‘Bama’s blockers playing major role in resurgence

Published 1:03 pm Tuesday, September 30, 2008

TUSCALOOSA (AP) _ It only took one series to get Alabama’s offensive linemen worked up.

The second-ranked Crimson Tide had just opened the season with a 10-play drive for a field goal against Clemson, and the front five were feeling awfully good about themselves.

“They were getting excited on the sidelines, getting each other going,” Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson said. “They’re like, ‘We just whipped them bad.’ And it carried throughout the season.

“I think they realized they were pretty good and since then they haven’t said a word, they’ve just been moving people.”

The Tide’s offensive line has helped pave the way for the Southeastern Conference’s top rushing offense, giving Wilson time to pass and opening holes for tailback Glen Coffee.

‘Bama’s blockers have taken to heart the common coaching refrain that it all starts with the linemen.

“We put the hat on our head and said that this year we’re going to lead this team and we’re the center of the team,” left tackle Andre Smith said. “If we play well, the team plays well and vice versa.”

So far, there haven’t been many complaints.

It’s no surprise the line has been a strength of the team. Smith won the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as a sophomore for the league’s top blocker. Center Antoine Caldwell was named a permanent team captain after last season and is one of the Tide’s most vocal leaders.

Along with those two, left guard Mike Johnson, right guard Marlon Davis and right tackle Drew Davis have combined for 109 career starts going into Saturday’s game with Kentucky.

Besides the experience factor, Smith said the linemen came back stronger and determined to be more physical after an offseason working with new strength coach Scott Cochran.

“I don’t know if we were physical enough last year,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think we were as strong as we needed to be last season. This offseason we had together with coach Cochran, it was amazing. All of us made significant gains in the weight room and now when we’re on the field, you feel stronger, you feel faster, and stuff starts to carry over.”

The Tide is averaging 215 rushing yards and has run for a league-high 13 touchdowns — six shy of last season’s total in 13 games — and been especially hard to stop running behind Smith and Johnson on the left side. The 5.2-yard per carry average is second only to LSU’s 5.8 in the SEC.

It helps that first-year offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has brought in a pro-style offense that utilizes tight ends and fullback Baron Huber, leaving plenty of blocking help for the line. It’s not as fashionable or fancy as some systems, but the big guys like it.

“I think he doesn’t get enough credit. Coach McElwain is probably if not the one, the No. 2 reason why we have had so much success on offense,” Caldwell said. “The guy’s brilliant. He has us all confident of the game plan, whatever it is we’re going to do, and he’s been doing a great job with us and especially with (Wilson).”

Alabama defensive end Lorenzo Washington said the best offensive line he has faced is the one he faces in practice.

“I have never gone up against anybody like them,” Washington said. “As a complete unit, they don’t fall off. They say you’re as strong as your weakest link. Well, their weakest link is on the same level, so there really is no weakest link.

“It’s like a mini-game every time you go in there because you’re facing the best competition, to me, in the conference. We’re practicing against the best to be the best.”