On January 2, Alabama played Utah in the Sugar Bowl without the services of Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith at left tackle. Add an early exit by way of injury to veteran offensive lineman Mike Johnson, and the Tide line was in disarray, giving up eight sacks to the Utes. Bama had only 31 yards rushing.
Despite the graduation losses of starting quarterback John Parker Wilson and feature running back Glen Coffee, the biggest question mark coming into the 2009 season is the offensive line, which must replace three starting players.
The aforementioned Andre Smith skipped his senior season to become a high first round NFL draft pick and member of Cincinnati Bengals. All-SEC senior center Antoine Caldwell is gone as well and was taken 77th overall in the NFL draft by the Houston Texans. Four year letterman Marlon Davis, a key contributor to Alabama's offensive line in all four years of his eligibility, is gone from right guard.
Reasons for Optimism
Fluker moved around a lot during his high school years, from Mobile to Biloxi, Miss., and then back to the Mobile area at Foley. He also played a lot on the defensive front. Many thought prior to the 2008 season he would spell Terrence Cody at nose tackle in the 3-4 defense when Cody departed The Capstone.
Although, an extremely powerful force, Fluker is still honing his skills as an offensive tackle and jumping in and starting right away at left tackle in the SEC with ultra-fast defensive ends won't be easy for him.
The man who looks as the leading contender for the job is James Carpenter. Carpenter wasn't heavily recruited out of Hephzibah High School in Georgia and signed with Iowa State. However, Carpenter took the Junior College route and his stellar play at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas made him one of the most sought after offensive line prospects in the country.
Having gone through spring practice and having had two years of experience at the college level could give Carpenter (6-5, 305) the edge in the competition. Both players have exceptional talent and huge upsides, but are unproven.
Luckily, the man who earns the starting left tackle job will have veteran left guard Mike Johnson (6-6, 305) by his side. Johnson, from Pensacola-Pine Forest, has started 27 straight games and earned numerous honors, including All-America, as a junior.
It's hard not to imagine big Fluker coming in the game in a short yardage situation and Bama running to the left behind the Fluker-Johnson tandem.
While Carpenter is the likely starter and Fluker particularly intriguing, Alabama's coaching staff is looking at others for the critical left tackle position.
Tyler Love (6-7, 290) was considered the top line prospect in the state two years ago, but had to overcome a broken foot before getting into real contention in the spring. He's a redshirt freshman.
Bama will also look at former defensive end Alfred McCullough (6-2, 292) at left tackle. McCullough took a redshirt season last year to work on offensive techniques.
Jones was unable to redshirt last season and is a sophomore. The Memphis area native was awarded the "Jerry Duncan I Like to Practice Award" after the spring practice. Jones could be ready to make his move up the depth chart this fall.
William Vlachos, a former prep star at Birmingham's Mountain Brook High School, is expected as the starting center after demonstrating a strong performance during spring practice and awarded with the Ozzie Newsome Award as Most Improved.
Vlachos (6-0, 305) is a junior who saw action as a sophomore in seven games. He's one of the strongest men on the squad, quick off the snap, and knows how to pick up a blitz.
Right guard is another of the "open" positions on the line. John Michael Boswell was SEC All-Freshman in 2008 and seemed the likely choice when he was moved to right guard during spring practice. But Boswell was moved back to right tackle by the end of spring.
Junior Brian Motley (6-2, 289)has seen numerous injuries and position changes in his Alabama career, but seems to have found a home at right guard and finished spring practice as number one at the position.
Chance Warmack (6-4, 330) of Westlake High School in Atlanta is an incoming freshman who enrolled early and participated in spring practice giving him a leg up in the competition. He could be the number one back-up at right guard this year.
The second returning starter in the offensive line is senior right tackle Drew Davis (6-7, 305). He's a smart guy, having been awarded with two SEC academic honor roll selections. He's become a team leader, given the "Iron Man Award" for his dedication to strength and conditioning, and was honored with the "Paul Crane Offensive Lineman Award" at the end of spring practice. He has 14 career starts.
Junior Taylor Pharr (6-6, 285) has a lot of game experience on special teams and could be in the right tackle mix.
Brandon Moore (6-5, 320) and Anthony Steen (6-4, 295) are true freshmen who could be on either the offensive line or defensive front.
Unfortunately, Kellen Williams out of Brookwood High School in Georgia tore his ACL in a spring basketball game for a cancer charity and will probably need a medical redshirt this year.
Causes for Concern
When you lose the caliber of linemen as Smith, Caldwell and Davis, and break in a new starting quarterback in the SEC in the same year, things could get messy.
Even with a veteran offensive line in 2008, Wilson was sacked 25 times, second in the SEC only to Arkansas's Casey Dick with 37.
Last year's team had little depth. The five starters played a majority of each game. They were able to play ball control with the Tide having possession 58 per cent of the time in the 14 games. This year's team brings more depth, but matching the ball control numbers is difficult to repeat until the line matures as a unit.
Mike Johnson and Drew Davis should become guys the other players look to for on-field leadership and both are quality blockers. The key is establishing cohesiveness, picking up blitzes, and getting solid play for the "blind side" at the left tackle position.
If Fluker is as good as advertised, or Carpenter emerges in Terrence Cody-like fashion to the big stage, this pre-season question mark, could turn into one of the big advantages for the Tide in '09.
BamaMag.com copyrighted material, but links encouraged.
Join the Facebook recruiting page [click here].