Developing Center Priority Of Spring

There are certain things we understand, such as why Alabama Football Coach Nick Saban would want to say that he doesn't have a depth chart until the week of a game; and that Bama Offensive Line Coach Joe Pendry wants his players to perform at more than one position, at least two, preferably three.

Nevertheless, when we are planning coverage of Alabama football for 'BAMA Magazine and, we have to give some thought as to where players might end up. Nick Saban is absolutely correct from his standpoint to not have any preconceived notions about the best position for a player. That's what spring training and fall camp are for. Experimentation is a part of making the best decisions for the team and for each player within the team.

Joe Pendry has five positions to mold into a cohesive unit. It's finding the best five players who best work together for the center, two guard, and two tackle positions.

At last summer's Southeastern Conference Media Days event in Birmingham, then Mississippi State Coach Sylvester Croom was asked a question that included the premise that the left tackle was the most important position on the offensive line. Croom feigned that he had been insulted. "I'm not going to agree with that," he said. "I'm an old center. The center is the most important position on the offensive line."

I tend to agree with that. Of course, I'm not the quarterback depending on the left tackle keeping that right defensive end from giving me a blindside crush.

But the center gets the nod for several reasons. One, he's the one player on offense who is going to handle the ball on every play. (Quarterback nearly, but there are situations where a snap can go to someone else.) The play doesn't begin until the center has looked over the defensive front and given blocking assignments to the offensive line. He then has to make a snap, either to a quarterback under center or to a player in spread (shotgun) formation. And then he had to block.

Think Terrence Cody. Okay, every team doesn't have a Cody, but they have someone up there to put a smack on the center. And if the center doesn't have a lineman to block, he's got to go out and get a linebacker.

Thus the case for center as the most important offensive lineman.

Now that we've settled that, it is time to look at the candidates.

When Antoine Caldwell was suspended prior to the 2007 Tennessee game, Evan Cardwell took over Caldwell's duties for the four games of the suspension. Alabama defeated Tennessee, but lost to LSU, Mississippi State and Louisiana-Monroe. Cardwell no more deserves blame for those losses than he deserves credit for the win over Tennessee. Indeed, he was cited by coaches for his good play in the loss to LSU. The point: he was number two as a sophomore in 2007.

Last fall, Cardwell, 6-2, 279, got almost no playing time. In truth, Saban is like most modern football coaches in giving back-ups in the offensive line almost no playing time. While it seems short-sighted not to get experience for men who are going to be counted on at some point, the NFL practice of not playing back-up offensive linemen or quarterbacks is not almost universal in the college ranks, too.

The nominal backup center in 2008 was William Vlachos, a 6-0, 305-pound junior. He played in seven games. As the 'BAMA Magazine/ staff was hashing out our depth chart, there was mention of a rumor that Vlachos was going to be eased out of the center position because of his lack of height.

One name that was mentioned as a possibility at center was Alfred McCullough, the 6-2, 292-pound sophomore who was winner of the Dwight Stephenson Most Valuable Lineman Award in last year's A-Day Game. Last spring, McCullough was a defensive end. He was redshirted last fall while he made the shift to the offensive line. Although it's possible for almost any offensive lineman to end up at center, Saban said McCullough was being worked at offensive tackle. That also appears to be the case for Barrett Jones, another offensive tackle who was a true freshman last fall and another who had been rumored as a potential center.

When Andre Smith was suspended from the team just before the Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide coaching staff had to make a decision on how to replace him. One possibility would have been to put John Michael Boswell at right tackle and move Drew Davis from right to left tackle. Another plan was to move former right tackle Mike Johnson from left guard to left tackle and have David Ross play at left guard.

When Johnson was injured early in the game, Alabama had neither of the 2008 left side starters available. That didn't help as Bama was hammered by Utah, 31-17, in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama is now working to replace Caldwell at center, Smith at left tackle, and Marlon Davis at right guard.

There was a thought that Bama might make the same adjustment as it did for the start of the Sugar Bowl, Johnson to left tackle and Ross to left guard. Another possibility was Ross to the vacant right guard spot.

Instead, Ross, a 6-3, 295-pound junior, is bracketed with Vlachos at center.

Vlachos said there is some pressure in trying to fill the shoes of Caldwell, a three-year starter and All-America. He also feels fortunate to have played behind Caldwell. Vlachos said he has been helped by both Caldwell and Cardwell.

"Evan Cardwell is probably the smartest guy on the offensive line,"Vlachos said. "He has been excellent in helping me.

"Antoine was the greatest leader I've ever been around. It was an honor to play behind him and he's given me great advice."

The two men the center works against in practice are the massive Cody and the super-strong Josh Chapman, Bama's primary nose tackles. Vlachos is friends with both. He said he and Chapman "have been competing in weight room stuff since about the seventh grade." Chapman is among those who have complimented Vlachos for his hard work in the weight room. Vlachos said he and Cody have become good friends. "He's a great player, and going against him makes me a better player and I work to make him a better player," Vlachos said.

Ross wasn't surprised to be working at center this spring. "Coach Pendry is going to put you in the position that he thinks gives us the best chance to have the best offensive line," Ross said. "I have to be prepared to play guard or center."

Neither Vlachos nor Ross had ever played the center position before coming to Alabama.

"I'm comfortable," Ross said. "I've been snapping since I came in, although I've never done it in a game."

Ross played in every Tide game the last two years and made three starts last season. He was at left guard with Johnson at left tackle for the Tulane and Sugar Bowl games and at right guard for the Western Kentucky contest.

"I think the experience has helped me tremendously," he said. "It's primarily the speed of the game, which you can't replicate in practice."

Ross understands that the offensive line must work together. "There has to be cohesion," he said. "What group that will be, I don't know. That's what we have spring practice for. We have to have that trust across the front that we had last year. It's important, but it can't be rushed. It takes time. Those five guys who played last year took a ton of snaps together.

"We'll go through spring practice, summer workouts, and fall camp, and it will come together."

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