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September 3, 2009

Column: Tide ready to tow the line

If there was a one defining moment from this drama-filling week, and there was plenty for the University of Alabama football team, it came Tuesday afternoon when Brandon Deaderick quietly walked into the Hank Crisp Indoor Facility roughly 18 hours after being shot in the arm.

He didn't shout or interrupt what was going on. Practice didn't stop. Everyone didn't rush up and surround him all at once, opting instead to say hello and wish him well when they had a break.

That's a focused team.

The announcement of NCAA probation for the textbook scandal, the appeal, Courtney Upshaw's arrest, the flu spreading across campus, the rumored suspension of Julio Jones and Mark Ingram being nothing more than a fish story but Jerrell Harris maybe not being as fortunate, the shooting, more rumors, etc. This team has already been through a lot, with there being very little talk about football.

Believe it or not, that can be a good thing.

"If there's anything I'm worried about, it's first-game jitters," Coach Nick Saban said.

He continued: "I think they're thinking about the right things. One of the most difficult things is good is a great enemy of being great. When you get good, you get complacent and you get comfortable. In competitive sports, that's not a good place to be. I don't see that in our guys, and I hope I don't see it. Their intensity has been a lot better this week, and we've been pleased with it."

What everything has distracted attention from are all the players who are about to debut as starters or take on new roles, like Mark Barron at safety, Eryk Anders at Jack linebacker (a position that almost appears jinxed), Lorenzo Washington at defensive end, Mark Ingram at running back, Marquis Maze at wide receiver, Colin Peek at tight end, and, the high-profile quarterback promotion of Greg McElroy.

All those changes are important and all of those players appear ready. They've been here for more than a year, have experience and have shown traits of maturity.

"If the run's not there the run's not there," Ingram said. "I have to be patient because the big run is going to come."

But what will determine Alabama's success this season will be the revamped offensive line.

Gone are Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith, offensive captain Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis, leaving just Mike Johnson and Drew Davis and three question marks. Left tackle James Carpenter has never played in Football Bowl Subdivision game, while center William Vlachos and right guard Barrett Jones are both listed as sophomores.

What's wrong with them? Nothing. They're all big. They all know the offense. They're all Alabama's best option at their respective positions.

They just aren't the guys they're replacing, and it's unfair to compare the two units but that's the way college football works.

Last year's offensive line was great, pure and simple. For proof think back to what happened at the Sugar Bowl. Without Smith (suspended) and Johnson (injured), the team fell apart after a perfect regular season (and narrow loss to national champion Florida).

This season's line is good, and will have a lot of help. Instead of playing ball control by pounding it up the middle, look for a different form of keep-away: more short passes, screens and quick outs. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster loves to get players up near the line and go after the quarterback. Alabama's primary offensive goal will be to relieve that pressure as much as possible.

Carpenter doesn't have to be Smith, and Vlachos shouldn't try to be like Caldwell, who talked to him earlier this week and wished him luck. This isn't the same team, but we'll all just have to wait and see how far this line can take the Tide.

"If any offensive line knows whether it's ready or not, it's one that's gone against Coach Saban's defense every day," Johnson said. "I don't think there's anything that hasn't been thrown at us -- corner fires and all kinds of stuff -- sometimes it kind of gets ridiculous.

"We feel like we're ready."


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