Tide's biggest question marks: green defense, new QB

By Staff
Justin Schuver, Hartselle Enquirer
Alabama head coach Mike Shula addressed the media July 26 at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, answering plenty of questions about replacing quarterback Brodie Croyle. Croyle, a four-year starter, recently signed a contract with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs and will be replaced by sophomore John Parker Wilson.
"I'm excited about him personally," Shula said of Wilson. "I think he's ready to be a leader on this football team."
In the spring A-Day game, Wilson threw two touchdowns and two interceptions with 244 yards on 21-of-31 passing. But he also had shaky performances in spring scrimmages and has attempted just 11 passes in his short NCAA career. Cause for concern, coach?
"Is (Wilson) going to make mistakes, probably," Shula said. "Any time you do something for the first time and you're out there, you're probably going to make a lot of mistakes. But he's also going to make a lot of plays."
Wilson, a product of Hoover High School, is considered stronger and more elusive than Croyle. Yet Shula has hopes that Wilson will not have to scramble as often behind an offensive line that returns nearly completely intact, losing only center J.B. Closner to graduation.
Also, senior running back Kenneth Darby will be asked to shoulder a large offensive load to help take some of the pressure off the young Wilson. Darby was one of the top rushers in the SEC last season, rushing for 1,242 yards and averaging 103.5 yards per game, ranking second in the conference in both categories.
A healthy Darby is paramount to Alabama's success this season, although Shula believes that the Tide is much deeper at that position this season. Players like sophomore Jimmy Johns and freshman Ray Upchurch are expected to spell Darby from time to time.
"Two years ago (Darby) probably ran the ball as much as any team I've been around," he said. "I'm not sure we'll see him carrying it that much just because of a couple of reasons. One, we feel like we have an ability to throw the football and we also feel like we've got some other guys behind him."
Wilson will also be helped by the return of Alabama's leading receivers from last season – D.J. Hall and Keith Brown. Shula refused to rule out the possibility that injured receiver Tyrone Prothro might return to the 2006 team, as well.
"We're still taking it day by day," he said. "We haven't made any official statement. The good news is that if he can't make it this year, we can redshirt him and get him back for next year."
Projected to add depth at the wide receiver position are Will Oakley, Matt Caddell and former Hartselle standout Nikita Stover.
Yet even if Wilson makes a smooth transition while replacing Croyle and even if Darby gives Alabama a threat in the rushing game, it might all be for naught if the Tide's young defense doesn't grow up in a hurry. Alabama is losing seven seniors from last year's defense that allowed an SEC-best 255.1 yards per game. The Tide will have to replace linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach and safeties Charlie Peprah and Roman Harper, among others. Ryans was also considered a vocal team leader for the 2005 squad and his intangibles will be hard to replace according to Shula.
"We don't have any (player like) DeMeco Ryans on this football team that we know of right now," Shula said. "There may be one that emerges."
The defense won't be completely green, however. Decatur High grad Juwan Simpson is a returning starter at linebacker and defensive end Wallace Gilberry had a solid season in 2005 as a sophomore and should help shore up this year's defensive line.
Yet the fact remains that the defense is a huge question mark for the Tide this season. Alabama allowed three or fewer points four times in 2005 and won its bowl game against Texas Tech primarily by holding the potent Red Raider offense to just 10 points. This season, Shula would not be surprised to see the offense have to take up some of the slack while the young Tide defense gets experience.
"Do we need to take off the pressure, not make our defense hold the opponent to a shut out of three points to win football games? Yes, we need to do that," he said.
But he's not going to let his defense completely off the hook, either.
"But our defense needs to do that for our offense, too," Shula said. "If we need to shut them out to three points so we can win the game, we need to do that."
Alabama 2006 schedule
Sept. 2 vs. Hawaii
Sept. 9 vs. Vanderbilt
Sept. 16 vs. Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 23 at Arkansas
Sept. 30 at Florida
Oct. 7 vs. Duke
Oct. 14 vs. Ole Miss
Oct. 21 at Tennessee
Oct. 28 vs. Florida International
Nov. 4 vs. Mississippi State
Nov. 11 at LSU
Nov. 18 vs. Auburn

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