By Brandon Foshee
Alabama will open the 2008 season with one of the most experienced offensive lines in the conference. Andre Smith, Antoine Caldwell, Marlon Davis, Evan Cardwell, and Mike Johnson combined to start 50 games last season, even though both Caldwell and Davis were each suspended for four games stemming from the illegal distribution of textbooks.
While those five players are not guaranteed to make up the starting unit this season, you can bet that they will all play significant roles, and offensive line coach Joe Pendry feels good knowing that they all have valuable experience in the trenches.
While there are few certainties in life, Tide fans can rest assured that All-American candidate Andre Smith (6'5", 340) will anchor the offensive line at left tackle. Smith raked in several awards after a stellar sophomore season, including being named the winner of the Jacobs Trophy (the SEC’s best lineman).
As he readies for his junior year, and what is likely to be his last at Alabama before turning pro, he has already been named to the Playboy All-American Team and has been placed on the Outland Trophy watch list as well.
Smith’s backup at left tackle will likely be junior Scott Deaton (6'6", 286). Deaton has worked at left tackle extensively in practice, but has yet to see any live game action. Other possibilities as backups to Smith include Antoine Caldwell, Mike Johnson, Barrett Jones, and Tyler Love.
The left guard position along Alabama’s line is a position that could be up for grabs going into the Clemson game. It is possible that junior Mike Johnson (6'6", 298) will occupy the spot, but Antoine Caldwell, Davis Ross, and Patrick Crump are also candidates.
Johnson started all 13 games for the Tide last season, and has seen game action at right tackle and both guard positions, making him a versatile player.
Caldwell is an intriguing possibility for this position because it would line up both of the Tide’s best linemen together on the left side, making it one of, if not the best, such combinations in the nation. Caldwell is an All-SEC center, however, so his services might be more needed there.
David Ross (6'4", 297) is a sophomore who has seen only limited action in games, but he impressed coaches this past spring. Patrick Crump (6'3", 267) is a redshirt freshman who has benefited from a year in the strength program and a good number of practice reps since the Tennessee game last season.
The center spot belongs to senior Antoine Caldwell (6'3", 292) unless junior Evan Cardwell (6'2", 278) can impress coaches enough to allow Caldwell to slide over to left guard.
Caldwell is the leader of the offensive line both on and off the field. He is a versatile player who could play any position along the line, and did play center, right guard, and right tackle at various times last season.
With 34 career starts under his belt, he is the most experienced lineman on the squad. He was recently named to the Rimington Award watch list (for the nation’s best center), and is sure to be a preseason All-SEC selection.
His backup, Cardwell, has some experience at center himself. He notched seven total starts as a sophomore and saw action in all 13 games as a freshman.
Barrett Jones (6'5", 280), a 2008 signee and newcomer this fall, will likely start his college career as a center as well. While he never manned the center position during his high school career, he did play there during an All-Star game after his senior season.
An interesting possibility at center in terms of depth is former defensive lineman Brian Motley (6'2", 280). Motley, a sophomore, moved to center this past spring after a broken finger limited what he could do on defense. He occupied the center position in high school, but had played nose guard since arriving in Tuscaloosa.
It is unclear at this point if the staff will keep Motley at center, or move him back to the defensive line. In the end, the overall depth at those respective positions could determine his destination.
Another player in the mix for some possible playing time at center is redshirt freshman William Vlachos, who has taken reps at both center and guard in practice.
The right guard position will likely be held down by senior Marlon Davis (6'4", 290). Davis started eight games last year at right guard (he was suspended for four games). He also combined for five starts and saw action in 12 other games during his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Davis is perhaps the most underrated lineman on the squad, but he has had some problems staying motivated in the past. He has responded well under the guidance of Coach Pendry, however, and proved that he can be a dominating run blocker.
The job of backing Davis up will likely fall on the shoulders of William Vlachos (6'1", 295). Vlachos is a high-motor player who has been impressive in scrimmage work and does have some limited game action on his resume. He is a weight room warrior and has a bright future in terms of playing time ahead of him.
Incoming freshman John Michael Boswell (6'5", 305) might also get a strong look at the right guard position. Juan Garnier (6'4", 315), a junior walk-on, will add depth to both guard positions.
Garnier is a journeyman on and off the field who transferred to Alabama last year from Ohio State, and has now suited up for three different programs. While he spent his time on the defensive line in the past, Garnier worked at guard exclusively during the spring.
Right tackle is the position that most Tide fans will have their eyes on this August. While the list of candidates might not have a ton of experience collectively, they certainly do not lack depth and potential.
Mike Johnson has the most experience at right tackle, but he is probably better suited to play guard. If needed, however, either he or Antoine Caldwell could man the right side of the line, as both have done in the past.
The other guys that will be fighting for the spot include junior Drew Davis (6'7", 276), sophomore Taylor Pharr (6'6", 281), and incoming freshmen Tyler Love (6'7", 300) and John Michael Boswell.
Davis and Pharr battled each other for the position throughout spring practice. In the end, it seemed as if Davis got the upper hand. However, both have very limited game experience.
The staff will be looking to both Love and Boswell to come in ready to contribute. Both of these young players have the potential to not only make some noise—either could earn the starting job as a true freshman.
To illustrate how good of an opportunity they have, both were encouraged to spend a good bit of time this spring watching the Tide practice in an effort to become familiar with the schemes and terminology of the system.
In fact, Boswell, who resides in Tuscaloosa, attended every single practice and also spent time reviewing film, which will only help him when it is time to put on the pads this August.