Is There A Dont'a In Offensive Line?

In 2008, Alabama played 16 true freshmen, which was third highest among NCAA major college football teams. Among those were two starters in all 14 Bama games, wide receiver Julio Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Among the true freshmen playing last year were three offensive linemen.

At this year's Southeastern Conference Football Media Days event in Hoover, Alabama Coach Nick Saban said, "The offensive line is a critical area for us to develop. We have some young players who need to step up. Last year when I stood up here it was linebacker. Dont'a Hightower came in and played outstanding football and we became a much better defense because of that.

"We're going to have some of those challenges in the offensive line."

No true freshman started in the offensive line last year, but over the years that has been an area where Alabama has had true freshmen who not only contributed, but also started. It flies a bit in the face of the coaches' adage that other than quarterback, the offensive line is the most difficult place for a freshman to play.

Andre Smith in 2006 was the most recent player to start in the offensive line as a true freshman. Other true freshmen who have started beginning in the first games of the season were Larry Rose in 1985, Jon Stevenson in 1991, and Dante Ellington in 1999. Other true freshmen have earned starting jobs during the season.

Two newcomers, one a true freshman, got an early start on competition for offensive line jobs. True freshman Chance Warmack (6-3, 301) and junior college transfer James Carpenter (6-5, 300) entered The University last winter and took part in spring practice. Carpenter was listed as the number one left tackle at the end of spring drills based on his participation with the first team offense in the A-Day Game.

Alabama was able to obtain medical redshirt exemptions for two of the three offensive linemen who saw limited action as true freshmen last year. Both Barrett Jones (6-4, 289), who played in three games, and Tyler Love (6-6. 303), a participant in only one game, suffered injuries. They are listed as freshmen on this year's team. John Michael Boswell (6-5, 306), who was the first offensive tackle off the bench, played in eight games last year and is a sophomore who is expected either to contend for a starting job at right guard or to be a back-up to Drew Davis (6-7, 306) at right tackle.

Alabama has two returning starters in the offensive line. In addition to Drew Davis at right tackle, Mike Johnson (6-5, 303) is back at left guard.

Johnson has been something of an overlooked success story. Although he was cited for his play in several games last year and is a pre-season all-star this year, the upcoming senior has been in the shadows. As he put it at SEC Media Days, "Last season I played between two All-America players." On his left was Smith, on his right center Antoine Caldwell. In addition to Smith and Caldwell, Bama lost starting right guard Marlon Davis from last year's squad.

Juniors William Vlachos (6-1, 294) and David Ross (6-3, 299) have waged a spirited battle at center, generally considered the most difficult offensive line position. It is unlikely a true newcomer will be competitive at center this season.

Most of the attention on Alabama offensive line newcomers has been on massive D.J. Fluker. This 6-6, 350-pound freshman from Foley is expected by most to be an instant contender at left tackle.

For several reasons, it is very difficult to guess at an Alabama offensive line depth chart. For one, it is the theory of Offensive Line Coach Joe Pendry that a player needs to learn more than one position. This provides depth, of course, and can also reveal a player being better at the new position.

Alabama, like most college football teams, has closed practices, so one can't be sure where players are working, much less where they are on the depth chart (and during spring practice and fall camp up until the week of the first game, Alabama professes to not have a depth chart).

Names come and go. Through the spring we would occasionally hear of the work of former defensive end Alfred McCollough (6-2, 292), now working at left tackle; or of journeymen Brian Motley (6-2, 289) and Taylor Pharr (6-6, 285).

In addition to Warmack and Fluker, Alabama lists new offensive linemen as Darius McKeller (6-6, 295) and Kellen Williams (6-3, 290), and has Anthony Steen (6-3, 305) as either an offensive or defensive lineman.

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