February 13, 2009

Jobs open up front

Last November, Mike Johnson and Drew Davis were asked about the pending likelihood that the two of them would be the only returning starters on the Alabama offensive line next season. Both recognized the challenge; neither seemed daunted by it.

"We've been around some pretty good leaders, and we aren't the only seniors up front - Evan [Cardwell] has played," Davis said at the time. "Whatever comes our way next year, I think we'll be ready."

Left tackle Andre Smith turned likelihood into reality when he announced an expected decision to declare early for the NFL Draft. And with that, competition for
three jobs on the Crimson Tide's offensive front - left tackle, center and right guard - came open for business. Departing seniors Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis leave an interior void, while the left edge will protected by a new face this fall for the first time since 2005. In fact, UA coach Nick Saban's first mention of needs during his signing-day press conference was the offensive line - in particular, offensive tackles.

"In terms of needs I thought it was really important that we get some big guys with long arms that could play on the edges on the offensive line. I think we were able to solve that," Saban said.

The Sugar Bowl suspension of Smith and a first-quarter injury to Johnson forced Davis to play left tackle for most of Alabama's loss to Utah, but it remains to be seen if Davis will compete on the left side in spring practice. Sophomore-to-be John Michael Boswell got some experience at right tackle as a true freshman, and figures to factor heavily in spring competition. Reserve tackles Tyler Love, Barrett Jones and Taylor Pharr will look to establish themselves before an influx of highly-regarded freshmen enter the program. Chief among those is Rivals.com five-star prospect D.J. Fluker, who has the size to contribute immediately but got only one season of left tackle experience in high school.

"I think he's happy playing offense," Saban said. "I think he's a guy that could develop into an outstanding offensive tackle, possibly even a left tackle, and that's going to be the plan for him."

Saban also hinted strongly that junior college signee James Carpenter, who is enrolled and eligible to compete in the spring, could also figure in the tackle competition.

"James Carpenter is also a guy that can be a tackle who has the kind of range and long arms and athleticism to help us that's a little more mature player," Saban said.

Freshman offensive lineman Chance Warmack, who is expected to compete on the interior, is also spring-eligible, while 325-pound mid-term signee Kerry Murphy could end up on either side of the ball. At least six and potentially as many as eight of the Tide's recent signees - Carpenter, Murphy, Warmack, Fluker Anthony Steen, Kellen Williams, Darius McKeller and Brandon Moore - could end up on the offensive side of the line. Saban said Moore also has two-way potential.

"We've never had the numbers in the offensive line that we need to have since we've been here in terms of depth and quality, so that's something we were able to do," Saban said.

As for the center position being vacated by Caldwell, William Vlachos and Cardwell are the veteran players with the most experience, while David Ross, Brian Motley and Alfred McCullough will likely compete at guard. Ross got the most playing experience of the three in 2008.

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