Offensive Line Lacks Depth

Prior to the start of the 2004 season, several problem areas could be identified for the Alabama football team. Among them were inexperience at wide receiver, lack of defensive line depth, and lack of offensive line depth. Young wide receivers have played well and the defense is rotating 10 men on the line. But five men continue to get almost all work on the offensive front.

A truth of football is that offense more than defense is a "team" game. A defensive player can break down and one of his teammates still make the play. On offense if one player fails to do his job, the play almost certainly fails as well.

And within this offensive team, the offensive line is yet another team. That team at Alabama is left tackle Wesley Britt, left guard Evan Mathis, center J.B. Closner, right guard Danny Martz, and right tackle Kyle Tatum.

All of these have need of as much work as possible, and they have played almost the entire game in Bama's first two outings. With the exception of Tatum, the starters played 63 of 66 plays in the season-opening 48-17 win over Utah State and all 69 plays in last Saturday's 28-7 victory over Ole Miss. Von Ewing played 12 plays in the Utah State game and was the only substitute against Mississippi, playing 10 plays behind Tatum.

Britt, an all-star candidate at left tackle, came into the season with the disadvantage of having missed the end of last season and all of spring practice after suffering a broken leg against Tennessee last year. He is backed up by Chris Capps.

Mathis, a three-year starter at right tackle prior to this season, has been learning his new position since making the switch last spring. He is backed up by Mark Sanders.

Closner had been a defensive player in high school before making the switch to offense and the difficult center position. The center is something like the quarterback of the offensive line, the man who must read the defensive front as the offense breaks huddle and then make the offensive line call for blocking schemes. He is backed up by Taylor Britt, with Travis West having missed last spring with a muscle problem.

Martz is a fifth-year senior, but had almost no game experience prior to last season, and started only two games prior to this year. He is backed by Justin Moon.

Tatum had been a defensive lineman until Alabama coaches decided to move him to offense last spring.

The offensive line was hurt when three freshmen signees suffered injuries in fall camp. Tackle Cody Davis is back, but is almost certain to be redshirted. Center Antoine Caldwell suffered a broken foot and tackle B.J. Stabler a torn finger ligament and both required surgery. But both may still be in the plans for playing time this fall.

Alabama Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader acknowledged that building depth on the offensive line has its problems. "It's so much more working together, an essential teamwork to make sure no gaps are exposed," he said. "One missed step and the defense goes through that gap. Each player has to know exactly what his partner is doing, and it takes time to reach that. The blocking schemes are complicated with each man having a responsibility for each level–defensive line, linebackers, secondary. Timing is critical and it takes a lot of practice to get it right."

In Alabama's situation, Rader noted that Bama is "perilously thin" in the offensive line. While it's not unreasonable to think depth can only be built by giving back-ups playing time, it is important that those players be prepared before being put into the fray.

Former Alabama Coach Mike DuBose defended the practice of playing the offensive line starters almost exclusively with the reasonable argument, "I don't want to get my quarterback killed."

Rader said that Ewing was able to get more playing time than other back-ups because the fourth-year junior from Troy has worked so hard to be in good shape this year.

Rader said that he expects more substitution on the offensive line as the season progresses "and we get more comfortable with it."

Rader said in the first two games, "I think we've had good, consistent line play. The guys are doing a good job."

Tatum would likely have been considered the biggest question mark going into fall play because it is his first year on offense. Rader said, "Kyle is doing well. He blocked extremely well against Ole Miss, and that should have given him a confidence boost. He is playing more aggressively. He's not to the point you could say he is an aggressive player, but that will come as he gets more comfortable and more confident with what he is doing."

Rader pointed out that, "Kyle (6-7, 298) will be going up against a guy who is bigger than he is (Western Carolina's 310-pound defensive tackle Corey Ellison), so we'll see how he holds up."

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