Position coach Bobby Connelly may not have the toughest assignment on the current staff, but he's got to be in the Top 3. Injuries, starters lost to graduation and an All American lost to the NFL combine together to make sure that Connelly will be busy this spring.
Three key players and sometime starters from the 2003 squad used up their eligibility, including Dennis Alexander, Atlas Herrion and Matt Lomax. All three were big, athletic and smart players. All three played important roles on last year's team. And all three will definitely be missed.
Though expected, Justin Smiley's announcement that he was declaring early for the NFL draft was another tough blow. A perennial member of the All-SEC squad, Smiley also got some mention on All-America lists. Fans can debate whether or not he made the right decision, but barring injury Smiley will play on Sundays. And during his three seasons starting he was a tough, hard-nosed player who always gave good effort. That makes four that will be sorely missed.
Among them, Smiley, Alexander, Herrion and Lomax started 30 games last season for the Tide. Their roster spots will not be easily replaced.
Andy Harrison was only a back-up, but he was a reasonably athletic lineman, which are hard to find among walk-ons. He's not listed on the spring roster and apparently is no longer on the team.
On the positive side of that ledger, six talented athletes that did not compete on the offensive line last year for Alabama will take part in spring practice. Three are freshmen who redshirted last season, Chris Capps, Travis West and Justin Moon. One is a transfer, Dawson Brown, who spent last season on UAB's roster. And two, Kyle Tatum and Taylor Britt, are former defensive linemen, moving to offense this spring to see if that might be a better spot for them.
Obviously Bama's O-Line unit last August was stronger than it is now, but those six together provide entirely reasonable hope for the future.
NOTE: Alabama inked one of its best offensive line classes ever on Signing Day, including Justin Britt (guard), Antoine Caldwell (center), Cody Davis (tackle), Drew Davis (guard) and B.J. Stabler (tackle). Conceivably that class represents an entire starting unit in the future, but no wise coach ever counts on contributions from true freshmen--especially youngsters on the offensive line.
Virtually every offensive lineman is capable of playing more than one position. But with depth at a premium, Bama's coaches will probably limit their spring juggling to make sure that they're at least two-deep at every position.
Five athletes are expected to work extensively at offensive tackle this spring, though Wesley Britt will be held out of all contact work:
- Wesley Britt
- Von Ewing
- Chris Capps
- Justin Moon
- Kyle Tatum
Britt's surgically repaired broken leg is coming along well, but no one is about to do anything foolish and risk the All-American's future. The goal is to have him at 100 percent by the start of fall camp, so fans shouldn't expect to see Wesley do anything more than light drills this spring. But when healthy, Britt is definitely the bell cow of the unit.
Three redshirt freshman and a so-far lightly used junior will take the spring snaps at tackle. Ewing arrived on campus as a highly touted recruit, but so far he has not made an impact. Last year he was improved, and there's no question that Ewing has matured during his three years of college. However, if he hopes to make his mark, now is the time to step up. Ewing has the size (6-5, 304) and good feet to be a player, but he'll have to earn his position on the practice field.
Chris Capps (6-5, 275) is seen as a prototype tackle, tall with long arms and the frame to add weight. Like almost all O-Linemen, he needed that redshirt year badly. But the Tide coaches have been pleased with his progress. Certainly he'll have every opportunity to show what he can do this spring.
The same is mostly true of Capps' fellow redshirt freshman Justin Moon (6-4, 304). He reported with some baby fat, but Moon is not afraid of work and has made progress in the weight room. He's still learning, but Moon is a tough youngster, unafraid of contact. He's already gained the respect of his older teammates. There is a lot of talk that maybe guard is Moon's ideal position, but for now he'll work at tackle where he's needed more.
Of course Kyle Tatum (6-7, 282) will be the tackle getting most of the fan attention early on. He spent his first two years on campus working at defensive tackle. Last year as a redshirt freshman he played in nine of Bama's 13 games, totaling 14 tackles. It's not that Tatum is bad on defense, but frankly many believe that his height, wing span and good speed make him the ideal offensive tackle. In the past Tatum has resisted the move, hoping to stay on defense. But coaches have an obligation to not only do what's best for the team, but also for the player. So it'll be interesting to see how the experiment plays out.
All of them could compete effectively at other positions, but three athletes are listed on the pre-spring roster as working at center:
Junior J.B. Closner started 12 of Bama's 13 games last year at center, but that doesn't mean the depth chart is set in stone. For one thing Closner is just as good a guard as he is a center, so it's possible that he could end up starting elsewhere. But he'll begin spring practice as the Tide's No. 1 center. Closner was solid last year, but there is room for improvement. According to strength coach Kent Johnson, Closner has been working extremely hard in off-season drills.
A lingering groin injury forced Travis West (6-3, 280) to miss a lot of practice time last fall. But when healthy he quickly proved himself a force to be reckoned with. He's an old-fashioned lineman, just as happy to smack you in the mouth as block you. That's not to say that West is a dirty athlete, but he does play with a mean streak, which for an offensive lineman is very much a good thing. Assuming he's healthy, it'll be a surprise if either West or Closner is second string. So don't be surprised if one moves to guard after the question of which one is best suited for center is settled.
The twin moves of three-year starter Evan Mathis from right tackle to left guard and Taylor Britt from defense to offense should provide plenty of excitement early on at guard. According to the pre-spring roster, in all six athletes will start spring at the position:
A starter at right tackle since he was a freshman, every year one coach or another has approached Mathis (6-5, 308) about a position move. Only before this season they were always talking about center. Smaller, quicker defensive ends in pass-rush situations sometimes caused Mathis problems, but he brings excellent athleticism to guard. He said in a recent interview that he looks forward to no longer worrying so much about lateral quickness and simply concentrating on mauling the man in front of him. If the move works out, Wesley Britt won't need to worry about a drop-off in talent with his left-side mate.
Senior Danny Martz (6-4, 291) played in nine games last season, starting twice. Every year on campus he's gotten stronger, and now Martz wants a starting job. There is certainly an opportunity at right guard, but expect Martz to get plenty of competition from players like Mark Sanders, Justin Moon and either Closner or West. A solid run blocker, Martz was one of several offensive linemen last year that had to step up their game when injuries struck the unit.
Mark Sanders (6-7, 310) and Taylor Britt (6-4, 278) both certainly have the size and strength for guard. So far Sanders hasn't made an impact on Bama's depth chart, and Britt was frankly buried on defense. It'll be interesting to see if either (or both) athletes seizes his chance this spring and earns a spot in the playing rotation.
Having signed with UAB out of high school, Dawson Brown (6-6, 310) isn't your average walk-on. His brother David, also an offensive lineman, will join him on the team in the fall. Both are big, strong youngsters that Bama is lucky to get as walk-ons.
Evan Mathis and Kyle Tatum definitely belong in the "Most Intriguing" category this spring. Both played well at their former positions, and both are experimenting with a brand new role. If the ideas bomb, they can always go back. But if they succeed...
On the "Up and Comer" list, look for all three redshirt freshmen to push hard for a role on next year's unit, with West especially a legitimate contender.
Spring of 2004 won't exactly be their "Last dance, last chance" at Alabama. But both Ewing and Sanders need to take the upcoming practice sessions very seriously. Four (and maybe five) talented true freshmen reporting in the fall means that now is the time to impress the Bama coaches that you deserve a role in the rotation next season. Opportunities missed are opportunities lost.