Shula's story speaks to Darby's unique qualities. While other players may work as hard as he does in order to compensate for lesser physical gifts, Darby pushes himself to the limit and has extraordinary natural skills. Darby can make defenders miss or he can run right over them with equal aplomb. "He runs a lot stronger than people think he does, and his yards after contact are always big for us," explains Shula. "At the same time, he's very quick laterally. He can stop on a dime and then immediately accelerate past you again." Combine those qualities with that gruntlike work ethic--one which drove him to play 17 snaps in the '05 Music City Bowl, despite nursing a sports hernia so severe that he couldn't sit down on the sideline benches--and you have a player who will, Shula anticipates, be ranked "up there with Alexander, Humphrey and Musso, certainly."
Darby will try to cement his place in that Alabama pantheon as the team's offensive focal point this fall. After losing quarterback Brodie Croyle to graduation (he was selected in the NFL draft's third round by the Kansas City Chiefs), the Crimson Tide will start sophomore John Parker Wilson--he of the 11 career passing attempts--behind center and will compete without standout split end Tyrone Prothro, who is still recovering from the broken leg he suffered last season. To aid his inexperienced quarterback and to prepare himself to pick up some of the pass-catching slack left by Prothro, Darby hauled in at least 25 balls each day this summer from a JUGS machine, which he sometimes jacked up to 50 miles per hour, and expects to frequently line up in the slot. While Shula pledges to spread the ball around (it's the Alabama way, after all), he's well aware of Darby's importance to a young team looking to build on a surprising 10-2 finish in '05. "He's going to be on the top of other defenses' scouting reports," he says. "If you want to stop Alabama, you've got to stop Darby."
But Darby has done all of the work to make sure that he won't be stopped. He vows not to be stopped against Auburn, who will invade Bryant-Denny on Nov. 18 hoping to stem the Tide for the fifth straight year. Leading Alabama to a win over its archrival would constitute the highlight of his career, Darby says, as it would allow him to return a favor to a university that made him feel like family from the moment he arrived in the passenger seat of Coach Danley's old Mercury minivan. "Other schools treat everything as a business. They're just trying to get you to go there, and that would be it," Darby says. "Here they treat you with so much love."
Darby also won't be stopped from proving himself, once and for all, to those SEC coaches who voted that he is no better than the third-best back in the conference. "When people don't give you that type of credit, you have to go back and see what you're doing wrong," he says. "I'm going to come back at you five times better."
Besides, Darby adds, it's the all-conference team that's named at the end of the year, and not the preseason version, that really matters. As he enters the final 12-game stretch of his Alabama career, he's preparing as he always has: by observing his competition, quietly working until his legs barely function and patiently deciding whether he should break your ankles or bowl you over on his way to the top of the Alabama record books and maybe--just maybe--to that long-awaited Heisman.
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For the Record
Ranked seventh on the Alabama career rushing list heading into this season, Darby needs 1,077 yards to become the alltime leader.