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September 2, 2010

Column: The beginning of the season brings out numerous emotions

It's cliché to say it's always darkest before the dawn, but for some reason it always seems to be true at the start of the college football season.

It's been 238 days, or 34 weeks, since the University of Alabama celebrated another championship at the Rose Bowl, yet the Crimson Tide is waiting, again, to find out the status of a player just like numerous other schools with pending eligibility issues.

Alfy Hill is already gone from the Capstone due to the NCAA Clearinghouse deciding after he had taken three summer classes at Alabama to reject one of his core courses in high school, rendering him academically unqualified.

As of Wednesday nether South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier nor North Carolina's Butch Davis knew how many players might have to be suspended for this weekend's games. While both had players involved in the same investigation as Marcell Dareus for allegedly attending a party thrown by an agent, they also had additional issues including living arrangements at a hotel and papers being written by a tutor.

Tuesday, mere days before the Ole Miss' opener, the NCAA declared Jeremiah Masoli ineligible. While Alabama fans were freaking out over running back Mark Ingram's minor knee injury that required surgery, the rest of the college football world was screaming foul, not so much because Houston Nutt's gamble didn't pay but because of the timing.

Meanwhile, Nick Saban's family was dealing with something else.

Nicole Francois, a sophomore majoring in public relations, died in a two-car accident on U.S. Highway 331, which loops around Opp and heads down toward the Panhandled beaches. The 19-year-old was going off the road, over-corrected and collided with another vehicle.

Fans will remember her from Saban's press conference when he was hired, sitting onstage alongside his daughter Kristen. The two close friends eventually enrolled together and joined Phi Mu sorority.

At some point Saturday, she'll be on the minds of nearly everyone at Bryant-Denny Stadium, which will unveil the new South End Zone expansion and kick off another season of Crimson Tide football. Ingram won't play against San Jose State, Dareus might not, but the game will go on.

Players like true freshman Arie Kouandijo will run out of the tunnel the first time and it'll be everything they expected and hoped for if not more. Sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower will take the field and every second of pain and effort coming back early from a horrible knee injury will be worth it. Sophomore safety Robert Lester will hear his name announced as a starter for the first time and despite probably being too busy going through pre-game drills to enjoy the moment will be beaming internally.

"I'm excited," he said before running off to try and find extra tickets for his family.

It'll also be a day one can't help but root for someone like senior Chavis Williams who suddenly finds himself atop the depth chart a strongside linebacker after three years of waiting.

"I was raised to never give up," Williams said. "Just to start doesn't mean nothing, you have go out and play and show what you can do."

"I don't think a lot of people know a lot about him," Hightower said. "I've been around Chavis in drills, 7-on-7, even practice when I was a freshman. I'm glad he's out there. He's shown me a lot. He's one of those guys who goes hard every play. He's one of the veterans on the team, when I'm out there sometimes and I'm like 'What do we check to?' Chavis is one of those guys other than Mark Barron I check with, he knows the defense so well."

The day that Francois was sitting on the stage in 2007, Williams was committed to Arkansas with Auburn making a late charge when Saban came calling. One week before National Signing Day he made an official visit to the Capstone and when the numbers worked out Williams decided to stay closer to home.

For years, though, the lean defensive end from Dora couldn't keep his weight up. He played in eight games as a true freshman and sacked Clemson's Cullen Harper as a sophomore, but was still behind Cory Reamer last season (whom Williams says was a "genius" the way he knew the defense).

With the help of the Tide's new sports nutritionist Amy Bragg, who's making him clear his plate and every meal, Williams has roughly 240 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, up 35 from when he first arrived.

"Real long, rangy guy," junior center William Vlachos said. "I don't like having to block him. There's a little bit of a mismatch in arm length there."

So what's Williams looking forward to the most?

"Just hitting someone with a different jersey," he said.

Saturday can't get here soon enough.


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