Kyle Tatum, who played a total of 182 snaps in nine games in 2003 at defensive tackle, was moved to the offensive line in the spring to help fill holes in the line left by the departures of All-SEC guard Justin Smiley and Dennis Alexander. Tatum was penciled in as the starter on his first day at right tackle, and barring injuries, the Crimson Tide will likely sink or swim with Tatum this fall.
"When Coach Shula told me he wanted me on the field that's what really got me fired up and I knew that he needed me in that area," Tatum said. "Just to try to get on the field and play is all I wanted to do, really."
At 6-7, 282, Tatum looks built for offensive tackle. The biggest concern for Tatum will be his quickness and technique in pass blocking. Tatum will likely require help from a tight end, halfback or fullback to protect for Brodie Croyle during pass-blocking situations.
"Throwing the technique in there with pass sets is going to be a big challenge," Tatum said. "I feel like I'm a great run-blocker through spring training, and working in the pass-set area is going to be a big challenge."
The Crimson Tide finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference in total rushing yards last year, but gave up 29 sacks, besting only Tennessee, Mississippi State and Georgia in the league. As a second-year starter, a more mature Croyle should be able to help lower the number of sacks allowed by checking down to open receivers and throwing the ball away when necessary, but for Tatum it is important to master the mental aspect of right tackle so he can react quickly in live situations.
As expected when a player is being counted on as a starter in a brand new position, no one will have more work to do in the month of August than Kyle Tatum, and his progression in fall camp will go a long way in determining how effective the Crimson Tide offense can be.
"(The most important thing is) learning the offense like the back of my hand and knowing that I've got to go out there and know my assignment every play. I feel like knowing what to do in certain situations will be the biggest thing, along with working my technique and my quickness off the pass set is going to be a big challenge."
Evan Mathis, the starter at right tackle for the past three seasons, has moved to left guard for the 2004 campaign. Mathis is more natural as a guard, but he knows the tackle position as well as anyone on the team. Mathis said Tatum has been relying on he and left tackle Wesley Britt for assistance in the off-season, and that Tatum has a better grasp on the current offense than did Mathis or Britt a year ago this time, when it was brand new.
"Me, as a former tackle at his position, and Wes as a tackle have been able to help him tremendously," Mathis said. "We've been able to be here for him and bring him along. It's not like he's in the dark trying to figure something out by reading a book."
Mathis and Britt seemingly have the left side of the line shored up. But Britt is coming off an injury that sidelined him for the last five games of 2003, and Mathis will be knew at guard, even though he is a three-year starter on the offensive line. Tatum sees that he and right guard Danny Martz, the new faces on the Tide's starting offensive line, will have to prove themselves.
"I know just from going through spring training that Wes and Evan are going to have a stronger advantage on the left side along with JB," he said. "There is some question mark on offensive line with me being the strongest question. I feel like I'm going to calm all that down once I get settled in and just become the best ball-player I can at that position."