Alabama's 2004 season, from an offensive lineman's point of view, would have to be considered a success given that so much struggle was predicted for this group. Alabama was a lot better in pass protection than anyone expected, but the run blocking got stale late in the year, and Minnesota ate Alabama alive in the Music City Bowl.
It is perhaps for that reason mostly that expectations are again tempered. It might also have something to do with the fact that Messrs. Mathis, Martz and Britt are now playing for a paycheck rather than a college education.
Alabama returns two starters to its line, but that's when the delicate dance of playing up the returning starters begins, given their performance in 2004. Center J.B. Closner and right tackle Kyle Tatum aren't bad players, but neither is going to make the fans forget the 2004 senior trio – or even remind the fans of them.
Closner was recruited by former coach Dennis Franchione to play in the flex-option offense. Closner probably would not have signed with Alabama if Mike Shula had been doing the recruiting, but he's done his best to adapt to the pro-set offense. Closner is a solid run blocker, and his pass blocking is acceptable. Where he needs work is making line calls and being more consistent. He'll be a fifth-year senior in 2005, so it's now or never.
Kyle Tatum was recruited as a defensive lineman. But his 6'7", 285-pound frame, good athleticism and aggressiveness made him a good choice to move to offense when depth issues made it necessary. Tatum did well in run blocking assignments, but quicker defensive ends gave him trouble and he has a tendency to do a bit more holding than is legal. Things appeared to be about the same in the spring. If Alabama is to succeed, Tatum will need a strong fall campaign.
The other three starting spots are up for grabs, but two of them are pretty much set. Redshirt freshman Antoine Caldwell – who would likely have pushed Closner for playing time last year had he not broken a foot in fall camp – will start at left guard. He had a terrific spring, plays within himself and is aggressive. He can play either guard or center as the situation demands.
Chris Capps, a sophomore who played in spots as Wesley Britt's backup last year, and redshirt freshman Cody Davis split time at the position for much of the spring. Don't be surprised if that arrangement continues in the fall, either. Capps is the better pass blocker and has the experience; Davis run blocks a little better and probably has more upside.
The big question is at right guard. Redshirt freshman B.J. Stabler was supposed to have stepped into the void in the spring and dominated. It didn't happen; Stabler couldn't stay healthy, and the job fell into limbo until fifth-year senior Mark Sanders – who originally committed to play for Mike DuBose, if you can believe that – grabbed the job at the end of spring. Sanders played only sparingly last year, getting his only crucial situational snaps at Tennessee when Evan Mathis was briefly injured. He's Alabama's biggest lineman (6'7", 330 pounds), but needs to get more aggressive.
A couple of other walk-ons could make some noise depending on how they do in fall camp. Dawson Brown, like Taylor Britt, transferred to UA from UAB. Al Jefferson has good size, but was hurt much of his true freshman year. David Brown, Dawson's brother, is very big, and Morgan Garner and Layne Rinks both saw action at A-Day.
At tackle, Alabama has a promising grayshirt as a reserve. Drew Davis joined the team in the spring and did well considering his last stop was at AISA's lowest level.
In addition to Drew Davis, Alabama will add four and perhaps five true freshmen this fall. The top two candidates to play are guard Marlon Davis and tackle Michael Johnson. Davis, in particular, is a candidate to get early time due to the injury of Stabler and the lack of anyone else putting on a show at right guard. Johnson may be further along than Drew Davis physically, and since Cody Davis is currently Alabama's only scholarshipped reserve tackle, Johnson could get early playing time behind Tatum.
It's a safe bet that center Cole Harvey will grayshirt, and the possibility has also been kicked around for center-guard Evan Cardwell. But Cardwell is a little more physically developed, is likely to report immediately and could also make some noise on defense if depth concerns persist. Scott Deaton is almost certain to redshirt if he reports with this class.
Summary: With Brodie Croyle healthy again, it is up to the five offensive line starters to make sure he stays that way. Alabama has become a better pass blocking team under the tutelage of Bob Connelly, but run blocking seems to have regressed somewhat. Alabama certainly didn't make optimum use of the players it had on hand last year in that regard. Things will only be tougher in 2005, if for no other reason than the talent on hand isn't as good – yet – as it was in 2004. Closner, Caldwell and Tatum have positions nailed down for now, although Tatum could get pushed by Cody Davis at some point. Davis and Capps should be passable at left tackle, but they're not going to approach the consistency of Wesley Britt overnight. Right guard is a huge, huge question, and Alabama badly needs Stabler or Marlon Davis to step up quickly if for no other reason than to make Mark Sanders a better player. In Alabama's favor is its early schedule; games against MTSU and Southern Miss will allow Alabama a little breathing room, albeit not much, to get its act together before the meat of the SEC schedule begins.
2004 Players: LT-Wesley Britt, LG-Evan Mathis, C-J.B. Closner, RG-Danny Martz, RT-Kyle Tatum, T-Chris Capps, T-Von Ewing, G-Mark Sanders, G-Justin Moon, C-Taylor Britt, C-Travis West, T-Cody Davis (redshirted), G-Al Jefferson (redshirted), G-Dawson Brown (transfer, sat out year), T-David Brown (redshirted), G-B.J. Stabler (redshirted), G-Antoine Caldwell (redshirted)