Offensive line signees Andre Smith and Taylor Pharr have been at spring practice trying to learn as best they can through observation how Alabama's offensive line works, and moreover just getting a feel for the flow of Alabama football.
Redshirt freshman Mike Johnson, who is competing with Chris Capps at left tackle in the spring, is among those who have noticed, too.
"Of course I know there's a good class coming in next year," Johnson said after Alabama's first day in full pads. "I think we all realize it. All the talk about the offensive line; Andre was here Saturday. We know we're having to work and we're trying to get in the weight room, get better in pass blocking, run blocking and overall."
Johnson, 6-6 and 302 pounds, is wearing the yellow second-team jersey through the first three days of spring drills. The first team offense wears white and the third team offense wears green.
"I think Mike Johnson's got a bright, bright future here," Offensive Line Coach Bob Connelly said. "I've got to get him fundamentally better. I think he's starting to understand the system now. This is the first opportunity that I have had to really work with him. Those kids come in here and the redshirt, they're over there doing the scout team and they get very little fundamental and technique work during the season, so this is my first time to spend some quality time with all those kids and emphasize the technique."
Johnson worked more at right tackle as a redshirt freshman last year, but has the opportunity to compete with Capps at left tackle now because Cody Davis is out with a shoulder injury. He looked sharp in the running game, often working past the first level to get to a second man to block.
"I like run blocking. I need to improve on pass blocking if I want to get in a white jersey," he said.
Mike Shula and Connelly have never before hesitated to get a true freshman ready to play on the offensive line. B.J. Stabler and Antoine Caldwell were true freshman playing candidates before they both got hurt in pre-season. Marlon Davis shed the redshirt last year to start in the second game of the year before he was later hurt.
In 2006, the speculation is already on about the freshman that might come in and take over. Depending on how spring goes, seeing Andre at left tackle is certainly plausible. But not if Johnson can help it.
"You try to let them know what it's going to be like next year," he said. "You don't want to just sit there and make them think the practices are going to be soft because it's not. They're going to have to understand their place when they get here next year. We're older than them and we're more experienced. They're going to have to work to try to become part of the group."
"They're (the Alabama coaches) letting me know it's an open job," he said.
Connelly said he was "to be honest a little bit disappointed" in the looks of the line on the first day in pads. Antoine Caldwell, however, read the defensive fronts properly and made all the right calls. "Antoine looks good at the center position," Connelly said. "He's doing a good job. Of course, he's still casted up so he's a little limited with his left arm and left hand, but he's doing a good job."
Caldwell broke his left wrist in Tuscaloosa during Cotton Bowl preparation, but it hardly slowed him down. He is expected to get the cast off any day.
Connelly said the effort and mental preparation of the line was good on the first day in pads. "We're still young and there's a lot of room for improvement across the board. We threw a lot at them and had a lot of situations – right into blitz the first day.
"Our mental preparation was good. I thought we played a little slow, but the communication was good and we've got a good foundation. We'll continue to get better as we go, but I would have liked to have seen a little more success out of this group the first day out."