There was one noticeable difference when the University of Alabama released its official depth chart for Saturday's season opener against Hawai'i on Tuesday. Compared to the last few years, the Crimson Tide's most recent two-deep is actually made up of, well, fairly legitimate depth.
And because of that, there were several questions awaiting Mike Shula when he stepped to the podium inside the Naylor Stone Media Suite for the first time this season.
While certainly not a surprise, the biggest change occurred at the offensive tackle positions, where true freshman Andre Smith is listed as the starter on the left side. Last year's starter, Chris Capps, now sits atop the depth chart at right tackle, while Kyle Tatum, a senior who has started 24 consecutive games on the right side, is listed as Capps' backup.
About a week into fall camp, it was obvious to practice observers that Smith was being prepared to take over at left tackle. The nation's top offensive line recruit for the class of 2006 by Rivals.com, Smith quickly established himself as the Tide's top pass protector at tackle.
"He's done a lot of good things, but he's untested as we all know," Shula said of Smith, who will become the first true freshman to start at tackle for UA since Dante Ellington in 1999. "Mentally, it's still new to him but coach [Bob Connelly] has done a great job with him so hopefully he's got a good handle on what he's doing. Young guys are going to make mistakes, but they're also going to make some plays.
"He wouldn't be there if we didn't feel like we could win with him."
In going against UH defensive end Ikaika Alama-Francis -- who led the Warriors in sacks with 7.5 a season ago -- Smith will be put to the test in his debut.
Based on Shula's comments, though, all three tackles will see time against Hawai'i.
"We think we've got three good ones in Andre, Chris and Kyle," Shula said. "We think all three are going to play. We've gotten some guys in here who have helped our football team and created some competition.
"I think [Capps and Tatum] are very similar and they've done a good job for us. Hopefully they'll be better this year than they were last year because of the experience.
"Chris can play left tackle, too. He's taken all those reps over on the right side, so we think he's ready to go."
Elsewhere on the offensive line, Justin Britt turned in a wire-to-wire fall camp performance as the starter at left guard. Despite spending the last two seasons in the defensive tackle rotation, Britt's ascent to the top of the depth chart didn't come as a surprise to his head coach.
"I think we had a good feel about Justin when we made the move [during spring drills]," Shula said. "Unfortunately he wasn't able to practice during spring ball. He's still got to get better, but we feel like he is one of our top 11. He's kind of like those younger guys because it's still new to him. We'll find out a lot more about him and how he reacts to another opponent this week."
B.J. Stabler has missed significant practice time of late while dealing with a nagging left knee, but he's still slated to start opposite Britt at right guard. Marlon Davis appeared to be on his way to backing up both Britt and Stabler, but he's been sidelined by an ankle injury since the final week of fall camp. With Stabler and Davis both out, Mike Johnson has made strides while seeing time with the starters. Now it appears as if Johnson might be first off the bench.
"I think three or four weeks ago I would have said Marlon [would have been the swing guard]," Shula said. "Marlon's been beat up and Mike has gotten a lot of quality reps. One of the positives that came out of training camp is that we found out more about [Johnson] and he's gotten better."
According to Shula, both Stabler and Davis were expected to practice Tuesday.
While it's a given that Kenneth Darby will get most of the carries at halfback, Shula was asked to comment on just how far down the depth chart he might be willing to go at the position.
"It's probably hard to get more than three backs a lot of carries," Shula said. "If you look at what we did with Shaud [Williams in 2003], he was the lead guy but others definitely contributed and I can see that being the case right now. I think that can change weekly and also in the course of the game. If one of them is hot we're going to stick with him."
Heading into the opener, Jimmy Johns and Roy Upchurch are listed in order behind Darby.
Of course, most of the focus Saturday night will be on quarterback John Parker Wilson. There's been questions about the sophomore's ability to step in and handle all that comes with the job, but Shula thinks Wilson is well-equipped from both a mental and physical standpoint.
"All the signs as you evaluate a quarterback lead you to believe that he's a guy we can win with," Shula said of Wilson. "Now he's got to go out there and do it.
"I think he got a little taste of it [last season]. You can talk to him about it in that regard and relate some past experiences and how Brodie [Croyle] handled it. The biggest thing for all quarterbacks, especially young ones, is that you don't have to think you have to win the game by yourself."
Defensively, there was one position change of note. After spending his first year on campus at defensive end, redshirt freshman Brandon Deaderick is now listed as the top backup to Jeremy Clark at left defensive tackle. With several of the key cogs in the nation's top-rated pass offense from a season set to make their way to Tuscaloosa, the hope is that backups like Deaderick will be able to provide some heat on UH quarterback Colt Brennan.
"Brandon Deaderick and [defensive end Ezekial Knight] are guys we've got to find out about," Shula said.
Perhaps the biggest surprise defensively was the presence of [db]Marquis Johnson as the top backup to Ramzee Robinson at left cornerback.
"Between [Johnson], Lionel Mitchell, Chris Rogers and Eric Gray, they're all right there together," Shula said.
On special teams, there were some discrepancies on the depth chart that was released today.
Wide receiver DJ Hall is listed as the Tide's top kickoff return man, but special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer said that true freshmen Javier Arenas and Terry Grant will be paired back deep. Also, while Arenas is listed as the top punt returner, Ungerer said cornerback Simeon Castille will handle the job at the start of the Hawai'i game. Ungerer did add that Arenas will get his chance on punt returns Saturday.
As for placekicker Jamie Christensen (groin strain), Shula said he'll have a better feel for Christensen's availability for the opener after Tuesday's practice.
"I thin today will be a good test for him. He kicked lightly on Sunday. We'll prepare him to get ready for Saturday night. If he can't go Leigh Tiffin will be our kicker. He's shown us some good things and he's improved as he's been here through training camp.
According to Ungerer, Christensen was able to go back as far as 30 yards on field goals during Sunday's workout.
*When asked which true freshmen might see the field against Hawai'i, Shula listed offensive tackle Smith, cornerback Johnson, return men Arenas and Grant, wide receivers Mike McCoy and Earl Alexander and safeties Justin Woodall and Sam Burnthall as possibilities. Although it's highly unlikely he'll actually play, Shula said quarterback Greg McElroy would be dressed and "available" this week.
*Although Shula wasn't sure of an exact total, look for a large number of Tide players to be in uniform Saturday night. "It's a home game and it's non-conference so we usually try to dress all the guys who have been with us [in fall camp]," Shula said.
*Shula considers middle linebackers Matt Collins and Prince Hall to be co-starters and said both will play against Hawai'i.
*Think the UH media relations staff is used to a wide-open, passing offense? Hawai'i's version of Saturday's depth chart shows Alabama's offense in a three-wide receiver set with no fullback.
*The Hawai'i media was represented at UA Tuesday as a crew from the Honolulu CBS affiliate toured Bryant-Denny Stadium and participated in the press conference.
*Here are a couple of Kines-isms from today's press conference:
On going against UH's run-and-shoot offense: "It's like playing basketball on grass."
On the chances of junior weakside linebacker Marcel Stamps seeing time on defense Saturday night: "I think when he leaves the field Saturday his uniform is liable to be dirty."
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