Update On Making Offensive Line

Years ago someone had a clever line about a team that didn't rebuild, but rather reloaded. We all understand the implication: a team has such good players that the new ones step in and replace the old ones without losing a step. Not to say it can't happen, but the chances of having an Andre Smith come in and replace a starter seem to be lower than someone coming in and replicating Andre Smith.

Alabama has only two returning starters in the offensive line. Mike Johnson is at left guard and Drew Davis is at right tackle.

A case can be made that the most important position on the offensive line is left tackle, the primary blocker protecting the blind side of a right-handed quarterback against a stud pass rusher. Others say the most important offensive line spot is center, the man who handles the ball on every play and who has to make a quick judgment and accurate, confident call on the blocking scheme for the offensive line after he sees the defensive alignment vis a vis the offensive play that has been called.

Regardless of which is most important, Bama this year must find new men for both positions. And the Tide will be replacing outstanding players, the Outland Award winner as the nation's best lineman in Andre Smith at left tackle and an All-America in Antoine Caldwell at center.

Additionally, Marlon Davis is gone from right guard.

The leading candidates at each position are:

Center: William Vlachos, eight mop-up appearances in the past two seasons.

Right guard: Barrett Jones, late appearances in three games before an injury that resulted in a redshirt season as a freshman last year.

Left tackle: James Carpenter, a junior college transfer with no experience at the level he will be playing beginning Saturday.

Alabama, like most teams, does not play a lot of men in the offensive line. That means that when men are lost, more often than not it is an inexperienced performer trying to fill the gap. The argument in favor of not giving back-up players game time is that the offensive line has to play as a unit, and so it upsets the choreography to plug in an understudy. (Former Alabama Coach Mike DuBose had the best answer to the question of why he didn't play back-up offensive linemen: "Because I don't want to get my quarterback killed," he said.)

As Alabama got into game week preparation to play Virginia Tech, Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban said, "I think we will continue to make progress with a lot of guys. We have a lot of young guys on the two-deep. Mike Johnson, obviously, is probably the leader of the group. James Carpenter has made nice progress and we feel like he's very functional in his position, a lot more confident than the beginning. William Vlachos has done a really good job at center. Barrett Jones has stepped up at guard. And Drew Davis is back at right tackle.

"I think after that, kind of is where we have a lot of young guys that are making progress. They most certainly have all improved. Tyler Love has made a lot of improvement. Alfred McCullough has made a lot of improvement at tackle. Inside, David Ross has played mostly center and some guard. He's made some improvement. And we have young guys after that. And I'm talking about some guys that probably have a lot of ability, a lot of power, a lot of strength, and good athletes, but I don't know if they're going to mature quickly enough to be able to contribute at the level we'd like for them to or not. And when I say mature I'm talking about physically, emotionally, mentally in terms of learning curve and all the things they have to do.

"Offensive line is a little bit of a developmental position. I know "Smitty" (Andre Smith) played here as a freshman and played very well. And I think there're always guys that can do it. And we're hopeful that these guys will be able to contribute in the future as well. They'll certainly help the depth."

Saban is high on his senior left guard, 6-6, 300-pound Mike Johnson. He calls him a leader by example and hard worker. "I can't recall one occasion where he wasn't front and center on what we like to do as a program—on the field, off the field, in the off-season program, in the weight room," Saban said. "He has the personality to affect other people. His leadership is not confined just to the offensive line.

"He does a good job every day."

Johnson discussed the progress of the 2009 offensive line, noting the need to develop an identity. "Last year was a physical team that ran and lot, and this year we're going to try to do some different things. We'll develop our own identity as we go. We still have to be physically, obviously."

Johnson said one thing the men working to play on the offensive line is put in the work. "That's the biggest thing," he said. "Having guys that come in and are willing to do that work and get ready. That's all we can ask them to do, to work as hard as they can, and they've worked their butts off so far.

"We have talented guys, it's just getting their minds right and getting them ready to go. They've come a long way."

He said the offensive line is "really not a sense of worry for me."

Johnson has seen improvement in the offensive line, both from last spring to fall camp and during August practices.

From last spring until fall camp, Johnson said it was "a huge difference. A guy like James Carpenter came in last semester and that paid huge dividends. You get in there and watch film all summer, work on your double-team blocks with each other. You know where each other is going, you communicate better. You talk to each other. Just that time spent together is so big for an offensive lineman. There's five of us, more than any other position, so it's huge for us to have that time spent together and I think it will pay off."

Johnson also said he saw great improvement in the offensive line between the Tide's first fall camp scrimmage and the second. "We ironed some things out," he said. "Really, just technical things that helped us spring some big plays."

Johnson was asked about his some of his teammates on the first offensive line unit.

He said left tackle James Carpenter (6-5, 300), a transfer from Coffeyville Junior College in Kansas, is "a real athletic guy, moves well in space, and he's pretty strong, has good hands. He's comparable to Andre. Andre was obviously the best lineman in the country last year, but I'm pretty confident in James that he can step in and fill in real well this year."

On center William Vlachos (6-0, 305), "He's the communicator. Antoine (Caldwell), everybody referred to him as ‘Loudmouth' last year because he talked to everybody, so it is big shoes to fill, but I think Vlachos has done a great job stepping in there in terms of communicating and talking to Greg (quarterback Greg McElroy). They are roommates. He just moved in and stepped in for Antoine and did a great job."

Saban also had something to say about his new center.

"He's done probably as good a job in terms of improvement," Saban said. "First of all, he's very strong. He plays with a lot of strength. He has power. Obviously, he's short in stature, but very strong. Plays with really good leverage. Plays smart in terms of hand placement and he's got good feet and balance and body control. Other than a little bit not what you'd expect from a stature standpoint in terms of height, I really don't know that he has a lot of weaknesses. But he's done a really good job for us. He's played smart. He doesn't have a lot of experience, so, like I said, it's sort of Judgment Day for everybody in terms of how they can take it to the field in a real live game, how the speed of the game affects them and all that type of thing. But he certainly has a lot of competitive character and certainly we have a lot of confidence in his ability."

At right guard is redshirt freshman Barrett Jones (6-5, 280). "Barrett is a guy that I definitely follow closely. I've told all of those young guys, ‘Look, I've been in this offense as long as anyone that's here, so if you have any questions, if anyone needs anything, I tell them to come to me. Maybe I can help with technique, give them some perspective from a guy who has done it and help them out a little. That goes for (true freshmen) guys like Anthony Steen and D.J. Fluker, too. A lot of guys have done that.

"It's a lot different when you get here. When I was in high school, we didn't run anything where we had to call out linebackers and slide protection and stuff like that. It took me a long time to adjust. So I know what those guys are going through and try to help them as much as I can."

Johnson said he got that kind of help from Antoine Caldwell, even though Caldwell was only a year ahead of Johnson. "He was a big influence on me," Johnson said. "I leaned on him a lot."

Johnson said an advantage of being an offensive lineman at Alabama is getting to practice against the Alabama defense.

"Those guys (the Alabama first defense) are just in their own world," Johnson said. "You go against them so much, you almost know what they are going to do. But just when you think you have them pegged, they do something else. You always have to be on your toes, ready for whatever happens. When you go against Coach Saban's defense, you never know what kind of blitz you're going to have or where everybody is going to be coming from, so you have to be ready for anything. It helps us out in the long run."

Johnson said there are some particular aspects of the Alabama defense that bother him.

"I don't like going against Terrence Cody," Johnson said of the 6-5, 355-pound All-America nose tackle. "That's just a pain. It's too much work. And Dont'a Hightower (sophomore weakside linebacker). It's probably just as scary to see Dont'a flying at me on a blitz. That ain't no good right there. Those two guys pose a pretty big threat when you see them flying across the line."

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