Unusually for a team with a new starting quarterback and a six-year history, USF is the known commodity in Saturday’s match up with 12-time national champion Alabama. That’s the case because the Crimson Tide has had three coaches in the past year. Add in a host of NCAA sanctions and Alabama is definitely in unknown territory.
What is known is the Crimson Tide’s offense. New coach Mike Shula has weapons in sophomore quarterback Brodie Croyle and tailback Shaud Williams. Croyle enrolled with much fanfare a semester early in Jan. 2001. A SuperPrep All-American, he was thought to be in the running for the job, but ended up red-shirting in Dennis Franchione’s first season. Croyle burst on the scene as a freshman last year, playing in 12 games and making two starts. He started against two of the Tide’s toughest opponents, Southeastern Conference division champions Arkansas and Georgia. In the fourth game of his career, Croyle completed 50 percent of his passes (12-of-24) for 285 yards and two touchdowns against the Razorbacks. The next week, Croyle was 16-of-29 for 197 yards, a touchdown and an interception vs. the Sugar Bowl champion Bulldogs. The Crimson Tide defeated Arkansas 30-12 and came two points shy, 27-25, of knocking off Georgia.
Williams presents a different type of back from the bruisers one might expect from the Alabama tradition. A shifty 5-foot-8, 191 pounds, Williams is elusive and a threat to snare passes out of the backfield. Splitting time with Santonio Beard a year ago, Williams led the team with 921 yards and five touchdowns. Beard declared for the NFL draft, leaving Williams, a Doak Walker candidate and preseason All SEC selection, to bear the load by himself.
“Whatever is thrown at them, they can handle,” Shula said. “Brodie does a great job and Shaud, too. These guys make me feel good about my job.”
Shula has only had the job since May after Mike Price’s departure for improprieties, including a spending spree at a strip club. That leaves plenty of questions of how he’ll employ Croyle, Williams and the rest of the Tide offense. A former offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers, Shula was known for a simple philosophy that put him at odds with the Bay area fans. That however, he hinted could change at his alma mater.
“I was very proud of our team. We went to the NFC Championship with a rookie quarterback who started the year on the third team,” Shula said. “We had to utilize our personnel the best way possible. I feel very comfortable and confident here. We’re going to spread the wide receivers out, and with our offensive line, we can do a little of everything. Watching the tapes of spring practice, we can protect the passer and trap block in the running game. We’re going to spread the ball around and let our people do what they do best.”
Where Alabama won’t expect to be its best is in the defensive front seven. The team lost a trio of seniors on the defensive line and an illness has caused linebacker Brooks Daniels, a Butkus award candidate, to drop out of school. The team still has two linebackers in the running for that trophy in sophomore Freddie Roach and senior Cornelius Wortham. If the defensive lineman can adequately be replaced, the Tide may again approach the standards they set in 2002 when the team finished third in the country in total defense.