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October 14, 2009

Column: Young linemen quietly making noise

The questions last week seemed to catch University of Alabama redshirt freshman Barrett Jones, excuse the pun, off guard.

Has any team really targeted you this
season? Have you walked away from a game thinking, "Wow, they really went after me today?"

"Ahhh, I wouldn't know," Jones said.

That's because the answer would be a big firm no, which was about as telling as anything else recently said in the football building.

Think back just a couple of months ago before the 2009 football season began about what the biggest concerns were regarding the Crimson Tide this season, especially in replacing players. Three stood out:

1. Safety. Granted, the Tide missed Rashad Johnson the first few games, but sophomore Mark Barron is coming into his own and senior Justin Woodall will likely be selected in next year's NFL Draft.

2. Quarterback. Junior Greg McElroy quickly silenced his critics and has even generated some Heisman Trophy talk.

3. Offensive line.

Yeah, remember that?

Three new starters including two with nearly no experience playing side-by-side in the heart of the offense. Compounding the concern was that they're also the smallest of the five starters with sophomore center William Vlachos listed as 6-foot-2, 294 pounds, and Jones at 6-4, 289.

It was a potential hot spot to watch especially with opponents putting their nose tackle or biggest defensive tackle in that hole, like Arkansas with Malcolm Sheppard, who finished third in SEC sacks last season and named second-team all-conference.

On Sept. 26 he had two tackles, one for a loss, and a pressure. Alabama crushed Arkansas 35-7.

Another test came last week against Ole Miss, which had a line that was described as monstrous, featuring 330-pound Jerrell Powe, seemingly the nation's top recruit for seven straight years, Ted Laurent, Scott Lawton and Co.

They stood out even more dressed in bright red jerseys that made it look like there was a Revolutionary War reenactment in Oxford, with each defensive tackle representing a British platoon. However, once the game started they were hardly noticed. While the outside pressure did affect McElroy, Powe was in on just one tackle. Laurent deflected a pass, but was also sent head-over-heels on a low block from freshman running back Trent Richardson.

Meanwhile sophomore running back Mark Ingram ran up 172 rushing yards.

"The whole offensive line is doing such a great job this year, adjusting to the schemes we put in front of them, making improvements each and every week, making seems for us, giving opportunities to make big runs," Ingram said. "They're doing a great job and I'm real proud of all of them."

For his efforts, Valchos was named the SEC offensive lineman of the week.

"He has done an outstanding job," Coach Nick Saban said. "He is a bright guy. He is strong. He is very athletic. His only problem that anybody could point to is he is not quite as tall as everybody else that plays the position maybe, or most people that play that position. From toughness, from strength, from a competitive character standpoint, he is just as good as anybody we have ever had and is doing an outstanding job for us."

Jones has received similar praise and been looking more comfortable with each game.

"He's played extremely well for us and made consistent improvement," Saban said.
Granted, they haven't been perfect, no one has. There have been some issues with third-and-short situation and the red zone was problematic at Ole Miss. Part of that is just due to a new group trying to come together and an offense finding it identity.

Instead of attacking with the power game up the middle, Alabama is running more on the edges. Through six game, the Tide has 11 fewer rushing yards from a year ago (1,341 compared to 1,352), but 413 more passing yards. With the balanced attack, UA ranks fourth in SEC passing, rushing, total offense and scoring.

Yet hardly anyone's talking about the line, which is music to the players' ears. There's been no outrage about sacks, no talk of turnovers, and hardly any mention of the names Andre Smith (last year's Outland Trophy winner), Antoine Caldwell or Marlon Davis.

Meanwhile, Alabama leads the conference in time of possession, and is seventh nationally at 34:08, which is an improvement of two minutes per game over 2008.

"Just hard work," senior left guard Mike Johnson said. "Even when bad things do happen it's not from lack of effort. We're still learning as we're going as much as they continue to work hard we're going to go where they take us."

That may be potentially far. They've already come a long way during the first half of the season, which as Jones noted has seemingly gone by quickly.

"We're encouraged with what we've done so far, but we also know we have a long way to go," Jones said. "We think we're not even close to reaching our potential yet. We're going to keep working."


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