Tide-Rebels features top QB protectors

Published 2:30 pm Thursday, October 16, 2008

TUSCALOOSA – When No. 2 Alabama’s John Parker Wilson drops back to pass, he does it with the comforting knowledge that his blind side is well protected.

Ditto for Mississippi quarterback Jevan Snead.

Two of college football’s top left tackles will be on the job Saturday when the Rebels and Crimson Tide meet.

Even if they never share the field, Alabama’s Andre Smith and Mississippi’s Michael Oher could well be rivals for awards, NFL draft position and the unofficial title of best left tackle in the Southeastern Conference. Even Tide defensive end Lorenzo Washington has trouble separating Oher and his own teammate.

“I guess you could say he’s probably the second best, one of the best, tied for the best, offensive tackles (in the SEC),” Washington said. “An Andre Smith type of guy, first-round pick, an excellent all-around athlete.

“In the SEC, this level of competition, No. 1 and No. 2 are pretty much the same. They’re both great players.”

They are projected as two of the top offensive linemen in the NFL draft if Smith opts to skip his senior season. Both are candidates for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.

Both are 6-foot-5 and 325-plus pounds. It’s hardly a heated rivalry for the two mammoth linemen. They were roommates during festivities for the Playboy All-America team during the offseason.

“He’s a great guy,” Smith said. “I really like being around him.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban tried to recruit Oher when he was coaching at LSU, a pursuit that was documented in “The Blind Side,” a best-selling book by Michael Lewis chronicling Oher’s rise from homeless teen to coveted prospect. He calls Oher “a fine young man.”

“Michael’s a very athletic guy,” Saban said. “He plays with power but he also can block the edge. I don’t see a real weakness in his game. Similarly, Smitty’s the same kind of player. He can play with power but he’s athletic enough to be able to block the edge and do what left tackles need to be able to do.”

Saban left for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins before Oher’s signing.

“I just remember he was a sharp guy,” Oher said. “I probably would have went to LSU if he was still there. I mean he’s just a hard-nosed guy who knows how to win.”

Smith has helped power the SEC’s top rushing attack, often leading the way for tailbacks Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch. Last year’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner as the SEC’s top lineman has allowed one sack in five games, missing the Tulane game with a sprained right knee. It was the first time Smith hasn’t started during his three-year career.

“In the passing game, I don’t think anything gets by him,” Wilson said. “It’s nothing to worry about on that side, really nothing to worry about on the whole line but especially that side.

“The way he just shuts down pass rushers, he uses his feet so well and can turn the guy whichever way he wants to go. He’s tough to stop. I’d hate to be a defender against him.”

Probably nobody was more excited when Oher decided to return for his senior season than Snead.

“It’s just great to have him protecting my backside,” he said. “I’m just extremely fortunate to have him come back for this year and it’s good to know I feel a little bit safer now.

“When he decided to come back I went up to him and thanked him for that and just told him how excited (I was) he was coming back.”

Ole Miss has allowed just six sacks and Alabama nine, both among the league’s Top 5.

But having a dominant lineman on the left side has benefits beyond helping keep the quarterback’s uniform clean. The Tide has an experienced line overall, but has racked up plenty of yards running to Smith’s side.

“When you cut back to that side, you know that he’s got his block,” said tailback Glen Coffee, who has gained a league-high 708 yards and averaged 7.5 per carry. “You know that he’s doing his job.”

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt thinks what Oher has been doing is improving his NFL draft rating. Some mock drafts have him projected as a Top-5 pick and at least one has him going No. 1.

“I think every scout that has come in has said that he is more physical, sees how much harder he is playing with the speed and the tempo at which he plays,” Nutt said. “I’m excited about Michael. I’m looking for him to have a better second half of the season.

“When you look at those two in warmups, those are the type of guys that you would say that SEC left tackles are supposed to look like.”