A receiving corps that was a major cause of consternation to Head Coach Mike Shula and Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader this time a year ago due to a sheer lack of numbers and experience has become a group latent with talent and quality depth thus far in the spring of 2005.
That's because Shula scooped up every receiver he could find in last year's recruiting class and determined to get them on the field as soon as possible.
Alabama signed six receivers in 2004, four of whom are vying for playing time at the position this spring.
"I think this is the deepest group of receivers I have ever been around," Rader said. "There are some competitors in this group. It's fun coming to practice to work with these guys."
Senior quarterback Brodie Croyle agreed, saying, "It's a lot deeper. I feel comfortable going to guys like DJ Hall, Caddell, Prothro, Zeke Knight or Keith Brown at any point in time. I used to look around at who the best guy was and who had the best match up, but with these guys it isn't going to affect my decisions at all. I just concentrate on making the reads."
Knight has had a stellar off-season and spring practice to date. Though some eight inches taller and 50 pounds heavier, Knight's playmaking ability drew an odd comparison to Prothro from Shula, and Rader has used similar phraseology in talking about Knight this year and Prothro last year.
"We have to continue to find different ways to get him the ball. If we put it in his hands he makes a play," Rader said of Knight Thursday.
Will Oakley is one of the class-of-2004 receivers gaining a lot of attention in the spring after a star-crossed last season. Oakley battled a hamstring pull throughout 2004, and the Ponte Vedra, Fla. native also had to be hospitalized for five days with a stomach illness in the midst of the season. He showed great speed and hands in the first week of spring, consistently making difficult catches.
Oakley continues to battle the hamstring problems, however. On Thursday he came up limping on after running a deep fly pattern.
"Will was coming on nicely. Unfortunately today he goes on a route and just blew a tire, but he was one of the guys who didn't play a lot last year who was really coming on," Rader said.
Oakley is hoping injuries will not cause him to miss any practice time so that he can continue his push for playing time, but the extent of the latest setback will not be known until he tries to run a route full speed again.
"I'm getting good reps. There's a lot of competition for playing time at receiver so you have to do your best every day," Oakley said. "I feel really comfortable because I know all my stuff. I can concentrate on doing it rather than worrying about my alignment, split and the depth of my routes – that has all come more naturally this spring."
Rader added Marcus McKnight to the list of players competing hard for spots this spring, saying that he had "put together three good practices in a row." McKnight, a junior from Callahan Florida, played in three games in 2004 and had a catch against Western Carolina.
Depth is not to be confused with an abundance of experience, however, with five and a half combined years of experience in Bama's top five rotation . Matt Miller and Brandon Brooks are seniors, but have been seldom used at receiver spots through their careers. Miller is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship and two varsity letters mainly for special teams contributions, and standing at 5-4, Brooks was utilized as a kick returner until fumbling problems forced him out of that role last year.
Caddell and Prothro were both members of the 2003 recruiting class. Caddell redshirted in 2003 while Prothro played in his final six games as a true freshman catching 16 passes. Though still young, they are the veterans of the group.
Brown, Hall and Knight suited up as true freshman and were thrown into the fire quickly, playing as true freshmen last season. Brown and Hall caught 17 passes each, while Knight had 10 receptions. Knight had more of a blocking role, lining up mostly in the backfield next to the quarterback when Alabama used its shotgun formation.
Marcel Stamps and Nikita Stover are the other two receivers signed in the 2004 recruiting class. Stamps played on special teams last year and at receiver in a couple of plays, but has since moved to linebacker where he is challenging for a back-up role.
Stover was one of the top receiver prospects in the country, but academics forced him into the junior college ranks, He will likely be pursued by Division I schools again in 2006, and could add to Bama's rich crop of receivers.