Interviews are all the rage in the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere, as evidenced by Eagle in Atlanta's sit-down with Bob Ryan (including a second installment in which Ryan is condescending and closed-minded towards bloggers), Burnt Orange Nation's conversation with Ivan Maisel, and Orson Swindle's exchange with Paul Finebaum.
R.B.R. is (as the name implies) a Crimson Tide weblog operated by Nico of Eccentric Southern Gentleman fame. My questions and Nico's answers are posted below; the inquiries he posed to me, along with my responses, may be found at Roll Bama Roll.
Roll Bama Roll: The most effective move will be Ezekial Knight switching to defensive end from wide receiver. This is significant because Mike Shula nor offensive coordinator Dave Rader will be tempted to call Knight's number on crucial third downs. I'm half-joking, half-serious when I say that. I'm sure Zeke is a super nice fellow, but I saw him drop too many passes in crucial situations last year to be totally comfortable with him continuing in that position. Our receiving corps was really young last year (even more so after Tyrone Prothro's injury) and we didn't have many options outside of DJ Hall and Keith Brown.
Anyway, my 100% serious answer is that I don't think any of them will really have much impact either way. Almost all of them except for Zach Schreiber were at the bottom of the depth chart in their new positions after spring practice. Schreiber is currently second on the depth chart so I imagine he'll see more action this fall than any of the others listed.
Dawg Sports: In addition to the personnel changes, there were two changes on the coaching staff, as well. Rocky Colburn left his position with the Atlanta Falcons to become his alma mater's strength and conditioning coach and David Turner was brought in from Vanderbilt to coach defensive ends. Does it bother you that the Red Elephants are trying to restore their winning tradition by recruiting coaches from a perennial S.E.C. doormat and the worst franchise in professional sports? Seriously, what impact will Coach Colburn and Coach Turner have on Alabama's 2006 fortunes?
Roll Bama Roll: On paper, getting personnel from Vanderbilt and the Atlanta Falcons is bothersome, but in reality, I'm not sure it's that significant given what they're doing.
Regarding strength and conditioning coach Rocky Colburn, I'm actually excited about the change. The last few years have seen a plague of injuries at Alabama. I don't recall other top SEC programs experiencing as many injuries as Alabama recently. While some of them are little more than bad luck and freak occurrence, some are likely attributable to overall fitness. I personally don't know how to evaluate a strength and conditioning coach, but hopefully the change will bring better fortunes to the team.
As far as Turner goes, I'm typically quite comfortable with whatever decisions are made regarding our defense. Defense is one of the things Alabama football is known for and I have faith that defensive coordinator Joe Kines can see something in a Vandy coach that he thinks will translate to success for the Crimson Tide. Additionally, Kines is known to be a perfectionist and a great general on the defensive front. If Turner is somehow found lacking, I think Kines will be able to compensate for it. The overwhelming majority of the time I question the Tide coaching staff's decision about something, it's over things on the offensive side of the ball.
Dawg Sports: While the Crimson Tide were stellar defensively in 2005, Alabama's weakness clearly was on offense. With Brodie Croyle gone, Kenneth Darby rehabilitating his knee due to tendonitis, and Tyrone Prothro recovering from what may yet prove to be a career-ending injury, can 'Bama be better offensively in 2006?
Roll Bama Roll: That is certainly the question on every Bama fan's mind heading into the fall. I think it can be better, yet I also (incredibly) think it could be worse. John Parker Wilson showed well in his very limited playing time in '05. He was 7 of 11 for 98 yards and 2 TDs. If you can believe it, he's never made a handoff in a game. He's either passed or kept the ball himself every snap he's taken (and has a rushing TD.) He showed promise in the spring game, but threw too many picks. That's an area of concern, but something that'll likely improve with more playing time. Perhaps it was one of those things he is "supposed to say," but it's encouraging that Brodie Croyle said he thinks JPW will be one of the best QBs to ever play at Alabama. I'm just hoping he learns as quickly as Brandon Cox did at Auburn.
I think Darby will be fine in the fall. He returned from sports hernia surgery last year to rush for 1,242 yards. He's a tough guy. Even if he isn't at 100%, I feel good about our group of running backs. Young guys like Jimmy Johns and Glen Coffee showed a lot of promise last year. Running the ball is one thing Alabama's seldom had a problem with so I'm not particularly worried about that.
Pass protection is our big question mark. Last year's offensive line gave up a humiliating 11 sacks to Auburn (as well as 5 each to LSU and Tennessee.) Some of that can be attributed to a late season injury to starting center JB Closner and the desperate scramble to find a competent replacement. It should be noted that Alabama didn't give up a single sack against Texas Tech, so there's a glimmer of hope in that department.
So, to briefly answer your question, I don't think Alabama will produce USC-level offensive fireworks, but I have hope that things will ultimately get better game-by-game this year instead of regressing with each contest.
Dawg Sports: Paul Finebaum has been highly critical of S.E.C. squads for supposedly weak scheduling, despite the fact that a number of conference teams will be playing tough non-conference games next fall (Georgia-Colorado, Tennessee-California, Vanderbilt-Michigan, Arkansas-Southern California, Auburn-Washington State, L.S.U.-Arizona, Mississippi State-West Virginia, Ole Miss-Missouri). Alabama, on the other hand, plays eight home games, only one of which (Auburn) is apt to prove challenging, and the Tide's out-of-conference slate consists of Hawaii, Louisiana-Monroe, Duke, and Florida International. Does 'Bama deserve the grief Finebaum is giving the Tide or is the school's scheduling justifiable?
Roll Bama Roll: If there's anything I've learned from growing up in Birmingham, it's that Paul Finebaum knows how to push buttons. He particularly enjoys pushing the Alabama fans' buttons given the fact that Alabama, a traditional power, has fallen on hard times recently.
I'm certainly not thrilled with this year's out of conference scheduling, but Alabama has had quality OOC opponents recently with UCLA and Oklahoma and there are other great match-ups on the horizon (Florida State, Penn State, Georgia Tech), so you've got to figure that some seasons are just going to plain suck in that regard. At least they didn't dip into the I-AA barrel.
I think the OOC scheduling is somewhat justified by circumstances in that two of the teams were recent decisions. Duke was the 12th game scheduled and I'm glad they took on a lower tier BCS conference team than going I-AA to fill the 12th spot like so many schools did. Perennial opponent Southern Miss (who typically goes to a bowl game) decided not to renew our contract and it left the school in a position to have to find someone to plug into the schedule in the short term. It's typically difficult to schedule a really quality opponent on short notice, so I'm not terribly upset by what happened in filling the Southern Miss slot. Then the customary cupcake was scheduled (as is typical for everyone), and the Hawaii game was scheduled several years ago after our two trips out there. Hawaii was going to bowl games fairly frequently when that game was scheduled so it can't be held against Alabama that the Warriors tanked last year.
So yeah, it doesn't look so hot on paper, but there are reasons why it went down the way it did. Additionally, everyone knew there'd be a new QB in charge this year, so why throw him under a bus early in the season against a team like West Virginia or Southern Cal? Give him a year to build some confidence and let him take on FSU in '07.
Dawg Sports: During his first year on the job, Mike Shula looked like he was in over his head. At times, the camera would show him on the sidelines and the viewer's first reaction would be, "Hey, look . . . former 'Bama Q.B. Mike Shula made it back for the game!" before the realization dawned that he was the head coach. However, it increasingly appears to be the case that he was thrown into a bad situation at the last minute and, now that he has had time to find his feet, Coach Shula has righted the ship. Nevertheless, he is 0-3 against Auburn and, if the Tigers win the 2006 Iron Bowl, the Tide will have lost five straight to their in-state rivals for the first time since 1958, the Bear's first year back in Tuscaloosa. How long can Mike Shula survive if he continues to lose to Auburn? At what point does he become Alabama's John Cooper, the coach who wins consistently but cannot beat his most important rival?
Roll Bama Roll: I do not know of a single Alabama fan that holds anything against Mike Shula for his 4-7 season in 2003. He walked into one of the highest pressure coaching jobs in college football under the worst circumstances imaginable. (The only situation I can think of that would be worse was taking over at SMU the first year back after the death penalty.) Shula didn't get to go through spring training with his team and was put in charge of a group of young men who had been lied to by Dennis Franchione and embarrassed by Mike Price. Pile crippling sanctions on top of that and what could we really expect? For what it's worth, 2003 didn't even happen in the minds of most Bama fans.
2004 saw him get his bearings a little better, though too many close game were lost. Injuries struck hard in '04 and the sanctions' power reared their ugly head when a shallow bench had to compensate for significant losses. '04 was frustrating, but somewhat understandable. One important thing happened in '04 though: Shula blew up at a referee. He was considered bland and personality-less and then he just lost it with a ref. That got a huge roar of approval from the crowd and was a sign that he finally looked comfortable in a head coach's shoes.
In 2005, we saw a team that could win close games and even win games they probably shouldn't win. That's the sign of a good team. People always point to the Prothro injury as the season killer for Alabama, but they continued to win after he went down. To me, the true season killer was the loss of center JB Closner. After Closner broke his leg, we lost our next two games when the line completely fell apart. The loss to LSU was heartbreaking because it came in overtime at home and ended the perfect season. The loss to Auburn was...I don't even have words for it (thank goodness LSU won the west though!)
If Auburn wins in '06, that'll be five in a row ("fear the thumb" as they say.) I think a loss to Auburn in '06 will really put him on the hot seat and heaven forbid he were to lose again in '07, I think he's gone. No coach at Alabama can survive five straight losses to Auburn. Alabama can easily buy out any contract it writes and I don't think they'll stand for dropping six in a row to the Barn no matter what the circumstances are.
My thanks go out to Nico for taking the time to participate in this exercise and I hope the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide get the chance to square off in Atlanta next December.