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February 2, 2005

Signing Day 2005: Tide takes care of business

After watching the fax machine at the University of Alabama's football offices spit out 30 signed letters of intent throughout the course of the day, Mike Shula had plenty to talk about Wednesday afternoon.

And it wasn't just the quantity of recruits he and his staff harvested in their second recruiting class in Tuscaloosa that was worth talking about. It was more about the quality. By the end of the day, the Tide's signing class had earned a top 20 ranking from Rivals.com. Respectable enough, but a closer look reveals that Shula and his assistants effectively filled their most critical needs, which will ultimately create a more completive environment on the practice field.

"I think we addressed some needs," Shula said, "especially at the running back, the defensive line and the corner position. When I look down at this list of players and how they'll fit into our depth chart, the thing that jumps out at me is that we've created some real good competition. We saw that last year at the wide receiver position. We brought in some young guys who played and it also made our guys who were here on campus better football players."

Even in years when running back isn't an area of concern, it's one of a few positions -- along with quarterback and wide receiver -- that dominates headlines. For Alabama, adding depth to its backfield in this class wasn't about glitz and glamour. Instead, it was literally about securing help beyond starting halfback Kenneth Darby.

With that in mind, Alabama swung for the fences, and, in landing Ali Sharrief, Glen Coffee, Mike Ford and Roy Upchurch, the Tide hit a homerun.

"We all saw what happened at the end of last season when Ray (Hudson) got hurt and Kenneth Darby got hurt and Tim Castille got hurt and we were down to our fourth-string halfback with some of our biggest games of the year coming up," Shula said. "With Ray leaving and Ken and Tim coming back off of injuries, we thought we were going to have to sign some backs.

Shula believes each of the backs signed on Wednesday will bring a little something different to the table.

"They're all quality football players and each one of them has a different style," Shula said. "Ali Sharrief has been very productive at North Jackson. He's a fast guy with real good quickness. Glen Coffee has real good speed. You watch him on tape and he can get it into the end zone about anytime he carries it. Mike Ford shows real good quickness for being the biggest of the group. He runs very tough and lowers his shoulder and tries to run over guys at the end of runs. Roy Upchurch runs bigger than his size. He's probably about 195 pounds right now, but he looks bigger when he's running. He played in an inside running game and he looks like he gets faster as he moves through the line."

At quarterback, Shula's decision to sign three players at the position in this class caught some by surprise.

"I think they're three quality quarterbacks that we feel good about," Shula said. "Is it unusual (to sign three quarterbacks)? Yes, but we're not going to do that every year.

"Jimmy Johns, Jimmy Barnes and John Parker Wilson, from what I know of them, have very good leadership skills at that position."

As for Johns, there's been talk that the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder might eventually move to another position. Based on Shula's most recent comments, however, that doesn't appear to be the case.

"I think he's got a very strong arm and he's got very good accuracy," Shula said of Johns. "I think his football at quarterback is still out in front of him. On his highlight tape, they show him doing a little bit of everything. The more you learn about Jimmy the more you understand why he's been so successful. Number one, he's a very good leader and he's very well respected. He's very calm, and in high school he knew everybody was looking to him and he liked it. Those are the kind of guys you want at the position."

If there was one area where it was thought the Tide may have come up short on signing day it was at tight end as Charles Hoke was the lone high school senior to sign with Alabama. However, Shula confirmed what we previously believed to be the Tide's contigency plan at the position: Travis McCall, a versatile prospect, will start out at tight end instead of on the defense.

"We've actually got two tight ends (in this class)," he said. "We think we've got two of the best tight ends in the state with Travis McCall and Charles Hoke.

"Charles has played tight end and he's been split out a lot. Travis was very successful as a tight end last year as a true blocker. We think both of them can come in and compete with Trent Davidson, Nick Walker and Greg McLain."

On the defensive side of the ball, Alabama reeled in one its better defensive line classes in recent memory. Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Fanney re-signed after spending the fall at Hargrave Military Academy while Brandon Deaderick, Antonio Forbes and Bobby Greenwood ranked with the top end prospects in the South this time around.

"They're at a position where we think they can come in and play right away," Shula said. "They way we look at it, they've got to make up our minds for us. A couple of them -- Brandon Fanney and Lorenzo Washington -- are a year older and we hope they'll be better for it. We think it's going to be a good situation for us with all of the competition there."

And then there's Zach Schreiber, a pass rush specialist who could factor as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or as a situational end in a 4-3.

"We see him as a guy who is a rush end to start with," Shula said of the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Schreiber. "We played some four-man and three-man lines this season and that's something we'll continue to look at in the spring."

While Shula is a firm believer in taking care of his home turf first, having to go outside state lines this year may prove beneficial down the road.

"I'm not sure it will be like that every year," said Shula of the Tide's heavy emphasis on out-of-state prospects. "We had a little success early in getting a couple of commitments out of California. Our focus every year is going to be the state of Alabama first and then we'll stay pretty much stay (in the states) around us. I think it does help us to be able to go outside of this area and get some commitments."

In an era when coaching staffs come and go on a routine basis, the Tide was helped by something it hasn't had much since 1996: continuity on it's coaching staff. On top of that, Shula, who came to Alabama with zero recruiting experience, was able to lean on what he learned during his initial foray on the recruiting trail.

"I think there was more of a relaxed feeling for our staff," Shula said. "For me personally, I hadn't had anything to compare it to. This year, as far as the things we had to focus on, I had all of those things to compare it to. I think we were able to further relationships with coaches in the state and add new ones with coaches out of the state."

For the second straight year it appears as if the Tide will grayshirt approximately three prospects, an approach Shula says he will continue to look at in the future.

"Personally, I don't think you'd ever want to (grayshirt) more than three (signees)," Shula said, "but if it's a good fit for the student-athlete and a good fit for the school, I think it can be beneficial.

"I think both (offensive lineman Drew Davis and Wilson) really benefited from it. To me, those are good positions to do that with, but it also depends on each individual. In John Parker's case, he had been through his whole career in high school playing football and baseball and he never had time to give his body a rest. With some guys, their strength is still catching up with their size and I think that was the case with Drew."

Between now and August, Shula will continue to monitor the academic progress of each of his signees.

"We learned last year that they've got to finish up their high school careers strong," Shula said. "That's an important message for all of these guys. They've got to work hard to get themselves in position to come on board and play in front of 84,000 fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"You never know, but the things that make you feel good are guys like LeRon McLain and Ezekial Knight, who qualified right at the end and are now doing well in school."

With the 2005 class put to bed, the focus will soon shift to next year's crop and Shula already has a good idea of what his team's needs will be.

"When you look at it, we didn't sign a true fullback and we're a little light numbers-wise at linebacker," he said. "We may look to sign as many there as we did at running back this year."

As Shula can now attest to, the process never truly ends.


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