Coming from an NFL background, Mike Shula is still learning the college game. So far the Tide has played relatively few players overall, especially at the key defensive line slots.
“There are still some guys that haven’t played that we want to get in there,” Shula acknowledged. “We want to find out more about them to find out really how much depth we do have.”
Four different players have seen action at both defensive end and defensive tackle. Those playing include Antwan Odom, Nautyn McKay-Loescher, Mark Anderson and Leslie Williams at end and Anthony Bryant, Ahmad Childress, Jeremy Clark and Taylor Britt at tackle. But Williams and Britt have played only sparingly, placing a burden on the frontline athletes. Clark had to leave Saturday’s game with a sprained ankle, and by the fourth quarter Bama’s D-Linemen were frankly tired.
“We’ve tried to (play more athletes) each week but probably don’t do a good enough job,” Shula said. “We’ve been in some tight games.”
Injuries have a way of forcing a staff’s hand on the question. Several Tide backups saw extensive action against Kentucky, filling in for injured starters.
Shula commented, “A good example was (Saturday) when Atlas Herrion, Danny Martz and Le’Ron McClain stepped up---and (fullback) Josh Smith when Le’Ron came out. Guys that maybe have not gotten a lot of attention as prime-time players, but they have a role and did their role when they were asked to do it.”
When McClain hobbled to the sideline with a jammed big toe, walk-on Josh Smith became Bama’s best option at fullback. Starter Tim Castille is still rehabbing a hyper-extended knee. “We think both will be ready to suit up,” Shula said of his two injured fullbacks. “We didn’t feel that good about Castille (last) week. After Tuesday’s practice we’ll have a better feel. McClain had an injury, but none of the injuries are breaks or anything like that. They’re just nagging injuries. We’ll find our more on Tuesday.”
Castille is rehabbing a hyper-extended knee.
Castille spent the Kentucky game watching from the sidelines in street clothes. In his absence, McClain performed well. “Le’Ron did a nice job,” Shula said. “There were actually a couple of times when we thought he had some mental errors, but he actually was being a football player and doing some nice things. He’s picked the offense up very well. He’s had a good understanding from the start.”
At tailback, starter Shaud Williams had his best game of the year, earning SEC Player of the Week honors for his effort. But even the best running backs need backups. Shula commented, “Everybody knows how we feel about Shaud, but to have Kenneth Darby come in and make some runs, it’s a nice change of pace. It gives Shaud a breather.”
Darby carried the ball just eight times, but gained 62 yards (7.8 yards per carry). “Kenneth is explosive,” Shula said. “The way he’s built makes him hard to bring down. He’s compact, so it’s hard for defenders to get hold of him. If they try to go low, he’s got good leg strength. If they try to hit him high, he’ just doesn’t have a lot to grab onto, because he’s put together so well.”
Williams is the star. But at only 5-8, 191 pounds, backups are needed to keep him fresh. Shula explained, “We need to get Kenneth in there more as well as Ray Hudson, who did a nice job. It’s tough. All those guys want to carry the ball. We’ve had about as many carries (Saturday) as I’ve been around in awhile. Hopefully we’ll continue to run the football.
With Kenneth Darby (#34, right), Shaud Williams (#21, middle) and Ray Hudson (#27), the Tide has good depth at halfback.
“We tell our guys, ‘When you have a chance to get in there, go make a play. Make sure you know what you’re doing, protect the ball and let your running ability take over.’”
Bama’s offensive line was also hit by injury. All-America guard Justin Smiley was held out of Saturday’s game with a sprained foot. Shula commented, “Talking to our doctors and trainers, there’s no guarantee that he’s going to play next week, but the rest that he had and he’s getting... We’ll watch and see how he does. We’re obviously going to give him every opportunity to play, he’s a good player. But we’re not sure how much he’s going to practice this week. We’ll probably make the decision at game time.”
In Smiley’s absence, senior Atlas Herrion handled left guard. “Atlas did a nice job stepping in,” Shula said. “We feel like he’s probably the next best lineman that we’ve got. He can play a lot of positions. He did a nice job filling in for Justin. With guys like Atlas Herrion and Danny Martz that we feel good about coming in without missing a beat, that gave us reason not to play Justin.”
No injury was involved, but on special teams Kyle Robinson stepped in to handle kickoffs after Jeff Aul kicked off first. “We worked both guys during the week,” Shula said. “Kyle had a nice week kicking off. We wanted to give him a shot. We like both those guys. It’s good to have competition at every position. That’s one of them. As coaches we’ll hopefully benefit.”
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