Eyes on the line

Published 8:25 pm Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wonder how new Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy will fare this upcoming season?

Coach Nick Saban has an answer: McElroy, and the Crimson Tide offense, will be as good as a rebuilt offensive line allows.

McElroy might be the favorite topic of conversation, but Alabama will also feature three new starters on an offensive line that last season paved the way for a 12-0 regular season and berths in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and Allstate Sugar Bowl.

“Every question that you ask me about quarterback is going to come right back to this group,” Saban said Thursday at SEC Media Days at The Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover. “Quarterback is a difficult position to play if you don’t have good people around you, and it starts with the offensive line.”

Center Antoine Caldwell graduated, and left tackle Andre Smith left school early to enter the NFL draft. Both were All-Americans. Right tackle Drew Davis and left guard Mike Johnson are the returning starters.

“Mike Johnson is the guy that has the most experience and is a real quality player for us—needs to be a leader who affects other people in this group so that our offensive line can develop,” Saban said.

Johnson said the unit is putting in the necessary work.

“Our offensive line is working harder this year than any I can remember,” said Johnson, a senior.

Saban said the offense could also use a couple of more playmakers in addition to receiver Julio Jones. The third-year coach could spend plenty of time talking about the offense because there aren’t many questions about the Tide defense, which ranked third nationally last year and returns eight starters.

But the unquestioned leader of the ’08 defense, safety Rashad Johnson, is one of the few ’Bama defenders that doesn’t return.

“Rashad was a great player, but he was so much more of a great leader,” junior linebacker Rolando McClain said. “This year, coach Saban expects that kind of leadership out of me. I’m more of a laid-back guy, but he wants me to be a leader—to speak up and to be an emotional leader—and I’m trying to embrace the role.

“If it means that it helps the team, then that’s fine with me.”