Great offensive and defensive linemen make success a little easier for everyone surrounding them.
That said, the already-shaky foundation of the Alabama football team is crumbling quicker than anyone can fill the cracks.
Junior defensive end Antwan Odom -- a probable first-round selection -- is gone to follow NFL dollars. Fellow fourth-year players Anthony Bryant, Ahmad Childress and Justin Smiley are considering following his path. And the team's best remaining lineman -- rising senior Wesley Britt -- will be rehabbing a badly broken left leg when he returns next spring or next fall.
In the words of the immortal Eric Cartman, the Tide desperately needs some "beefcake, beeef-caake!"
Consider this doomsday scenario.
- Bryant -- considered a fifth-round pick by some draft analysts -- either declares for the draft or doesn't finish the 25 credit hours of classwork he needs to gain a fourth year of eligibility and leaves school.
- Childress, who has struggled with weight issues ever since he arrived on campus two years ago and this season lost his starting role to redshirt freshman Jeremy Clark, leaves early for the draft despite uncertain prospects.
- Smiley, a first-team All-SEC selection and probable middle-round pick should he declare for the draft, decides to bypass his senior year for the draft.
If all three athletes join Odom in the draft, this is what the projected starting lines might look like for the 2004 opener against Utah State.
The offensive line might feature senior Wesley Britt at left tackle, freshman Travis West or junior Mark Sanders at left guard, junior J.B. Closner at center, senior Danny Martz at right guard and senior right tackle Evan Mathis at right tackle.
Their defensive counterparts could include junior Mark Anderson at defensive end, sophomores Jeremy Clark and Kyle Tatum -- or a junior-college transfer to be announced -- at defensive tackle, and senior Todd Bates at defensive end.
Of those nine players, only Britt, Closner and Mathis were regular starters in 2003. And Britt will be coming off a nasty leg injury, one of the most serious injuries a lineman can sustain.
Anderson, Clark, Martz and Tatum all started at one point or another this past season, but they are not considered experienced SEC starters. Bates will be a senior, but he'll be returning from a year without playing time after serving a one-year NCAA suspension for inadvertently consuming a banned substance in a nutritional supplement.
Of course, the above is a worst-case scenario. But if it happens, depth on both sides of the line will be thinner than Paris Hilton prepping for a magazine photo shoot.
And inevitably, the quality of football played by the Crimson Tide will suffer.
Fans looking for scapegoats for 2003's woeful 4-9 season should search no further than the offensive and defensive lines.
2002's 10-3 record was cemented by amazing performances from both lines. Jarret Johnson, Kenny King and Kindal Moorehead dominated opposing offensive lines virtually all season long, holding rushers to 80.4 yards per game, fourth-best nationally and best in the SEC. It's hardly a coincidence all three are finishing their first seasons on NFL rosters.
Across the line, Britt, Smiley, Mathis, center Alonzo Ephraim and right guard Marico Portis gelled in their second year together as a unit. As a team, Alabama averaged 213 yards rushing per game, 18th in America and second in the SEC. By the way, Ephraim made the Philadelphia Eagles' roster as a non-drafted free agent and Portis just missed doing the same with the Tennessee Titans.
Without the graduated seniors, Alabama's lines both suffered in 2003.
If any of the aforementioned underclassmen leave, the depth and talent level will dip further in 2004.
Without an experienced and talented offensive line, quarterback Brodie Croyle will be battered even harder than he was this season. Running backs Kenneth Darby, Ray Hudson and Tim Castille will struggle for yardage. And a young receiving corps will have trouble getting good looks and passes from a harried Croyle.
On the other side of the football, an experienced linebacker corps and secondary will be forced to carry a much larger load, a challenge they struggled with at times this year. Without consistent pressure and run-stuffing ability from the defensive line, opposing quarterbacks will be freed to pick the rest of the defense apart.
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Two things -- one immediate, one long-term -- can remedy this situation.
The most obvious solution is keeping all of the underclass linemen around, a proposition that seems unlikely at best, given the persuasive nature of sports agents and the always-bent ear of a player with prospects, however small, of moving on.
Perhaps Mike Shula's staff can dig up a junior-college gem or two and plug him into the lineup for a short-term stopgap. But didn't Dennis Franchione's staff try that already with Childress? Gee, that's worked out great.
A solution that's more likely -- and requiring more patience -- is filling the holes with experience and recruiting. Alabama has oral commitments from star prep linemen Justin Britt, Cody Davis and B.J. Stabler, and is likely looking for more before February 4's national signing day.
But expecting immediate success from this route is about as likely as expecting an intact line -- on either side -- next season.
It just isn't going to happen.