The Right Stuff

Ask any Alabama fan what the most important factor in Crimson Tide football success is for 2005 and there is about a 90 per cent chance that the answer will be along the lines of "Brodie Croyle being healthy." The other 10 per cent would probably put the hopes on halfback Kenneth Darby successfully returning from off-season surgery.

It would be hard to argue with those predictions. Brodie Croyle has a history of being injured. When he has been healthy, he has shown that he is a very fine quarterback. It is important that Croyle have the kind of year that has been expected of him every season.

Of course, the same could be said about every team. Few college football teams can afford to lose the starting quarterback. In Alabama's case, there are two points. One, Bama has been very unlucky from an injury standpoint in recent years, particularly at the quarterback position. And, two, Croyle is a senior. His likely back-up, John Parker Wilson, is a true freshman who has never taken a snap in a varsity game and has taken relatively few in practice.

Kenneth Darby was a particular surprise last season, taking advantage of the injury to Ray Hudson to become a 1,000-yard rusher. He missed the final two games with a sports hernia, an injury that has an uncertain recovery rate.

Years ago football teams were made up of seven linemen and four backs, the ends both considered linemen. And that gave rise to the adage that if a football team voted on which was most important, linemen or backs, the vote would always be 7-4 in favor of linemen. The evolution of the game may have altered those numbers a bit, but no one who knows anything about football discounts the important of a good line.

Even with severe injuries in the backfield–Croyle, Hudson, Darby, fullback/halfback Tim Castille–Bama led the Southeastern Conference in rushing and was second in fewest sacks allowed. Most would give some credit to the offensive line for that success.

Alabama returns only two starting offensive linemen from last year's Crimson Tide. Two of the lost seniors were drafted by the NFL, left guard Evan Mathis and left tackle Wesley Britt. The third lost starter was surprising right guard Danny Martz.

Most consider the two most important positions to be center and left tackle. The center has special responsibilities, making the snap (including the spread, or shotgun, formation snap) and calling the line blocking assignments. J.B. Closner will be starting for the third year at center, and is considered an all-star candidate.

The left tackle is considered important because he "has the back" of a right-handed quarterback and because the right defensive end is usually the best rusher by the defense. In many years on many teams, it would not be unusual for the starting right tackle to make the shift to the left side to replace a departed left tackle.

Alabama's other returning line starter is the right tackle. But there was no spring work for Kyle Tatum at left tackle in the spring. That's because he is still pretty raw as a right tackle.

Tatum, a 6-7, 300-pound upcoming junior, was a defensive tackle until last season. When Offensive Line Coach Bobby Connelly had to rebuild the right side of the 2004 Crimson Tide line, he plucked Tatum from the defense.

No one would suggest that Tatum was a polished performer in his first year on offense. He sometimes busted assignments. He was beaten by defensive linemen on occasion. He sometimes earned penalties. But at the end of the year he was much better than he had been at the beginning of the year.

And Connelly, who has a reputation from NFL coaches as producing fundamentally sound linemen such as Britt and Mathis and Justin Smiley, can be expected to have Tatum continuing to improve.

And a strong Kyle Tatum at right tackle could prove to be one of the most important elements in 2005 Crimson Tide offensive chemistry.

In addition to the offensive linemen lost from last season, Bama is also replacing the tight end. Last year almost every snap with a tight end had either David Cavan or Clint Johnston on the line. And far more often than not, that tight end was on Tatum's right side, helping out with the blocking on that side.

This year Trent Davidson or Nick Walker is expected to be the tight end. The tight end frequently is on the right side, but if Tatum shows he has improved to the point that he can handle the blocking without the help of the tight end, that could give tight end aid to the new left tackle.

Antonie Caldwell looks pretty solid at left guard, even if he is a redshirted freshman who was injured much of his true freshman season. B.J. Stabler, Justin Moon, and Mark Sanders are among the big men who could play at right guard.

A healthy Croyle can also take some of the heat off the left tackle. Croyle is mobile enough to roll away from backside trouble. But for that to work, the right tackle will have to hold his own.

And so Kyle Tatum could be one of the most important players for 2005 Alabama.

Tatum said, "Last year I was learning on the fly. I feel so much more comfortable now than I did last year. I feel like I know more ins and outs about playing offensive tackle. Coach Connelly told me I got better each game."

Chris Capps or Cody Davis is expected to take over the left tackle position this year.

Tatum hopes he and the rest of the reconfigured line can surpass expectations, just as a young line populated by Britt, Mathis and Smiley did in 2001.

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