Alabama Crimson Tide
2006 Record: (6-7, 2-6)
Coach: Nick Saban (1st year at Alabama, 91-42-1 overall)
Starters Returning: 16 (9 offense, 5 defense, 2 specialists)
Offensive Starters Lost: RB Kenneth Darby, FB Le'Ron McClain
Offensive Starters Returning: QB John Parker Wilson, WR DJ Hall, WR Keith Brown, TE Travis McCall, OL Justin Britt, OL Antoine Caldwell, OL Andrew Smith, OL B.J. Stabler (G to T switch), OL Marlon Davis
Defensive Starters Lost: DT Jeremy Clark, DT Dominic Lee, LB Terrence Jones, LB Juwan Simpson, CB Ramzee Robinson, S Jeffrey Dukes
Defensive Starters Returning: DE Bobby Greenwood, DE Wallace Gilberry, LB Prince Hall, CB Simeon Castille, S Marcus Carter
Starting Specialists Lost: none
Starting Specialists Returning: K Jamie Christensen, P P.J. Fitzgerald
Alabama was a team devastated by NCAA penalties and a laughable coaching carousel over the last 5 years. However, they still managed to go to bowl games every year in which they were eligible within the punishment and have recruiting classes generally ranked in the top 20 during that time. In the 2006 regular season, they went 6-6 in what was supposed to be the year most hit by the sanctions. In addition, most observers concede that poor, if not terrible, coaching moves and decisions cost the Tide 3 more games (Arkansas, Miss State and Tennessee) and they had eventual National Champions, Florida, on the ropes well into their game in Gainesville. Even the loss to Auburn could and should have been avoided by a more experienced coaching staff, given that the Auburn victory was based on back to back QB fumbles-returned-for-TD's due to sacks from exactly the same position on the defensive line. Thus, what should have been a 10-2 team adds a more experienced offense mixed with a more talented defense and one of the best coaches in college football, Nick Saban. In other words, this is not going to be an easy game for the Cougars.
Offense The offense loses 2 starters from the backfield, and features an offensive line slightly juggled from last year. So, there are either 8 or 9 returning starters depending on which way you look at it. Also dependant on perspective is the question of how good an offense is returning. They did not score many points, being one of the least effective teams in the country inside the red zone. However, that was mainly because, once in the red zone, the previous coaching staff adopted a philosophy that made Woody Hayes look like Steve Spurrier. Between the 20's, Alabama moved the ball with ease. As the new offensive coordinator, Major Applewhite, was able to turn Rice into an offensive juggernaut in one year, the Alabama offense is likely be to tremendously potent. The base offense is likely to be the I, but expect to see 3 or even 4 receiver base sets a large percentage of the time. They describe themselves as "multiple."
The Quarterback position will remind Cougar fans of our one in 2005. John Parker Wilson has a year under his belt as a full-time starter – a year that was actually the most productive in the history of the school that produced Namath and Stabler! His youth was displayed by 10 interceptions and some unfortunate sacks, but he has a good arm, a good understanding of the system, and can also do damage with his feet. Should he go down before October 6th, his back-up is the completely untested Greg McElroy – last seen in Texas leading Southlake Carroll to the 2005 5A state championship!
Wilson's record year was matched by one of his Wide Receivers, D. J. Hall, who caught 62 balls for a Bama record 1,056 yards. Hall teamed with Keith Brown to be the most productive WR duo in the country for the first third of the 2006 season. Brown was then hobbled with a knee injury, but still caught 44 receptions for 590 yards. The third receiver will be Nikita Stover who came on strong towards the end of the season. Backing up these three are a number of talented newcomers and inconsistent but talented senior, Matt Cadell. The previous coaching staff did an excellent job recruiting at this position.
Another position at which previous coach, Mike Shula, recruited well but will be unable to reap the benefits was Offensive Line. Last year, this line consisted of a true freshman, a converted defensive tackle, a converted guard-to-center, a combo of two injured first-time sophomore starters at right guard and a right tackle who was clearly under-equipped for SEC play. This year, every player has a year under his belt, and there is great back-up talent. The two players to watch are super-sophomore LT Andre Smith, who was described as the best high school OL since Orlando Pace out of high school and junior C Antoine Caldwell, already on several preseason watch lists. LG Justin Britt is nasty and athletic – he has a bad habit of trying to attack the defense too early. The right side is probably be manned by last years duo for the guard position, Marlon Davis and B. J. Stabler – both strong, athletic players. Last year's weakness has quickly become a major strength. Adding to the blocking strengths, if not necessarily the receiving cadre, is TE Travis McCall.
The only offensive losses from 2006 are in the Running Back position, as TB Keith Darby and FB's LeRon McClain and Tim Castille finished their eligibility. However, there are several relatively untested but talented players ready to replace them. The starter will be RS-FR Terry Grant, a blazing speedster who would give Anthony Aldridge a run for his money. Coach Saban likes change-ups at this position, and the returning yardage leader from 2006, Jimmy Johns, provides that. If Grant is like "Quick," Johns more resembles Jackie Battle with his bruising running style. Glen Coffee, Roy Upchurch and early enrollee Jamar Taylor will all bring something to the table. Full back is likely to be a less crucial part of the offense under Saban, and even then, some of the time it will be replaced or augmented by an H-back position. Promising SO Baron Huber and FR Preston Dial are first up at these positions, although signee Jeramie Griffin will be see action quickly, should he be eligible.
Defense If Shula and his staff recruited well on offense, they failed dismally in the front seven on defense. A recurring theme throughout this report will be young and/or disappointing. However, Nick Saban is recognized as a defensive specialist(if not genius) and defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, is a much better coordinator than head coach, so there is no doubt that Bama will be as good as they can be on this side of the ball, given their talent level. The basic scheme is described as a 3-4 but is really a 3.5-3.5 as it features a hybrid LB/DE, the "Jack" position. The previous staff preferred the 4-3 defense as the primary set, so there is a certain amount of round-peg-in-square-hole adjusting going on in Tuscaloosa.
The primary indication of the lack of talent on the Defensive Line is that a converted RS-OL, Brian Motley, was easily the best DT on the field during Spring practice. Lorenzo Washington and Byron Walton are currently back-ups. This is a position at which an incoming freshman could quickly see playing time, although the most highly regarded recruit, Kerry Murphy, could well not be eligible. The starters at DE are set. SR Wallace Gilberry did better as a FR coming in on select downs than he has since as a 2-year starter, but much of that was probably due to the fact that he was the only lineman deemed worthy of double teams last year. JR Bobby Greenwood also had a fantastic freshman year, but his productivity halved in terms of per play numbers as a sophomore. Both however, are solid players. Behind them, all the options are untested young players, including Brandon Deaderick, Charlie Kirschman and converted former walk-on LB, Matt Collins. Expect to see a lot of Luther Davis, a blue-chip recruit that Saban "stole" from LSU within days of his arrival in Tuscaloosa.
The depth at Linebacker is untested and quite possibly scary for the Tide. The star-in-place is SO ILB (MLB) Prince Hall, who received Freshman All-America and SEC-Freshman of the Year acclaim last year. When he was in the right place, he played well but he was sometimes caught well out of position. The only other LB's with any significant playing time are under-sized SR warrior OLB Demarcus Waldrop (under 200 lb!!!) and walk-on ILB Darren Mustain. Untested but promising players include OLB's SR Zeke Knight (a converted WR) and Zach Schreiber, and ILB Charlie Higgenbotham. The hybrid Jack position is currently staffed by converted DE Keith Saunders, and backed up by SO Brandon Fanney. Heralded recruit Rolando McClain will be playing at one of the LB spots by the time the Cougars head east on October 6th.
The Defensive Backfield was well stocked by Shula. First-team SEC Simeon Castille has a lock on the LCB position. He has a penchant for the big plays (6 INT last year) and has developed into a sure tackler. He is the best defender on the field for the Tide. RCB is currently held by Lionel Mitchell (Stump Mitchell's son) who was a part-time starter last year and made 4 INT's. Eric Gray lost some ground due to an injury over the Spring, but will see action regardless. Marcus Carter returns to start at one safety position, but his play was somewhat inconsistent last season. Former walk-on Rashad Johnson showed his stuff on special teams and is currently listed as starter at the other position. Back-ups who could see playing time include converted TB Ali Sharrief (who showed his toughness in a well-publicized off-season fight,) Chris Rogers and Sam Burnthall. The two players most Tide fans want to see at safety might not make it. JC recruit Michael Ricks is likely to be ineligible and physical-freak-of-nature, Justin Woodall appears to be one of the "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane" players.
Special Teams was a source of frustration for the Tide last year. PK Jamie Christensen won three games in 2005 with last-second kicks, but was hobbled with a groin injury last year. Talented PK Leigh Tiffin (son of the famed Van Tiffin of Tide lore) replaced Christensen and started the 2006 season well, but had an all-time horrendous outing against Arkansas, in which he could have won the game on 4 different occasions with chip-shot FG's or an XP! Both return for 2007 in better form. SO P. J. Fitzgerald has the leg but must show more consistency. The bright spot on special teams last year for the Tide was PR Javier Arenas, who returned two for TD's in his Freshman year. RB Terry Grant and a variety of WR will also get looks at KR.
Outlook The Cougars have never beaten Alabama, being 0-9 against the Tide. However, many of those games were against Bear Bryant's phenomenal teams from the early 60's. Against common opponents over the last 2 years, Houston has fared better, including Oklahoma State last year (beat Alabama in the Independence Bowl by more than the score would indicate). However, Mike Shula has been replaced by Nick Saban and Kevin Kolb is playing in Philadelphia. On a positive note for the Cougars, we play the Tide after they have had a rough three-week stretch of Arkansas, Georgia and Florida State. We are also their homecoming game. So – emotionally – the Cougars should have the edge. However, while this game is listed with Oregon as being equally tough, a sold-out Oregon crowd is nothing compared to 92,000 rabid Alabama fans. If our young QB can settle down quickly and make some plays, this will be a good, close game as I think our offense can play with their defense. If, on the other hand, Saban out-schemes Coach Briles, it could be a long day for UH.