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September 15, 2009TUSCALOOSA | For the University of Alabama football team, it was the black hole of offseason questions.
Just how was the Crimson Tide going to try and fill the void left by Andre Smith, the Outland Trophy winner as the nation's top interior lineman who left a year early for the National Football League?
It turned out the answer came from nearly 700 miles away at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, a guy who was barely recruited out of high school and played in front of roughly 500 people per game last season. Despite being part of a stellar recruiting class, he arrived early on the Capstone and received nowhere near the fanfare of the athlete he replaced.
"That's why I came here," James Carpenter said earlier this week during his first interview on campus. "I wanted the challenge, to be as good as I can."
To suggest there was the potential for overwhelming pressure on Carpenter would be like saying the ocean can be a bit damp, especially since he was taking over the high-profile left tackle spot that's generally considered the most important position on the offensive line. Consequently, he was off-limits to reporters until now, after he had a chance to effectively make the transition without being blinded by the spotlight.
But the 6-foot-5, 300-pound prototypical left tackle with long arms and fast feet only needed the spring to lock up the starting job and end any speculation that massive true freshman D.J. Fluker might be able to pull a Smith (i.e. start from day one).
"He has so much athletic ability," junior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "He's amazing in the way he runs, the way he does speed work.
"His signing this year was as big as any, by far."
It was also possibly the most unusual, if not unique. After not getting the necessary grades at Hephzibah High School in Georgia, where he hoped to someday play for the Bulldogs, Carpenter's original plan was to play for Gene Chizik at Iowa State.
Obviously, that didn't transpire with Chizik now at Auburn, but the Tide had that extra big vacancy as a lure, so when it came down to making the final decision Carpenter chose Alabama over Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Iowa State, Texas Tech, South Carolina and Oklahoma State.
"It just depends on the guy," Saban said about recruiting junior college players in general. "I think it works better for them when they have a role and they can come in and play because they only have two years. They don't have time to develop.
"In James Carpenter's case, we anticipated that (Andre Smith) would go out for the draft and we felt like it would help us even though we had some good young players who were developing, if we had a little older mature guy playing left tackle for us. James has worked really hard and (offensive line coach) Joe Pendry has done a very good job of helping him develop, and he has played well for us in the first two games. So it worked well for us, but it also worked well for him in that he had an opportunity and he's been able to develop and take advantage of it"
Alabama did most of its running behind other players against Virginia Tech, but Carpenter had the lead block on sophomore Mark Ingram's 39-yard carry around the left end. Senior Roy Upchurch's 18-yard touchdown was also to the left, as well as a 14-yard carry by Ingram.
The strategy was a little different against FIU, with Alabama primarily pounding the ball to the right in the first half, but true freshman Trent Richardson's 35-yard touchdown behind Carpenter and guard Mike Johnson helped break the game open, and two of Ingram's biggest carries, for 16 and 8 yards, were to the left as well.
Overall, despite practically having eight new starters on offense, including three on the line which was thought to be the team's biggest concern, Alabama is averaging 271.5 rushing yards per game, 507 yards of total offense and 37 points.
Some of the growing pains, though, have been a number of penalties, including two Carpenter holding penalties against Virginia Tech, and twice Alabama failed to get a first down on third-and-1 running behind Carpenter and Johnson.
There was also a botched play against FIU that resulted in a sack deep in Alabama territory due to miscommunication. On it, the Golden Panthers brought two pass rushers around Carpenter, who blocked the man in front of him, with pulling guard Barrett Jones and Ingram essentially taking the same man.
Still, the coaching staff named Carpenter one of the team's offensive players of the game, high praise for a lineman in Week 2 at this level.
"It was pretty easy this time because I got a feel for the game," Carpenter said.
Saturday against North Texas will be Carpenter's final tuneup for Southeastern Conference play, when the opposition will be bigger and tougher than anything he's faced before. But on the flip side, his initiation will also be complete, and it wouldn't be surprising to see coaches utilize his mobility more as the season progresses.
"You have to be a little careful with him," sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower said about facing Carpenter in practice. "He's one of the guys he wants you to go up field because he has those long arms where he can just push you right past the quarterback. You have to kind of set him up every now and then, a couple of stunts just to make him work, but he's a great athlete.
"I think he's done a real good job."