In all seriousness, Mike Shula said that when the Crimson Tide opened football practice last August, the coaches not knowing the names of all the players was just one of the obstacles. As the Tide prepared for the 2003 fall camp, Shula said, “We tried to lengthen out every single day. This year we can’t wait to get going. We’re excited about getting started working with our guys. And this year we won’t be wondering how the team did it the previous year.”
Shula, the sharpest dressed of 11 head coaches who addressed the media, was in crimson jacket and tie on the final day of the three-day event Thursday. Shula recounted the past few months, noting the loss of his first senior group in February, followed quickly by the first signing class by his staff and the beginning of an “intense” off-season program under new Strength and Conditioning Coach Kent Johnston.
Every day since then we have wanted our players to point to getting themselves as ready as they could for fall practice,” Shula said. He noted that Bama had an early spring practice “because we were so anxious to get back to football after last season’s record.” Alabama was 4-9 in 2003.
Shula said, “A lot of our players are now in summer school getting themselves ready for fall practice.” He also noted the new facilities in place and being put in place for the football team, including the weight room that opened in February, the new coaches offices, player meeting rooms, lockerroom, training room, and new field turf at Bryant-Denny Stadium, all either completed or to be completed by the time the team reports on August 9 to begin pre-season practice August 10.
Alabama opens the 2004 season hosting Utah State at 6 p.m. CDT Saturday, September 4.
He said, “Overall our guys have responded. They feel more comfortable in their schemes, The more you're around each other, the more comfortable you are. Now our players know what to expect from us. The comfort level everywhere is greater and hopefully you’ll see this fall the results of this group being around each other and being more comfortable with what they're asked to do."
He said, “We have eight returning starters on defense and six on offense, and we don't have a lot of seniors. That is exciting for our future."
Although Shula’s presentation was dominated by the depth chart, he talked about other issues.
In the past, Shula has speculated that newcomers would be a part of the 2004 team. Thursday he put a number on it. "here could be double digits, anywhere from 10-13 on the field," he said.
Alabama is bowl-eligible this year after two years of NCAA probation. Shula said, “People have talked about chance to be bowl eligible. We haven't talked about that a lot with our football team. We don't want them to think about December right now. It’s definitely a motivating factor for us, but I don’t won’t our team worrying about where they are going to a bowl now. All that will take care of itself if we take care of things starting August 9.”
Alabama returns 55 scholarshipped players from last year. The addition of 19 new scholarshipped players in August will boost the level to 74, nearly a dozen under the NCAA limit of 85.
Alabama’s schedule is generally considered to be easier than the 2003 slate. Shula said his experience in the NFL taught him that if “you are not at the top of your game, you have a chance to lose no matter who you’re playing. Last year was a great example of it, and I don’t anticipate it being any different for us. The opposing teams aren’t ranked as high, but every game our job’s on the line; we put our résumé out there and write our own signature.”
He added, “If we get a little momentum early, it could give us a little confidence which could help us at the end of the season.”
Shula made one change in his staff last year, hiring Kent Johnston–who had been Shula’s strength coach as a player at Alabama (“but don’t hold this body against him,” the coach joked) and worked with Shula at Tampa Bay in the NFL–as the new strength and conditioning coach in January. Shula said he had known for about a dozen years that if he was ever in a position to hire a strength coach, he wanted to hire Johnston. And, Shula said, “ Shula said, “He has done a real nice job for us, just getting the mindset of our football team to where it is. We always talk about mental toughness. And he has helped us get stronger and being position-specific and how we can get the most out of each player. That involves rehab too, along with our trainer, Rodney Brown.”
Shula was also asked about his decision to retain Joe Kines as defensive coordinator, rather than bringing in his own people. Shula said, “He is my people. He was my coach when I was here. We coached three years together at Tampa. I knew a lot about Joe Kines. It made me feel good when I took this job that he was here, Now that I’ve been around him another year, feel even better about Joe Kines and having him here as our assistant head coach and defensive coordinator. I feel lucky to have him."
This year’s media event was notable for the decision of Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer to skip the event (he did address the media by telephone). Although there has been no serious suggestion by any representative of Alabama or Tennessee that the rivalry be ended, others have broached the subject.
Shula said, “Personally, I think the Alabama-Tennessee game is what college football is all about, and what this conference is all about–some of the greatest rivalries in the country. It’s good football. You want to play your best against good football teams. I probably didn’t understand that when I came here as a player, but I learned in a hurry.”
As for Fulmer’s part in Alabama’s NCAA problems and his decision to skip the SEC event, Shula said, “We have enough things to be concerned with in Tuscaloosa, so we’ll try to keep our mind on that and not worry about anybody else's business."
There were no surprises in Shula’s rundown of a pre-season depth chart. He did say that three men who were held out of spring team contact work with injuries–quarterbacks Brodie Croyle and Spencer Pennington and offensive tackle Wesley Britt–are all 100 per cent physically. He said Pennington would battle transfer Marc Guillon for the back-up spot behind Croyle.
Shula said it will be important for Croyle to stay healthy and important for him to understand the importance of moving the chains. “He doesn’t have to complete every pass,” Shula said. “There’s nothing wrong with throwing it out of bounds or underneath. The big plays will come when you stay on the field, and you stay on the field by moving the chains. Even though he didn’t go through contact work in the spring, I think his understanding of that is much greater now.”
It particularly was no surprise that he said the “scariest” position is wide receiver, where the top four receivers from last year have graduated. He predicted some freshmen would play at wide receiver, and added “some might start.” Eligible freshmen wide receiver signees are Keith Brown, D.J. Hall, and Will Oakley.
(Speaking of graduation, Shula said that 11 of the 16 seniors on this year’s team either have graduated or will be graduated before the start of the season and that “several others” will complete degree work by December.)
Shula noted that soph Tyrone Prothro, who had 16 receptions last year, is the most experienced wide receiver returning from last fall. He also has hopes for redshirt freshman Matt Caddell to step up.
As for Antonio Carter returning after having missed two seasons with an injury, Shula said, “A.C. Carter has had as difficult an injury situation as any I have ever been around. He has been a leader for us even though he never dressed for a (2003) game. I hope he’ll be ready to go and be a leader for us on the field.” The coach noted that after such a long layoff that care must be taken in bringing a player back. “We’ll take our time with him,” Shula said.
Shula said the staff was aware of things such as last year Prothro touching the ball “maybe 18 or 20 times last year and seeing how few times the first guy brought him down. We have to be smart enough to figure out what our guys can and cannot do. We have a lot of new receivers coming in, and it will be something like last year in that we have to get a lot of guys ready for the first game who haven’t been exposed to our offense.”
Tight end is another position where injuries were heavy last year. Returning starter David Cavan and back-ups Clint Johnston and Greg McLain are all recovering. As for Cavan’s return, Shula said, “We feel he will be 100 per cent and ready to go. He and Wesley Britt are the guys that when they got hurt last year we missed the most. David is a real good run blocker, was hurt all last year with various injuries. We could see some freshmen at tight end, also." Two freshmen–Trent Davidson and Nick Walker–are listed as tight ends.
Shula said Ray Hudson is the number one halfback going into fall camp, but said Kenneth Darby and Tim Castille, last year’s starting fullback, are in the picture at halfback. Castille will be still be at fullback. When he ‘s in the game at halfback–expected to be in short yardage and goalline situations–LéRon McClain will be the fullback.
Shula said the offensive line had been “juggled a little bit” in the spring, with decisions made quickly. Kyle Tatum was moved from defensive tackle to right tackle on offense. Evan Mathis, a three-year starter at right tackle, went to left guard. Wesley Britt returns for his fourth season a starting left tackle, JB Closner for his second as starting center. Danny Martz, who took over as starting right guard in the final part of 2003, goes into 2004 as number one. As for Wesley Britt, who will start for the fourth consecutive year at left tackle, Shula said, “He’s one of our leaders, and he looks as good now as I’ve seen him since I’ve known him. He’s 100 per cent healthy. I look for big things from him.”
On defense, he said, “Anthony Bryant is our guy with the most experience at defensive tackle. He’s a guy who needs to have a great year. Jeremy Clark and Dominic Lee are guys we will count on to play the other defensive tackle position and we will look to add young guys in our rotation. We need to keep our guys fresh, and to do that we’ll have to find guys capable of playing winning football.”
Shula did not mention Bryant’s academic situation, an indication he is comfortable as Bryant completes the two summer school courses he must pass in order to complete his graduation requirements and, thus, be eligible.
At defensive end he expects Todd Bates, who missed last year, to start at left defensive end. Mark Anderson, who moved into a starting role towards the end of last season, is back at right defensive end.
Shula said linebacker is the area of most depth, and particularly noted the presence of two returning starters at middle linebacker. Freddie Roach started last season, while Cornelius Wortham–who missed last year with an injury–was number one at strongside linebacker in 2002. Wortham was moved to middle linebacker in the spring and Shula said that is the type competition Bama needs at every position. He said both Roach and Wortham are better for the experience.
DeMeco Ryans and Juwan Garth were the names Shula mentioned at outside linebacker spots.
The spring experiment of moving two-year starting left cornerback Charlie Peprah to strong safety was possible “because of Ramzee Robinson, the work he did in spring ball allowed us to move him to the corner position. Roman Harper returns as our starter at free safety and Anthony Madison returns at other corner spot." He added, “We signed four freshmen we think can play early.”
He said Peprah “still has some learning to do because we didn’t make the move until about halfway through spring practice.” He also said that Peprah’s cornerback experience would be helpful at strong safety in man coverage schemes.
Bama added two junior college transfers, both defensive players. Shula said, “We think both those guys, (safety) Jeffrey Dukes and (end) Chris Turner, have a chance to come in and contribute. We won't be afraid to play guys, whether or not they are true freshmen or new to our team, if they're the best guys."
On special teams, Shula noted the return of Brian Bostick as placekicker and Bo Freelend as punter. Although Bostick had some key misses last year and did not have a great A-Day Game in the spring, Shula said, “he has gotten better.” The coach said Bama’s search for a deep snapper would continue in fall camp.
Shula said he was pleased with some accomplishments of special teams last year, including blocking kicks and scoring touchdowns on returns and blocks. But, he said, kickoff coverage and punt coverage need to improve, and he thinks an infusion of speed from the incoming freshmen will help in that area.