he has probably heard it 50 to 75 times a day.

Croyle said classmates, teammates, friends, family, media members and Alabama fans all want to know the same thing: How are you feeling?

"I feel better right now than I probably have since I was a junior in high school," Croyle confidently said during Southeastern Conference Media Days last week.

That's good news for Alabama fans, who understand the Crimson Tide's hopes lie squarely on the shoulders, knees and other body parts that belong to the oft-injured Rainbow City, Ala., native. There's no denying Alabama's disappointing 10-15 record the past two seasons has much to do with the health of its unquestioned leader.

"You don't like to use (injuries) as an excuse as a head coach or as a member of the football team," Alabama coach Mike Shula said last week. "But when your starting quarterback goes down, it's tough."

Alabama found out during a 3-0 start in which Croyle threw for 534 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2 1/2 games. But his season came to an abrupt end against Western Carolina when he tore a knee ligament with a 31-0 lead.

The Crimson Tide won just three of its final nine games to finish 6-6.

The good news is that Croyle, who separated his shoulder in 2003, said he has learned from the experiences. He'll do what he can to stay injury-free in hopes of leading Alabama to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 1999.

"Our goal is to win the SEC Championship," Croyle said. "It's well within our reach. I'm sure a lot of ya'll are saying, 'How does he expect to win the SEC championship after they went 6-6?' But everything that went wrong last year with our season, all the injuries, our whole group is like, 'Why not?'

"Auburn did it (in 2004). Why not us?"

If Croyle stays healthy, Alabama could have the pieces in place to make a push for the SEC Western Division championship.

For starters, nine players return to a stingy defense that finished second in the nation in total defense (245.5 yards a game) and kept Alabama in games. Defensive coordinator Joe Kines' no-nonsense unit held powerful opponents Tennessee, LSU and Auburn to an average of 21.3 points a game.

The bulk of Alabama's leaders are on defense, where seven of the returning starters are seniors. The best of the bunch are linebackers DeMeco Ryans (78 tackles) and Freddie Roach (57 tackles), and safeties Roman Harper (77 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Charlie Peprah (51 tackles, 1 interception).

"Our defense has been good and there is a lot of talent on that side of the ball this year," Harper said. "You can't really tell who is going to make a play and you have some guys out there wanting to make all the plays. We are a really tight group."

On offense, Croyle will have an exciting tailback, junior Kenneth Darby, to hand the ball to. Darby, who rushed for 1,062 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2004, underwent off-season hernia surgery, but should be close to 100 percent when practice begins.

The offensive line must replace its talented left side of tackle Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis. Right guard Danny Martz is gone as well. But center JB Closner returns to anchor a group that must mature on the field.

Croyle has a young and talented group of receivers to throw to. Pass catchers Tyrone Prothro, Matt Caddell, DJ Hall, Ezekial Knight, Keith Brown were forced to learn on the run in 2004. Prothro, a junior, is the veteran with 41 career catches.

"Those guys are night and day compared to last summer when I played with them," Croyle said. "They're bigger, they're stronger, they obviously know more about college football and our offense. They worked extremely hard all summer."

Alabama is hoping the hard work and experience will help it climb over a hurdle that has plagued the program under Shula.

The Crimson Tide is 0-9 in games decided by nine points or less the past two seasons. Three of those losses came last year, including close calls against SEC Eastern Division champion Tennessee (17-13) and SEC champion Auburn (21-13).

The lack of success has landed Shula's name on hot seat lists across the country. But the former Alabama quarterback said he expects that type of pressure in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and said his expectations for the 2005 season are high.

"I think we're close," Shula said. "But close is a dangerous word. Close can get you fired, too. Close can get you on the hot seat if you don't think you are on it.

"We were so close in some games, but have got to find a way to finish games the way we didn't do last year against some really good opponents."

Alabama is hoping a healthy Croyle will be the factor that gets it over the hump.

"It gets old. It gets annoying," Croyle said about his health being linked to Alabama's amount of success in 2005. "I obviously don't plan on getting hurt. But I can see where they would say, 'It all depends on his health,' because I've been hurt the last two years.

"But if I get hurt this year, I promise ya'll won't hear about it."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories