There were two less experienced linemen on the right side, a senior guard with three career starts to his name and a right tackle who played defense the previous fall and was learning the position new as the first-string player.
That invaluable spring made Shula more comfortable about his line play and the group eventually led the offense to 2,200 rushing yards and gave up a league-best 13 sacks on the season.
Shula's philosophy is to have a rigorous spring. He said, "It is a time for fundamentals. Defensive players learn to tackle, offensive players learn to block."
This spring will be no less important for Bama's 2005 offensive line. Quiet center JB Closner will take the place of Wesley Britt, Evan Mathis and Danny Martz as the senior leadership of the group, and with one year of experience at offensive tackle, rising junior Kyle Tatum represents the remaining bit of playing extended experience on the line.
Although redshirt freshman Antoine Caldwell came to Alabama as a center prospect, Shula wants the talented freshman to be prepared to play guard as we. He said, "We want to have our five best linemen on the field. If Antoine and JB are among those five, one of them has to play a different position. We had thought about moving JB to guard, but he did a lot better at center (in 2004). And if we moved him that would mean we would have new starters at four of the five offensive line positions."
There has been talk of more dramatic experimentation than just moving a center or tackle to another offensive line spot.
A player who saw action as a back-up defensive tackle as a true freshman is Justin Britt. Britt came to Alabama as a potential offensive or defensive lineman. "The coaches are fighting over Justin," Shula said. "It's something we might look at, offense, but he's done a really good job on the defensive line. I think he was a pleasant surprise to the defensive coaches."
Although Chris Capps missed the Music City Bowl, he was the most consistent back-up offensive lineman for Alabama in 2004, playing behind Britt at left tackle, and goes into spring as the most likely replacement for the All-America. Left tackle is a very important position since it is so often the unflanked line position and opposite the best pass rusher. Cody Davis might get work at left tackle also.
Alabama did not give a great deal of playing time to back-up offensive linemen in 2004, so Caldwell and fellow redshirted freshmen B.J. Stabler and Cody Davis don't have as many bodies to climb over to get to the top. But that doesn't mean they are automatically ahead of men who have been in Bama practices and to some extent in games the past few years.
Von Ewing had a good off-season last year and there was hope that he would get a lot of playing time in 2004, but he played almost not at all towards the end of the year at right tackle. He'll be behind Tatum at that spot and battling "grayshirt" Drew Davis, who had a few practices in December.
West and Taylor Britt are potential back-ups at center. West missed late season playing time and practice time with injures that could affect his future. West missed all last spring after undergoin hernia surgery.
Projected Spring Depth Chart – Offensive Line
Left Tackle – Chris Capps, Cody Davis
Left Guard – Antoine Caldwell, Mark Sanders
Center – JB Closner, Travis West*, Taylor Britt
Right Guard – B.J. Stabler, Justin Moon
Right Tackle – Kyle Tatum, Von Ewing, Drew Davis