Johnson Knew O-Line Had Work To Do
Not having a good view doesn't mean an offensive lineman can't have a good perspective. Alabama All-America left guard Mike Johnson was reflecting on the season to date, a 13-0 record, Southeastern Conference championship, and number one national ranking for the Crimson Tide.
"We knew the offensive line was going to be a question mark," Johnson said as Alabama was beginning preparations for the BCS National Championship Game against Texas on January 7 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. "We're not stupid. We see the field the same way you all do and we knew we were going to have to replace some quality guys.
"Andre Smith was an Outland Trophy winner and a first-round draft pick. Antoine Caldwell was an All-American and four-year starter. Marlon Davis was a three- or four-year starter.
"We knew we had to replace some quality guys. We knew the only way we were going to be able to do that and get it done, was to practice. Just go out and work real hard and we worked really hard in the offseason. I think you see just the communication part. We have a freshman and a junior-college transfer starting for us and to get those guys up to speed and on the same page takes a lot of communication time and a lot of practice time. Just spending time together and watching film, stuff like that, in order to get that way.
"We put in that time in the off-season and I'm just glad we're on a team heading to the national championship and we can see our work pay off."
Johnson said the offensive line has room for improvement before taking on Texas and its number one ranked defense.
?"We'd really like to work on some of our power plays up inside as a offensive line," he said. "It's something that we took a lot of pride in as an offensive line last year having the big bodies. We lost a little bit of weight from last year to this year. We haven't been as successful up the middle as we've liked to. We've had a lot of successful runs, but not as dominant as we like to be. We'd like to improve there. We're able to run the ball a lot, but a lot of it is on the perimeter and stuff like that. We really want to get things done inside and be able to take games over like that."
?Johnson said, "I think we've prided ourselves on having balance this year, especially as an offensive line to be able to run and throw the ball when needed. We've done a pretty good job of keeping it balanced. Just having the threat of running or throwing the ball is hard for defenses to keep up to. They had the box stacked up against us a lot last year and we would still gain yardage, but we couldn't do it at the end of the year. Just having that balance, we have a lot of pride in that and I think the balanced offense is the best offense to have."
The popular offense today is the spread. Although the Crimson Tide frequently operates with quarterback Greg McElroy in the spread (or shotgun) formation, and also uses the wildcat (tailback Mark Ingram as the recipient of the shotgun snap) and pistol (McElroy up a step from shotgun with a tailback behind him), most consider Bama to have more of a traditional physical offense.
Johnson said, "When you have an offense like ours, you are able to control a lot of clock. I think we had the ball 40 minutes in the Florida game. That keeps other offenses off the field. When you have a quick strike offense, a lot of times you can get points, but the other offense is right back out there. You see that a lot in other leagues. In this tough conference we're in, ball control really helps out a lot. Coach (Jim) McElwain and Coach (Joe) Pendry do a great job in getting us in the right plays and drawing up plays that play to our strengths and I think you've seen that play out on the field."
As part of Alabama's 2009 dream season, Mark Ingram was selected as winner of the Heisman Trophy, a first for Crimson Tide football. Ingram did an excellent job in his acceptance remarks, including being quick to thank his offensive line. The award came while Bama players were on a short break between the SEC Championship Game and National Championship Game preparation.
Johnson said it was a thrill for the men up front. "We were separated, but we were all texting and calling each other," he said. "We were talking about it all day. Myself, Drew Davis, William Vlachos, James Carpenter and Barrett Jones--we were all talking back and forth all day. When it came down, we were all calling and texting right there when it happened and you wouldn't have seen a happier group of guys than what we were.
"We couldn't be more proud of Mark. He is a class act and he gives all the credit to the offensive line a lot and we appreciate that from him and he has been a pleasure to block for."
Johnson also has an appreciation for his quarterback, Greg McElroy.
"That fourth-quarter drive against Auburn, you really saw a first-year starting quarterback really come into his own and put his mark on Alabama history. He took over that drive and he completed a lot of good balls and did a lot of good things. When the running game wasn't really clicking, he was able to step up and come into his own and really make his mark on this team. He pulled out that victory for us. You saw a good quarterback make a lot of good plays and in the end, we came out with the win. I think that says volumes about the guy that he is."
Alabama trailed 21-20 and took most of the final half of the fourth quarter to drive 79 yards. McElroy completed a touchdown pass to tailback Roy Upchurch for the winning points against the Tigers.
Johnson downplayed the importance of that drive in McElroy's Most Valuable Player performance in the victory over Florida for the SEC championship.
?"It might have added to his confidence a little bit, but we've seen the way Greg is all year," Johnson said. "We know that he's a good competitor and a good player and everybody getting a chance to see him in his other element against Florida, really just get a chance to turn it up a notch and play all out and that's what he did against Florida. He gave everything he had. He made some really good plays and really good throws. We came out with that victory.
"We counted on him and he was able to come through for us. Whether or not it carried over from the Auburn game, I don't know. That's a question for him, but we know what kind of player he is and he just seemed to come out at the right time in those two games."?
Johnson said McElroy is a good man to run the huddle. "He's really very composed, very confident," Johnson said. "He knows there isn't a throw that he can't make. He comes in and just kind of barks out the play at us and makes sure everybody is in the huddle and everybody is on the right page. He'll make a change at the line if he has to. He's a really calm and composed guy for a first-year starter."
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