(Above left) First a late start due to qualifying problems and then an injured toe have kept Le'Ron McClain from realizing his potential this year. But from the limited snaps he's taken on offense, it's clear that McClain is Bama's most talented fullback on the squad--probably the Tide's only SEC-caliber athlete at the position. He's officially credited with two catches for 35 yards and one carry for one yard.
Jeremy Clark (#99) leads the defensive swarm to the football versus Oklahoma. When healthy, Clark is definitely one of Bama's top three defensive tackles. The redshirt freshman has played in six of Bama's eight games, totaling 14 tackles and one sack. He's also forced one fumble. Against Ole Miss last week Clark was probably Bama's most effective defensive interior lineman. (Barry Fikes photo)
He's a junior, but this is Bo Freelend's first season on the varsity. Three weeks ago, Tide fans were calling on the coaches to bench Freelend. Given his struggles, the reasoning was that anyone could do a better job. But Bama's coaches stuck with the big junior, knowing that no other Tide punter could match Freelend's leg strength. Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer put together a "lowlight tape" of Freelend's game-day punts. Together he and Freelend analyzed the problem in the film room, then player and coach worked together after practices eliminating extra motion and working on Freelend's consistency. The extra work obviously paid off. Two weeks ago Freelend's 45.8 per punt average helped defeat Southern Miss. Freelend's 52.4 yard punting average Saturday against Ole Miss tied the single-game mark held by Greg Gantt vs. Miss. State (5 for 264 yards) in 1971 and Chris Mohr vs. Auburn (5 for 264 yards) in 1986.
New Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer will be the first person to admit that he's still got a LOT of work to do. Bama's extra point protection is bad, its punt coverage last week was below average, and the Tide has yet to mount a genuine threat in the kick-return game. But overall Bama's coverage teams are significantly improved, and for the first time in years the Tide has produced several big block plays in the kicking game. As much as any coach on the squad, the paucity of pre-season practice time has limited Ungerer. But clearly the promise is there for even better things next year.
A backup linebacker last year, this is sophomore Mark Anderson's first college season at defensive end. He thinks he's another off-season away from playing effectively in the SEC. His reasoning is that he needs another 10-15 pounds of muscle to hold his own on the defensive line, but so far this season he's done well. He's been used as the third man in Bama's defensive end rotation, but more than a few Tide fans think he deserves to start. Anderson has played in all eight Bama games, totaling 23 tackles, three sacks and two quarterback hurries.
Redshirt freshman Juwan Garth was frustrated earlier this season. He was playing hard, running all over the field, but he had little to show for his effort. Like most newcomers he had to adjust to playing in the SEC. But since relieving an injured Derrick Pope a couple of games back, Garth has really come into his own. Playing most of the season as a reserve, Garth is seventh on the squad in tackles with 42. He's broken up two passes, recovered two fumbles, garnered one sack and three quarterback hurries. Hopefully senior linebackers Cornelius Wortham and Brooks Daniels will both return next season, but there's certainly no guarantee that Garth will easily give up the position.
Like McClain, redshirt freshman Kenneth Darby's season will probably end as a "what might have been" year. First bruised ribs kept him out for several games. Then last week he separated a shoulder at the end of a scintillating 41-yard run. In too-brief action this year, Darby has shown a combination of speed and power that make him a potentially dangerous running back. If the injury finishes his season (which is a distinct possibility), then Darby will end with 144 yards on 21 carries. His 6.9 yards per run average leads the team.
NOTE: This photo report obviously doesn't include all the newcomers that have contributed so far this year. Players like Tyrone Prothro, Dominic Lee and Terrence Jones have really not yet been given an opportunity to show what they can do.
Quarterback Brandon Avalos may not sport impressive stats, but he's undefeated as a starting QB.
Veteran players Josh Smith (fullback), David Scott (cornerback) and Matt Lomax (center) probably couldn't be listed as "newcomers," but before this season none of them had really been given a chance to compete at their present position. They're neither stars nor starters, but all three have performed ably when given the chance.
On the decision to feature Coach Ungerer and no other coaches, that one was based on a single criterion. It's been a tough year for the Tide, and certain aspects of the kicking game are really the only specific spots on the team that arguably have performed better this year than last.