Commentary

Bonds on and off the field benefit Alabama's offensive line

Originally Published: December 29, 2008
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Ivan Maisel spent three days with the Alabama offensive line in November. The following is his account from that time.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The five starting offensive linemen at No. 4 Alabama weigh a cumulative 1,540 pounds. It is fair to say, therefore, that food might always be on the tips of their tongues, figuratively and literally.

[+] EnlargeAntoine Caldwell
Icon SMIAll-American Antoine Caldwell anchors the nation's top offensive line.
One particular conversation among them in recent days hadn't lasted five minutes when the topic turned to eating. That might have been influenced by the spread of Dreamland barbecue ribs, coleslaw, white bread and banana pudding on the table they passed as they entered the media room.

"I don't appreciate you using the food line, trying to get us to do interviews," junior left tackle Andre Smith said to assistant media relations director Josh Maxson. "I ain't big no more. That don't work."

"Dre has got abs!" senior center Antoine Caldwell said. "You really need to write a story on that. He's really got abs. For real."

Smith turned the subject to senior right guard Marlon Davis.

"It wasn't that hard to change, being around these guys," Smith said. "Marlon tends to stray from time to time, eating some of the things I would eat back in the day. These guys you can depend on to eat something healthy just about every night. Especially Antoine. He eats enough for an entire house in one meal."

"Man, you're jealous because my metabolism is right," Caldwell said.

Junior left guard Mike Johnson brought up his go-to breakfast.

"Fat-free milk and raisin bran cereal," Johnson said.

"I do drink fat-free milk," said junior right tackle Drew Davis (no relation to Marlon).

"Two percent," Smith said.

The first day he was here, it was, 'Let's see what he's got,' you know? From that day on, his ability is unparalleled to me. The things he can do.

-- Alabama guard Mike Johnson on left tackle Andre Smith

"I drink so much milk, it wouldn't be healthy," Drew said.

"It might be the worst substance known to man," Caldwell said.

"Milk?" Johnson shrieked.

"I eat dry cereal," Caldwell said. "That's how bad I hate milk. Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Dry. That's what I eat."

It's a Seinfeldian conversation, killing time before a team meeting. It also illustrates a big reason why the five of them constitute the best offensive line in the nation.

When Alabama plays No. 6 Utah in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Friday, the nation will see a line led by Caldwell, a captain and an All-American.

Smith, the 6-foot-5, 330-pound All-American and Outland Trophy winner, should will be among the first names announced by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the draft in April. When Smith left Bryant-Denny Stadium after Alabama's 36-0 victory over Auburn on Nov. 29, he carried a chunk of grass with him; a souvenir, he told teammates, of his last game on the field.

There is Marlon Davis, whose rumbling voice and polite manner has earned him the nickname "Preacher" or "Politician" from his linemates. There is Johnson, who has the good fortune of lining up every day between two All-Americans. There is Drew Davis, the last starter named to this unit and a hero to the other four linemen.

That's who the public sees, if it notices the offensive line at all. This group has dominated one opponent after another in Alabama's rise to a 12-1 record. The Tide has controlled the line of scrimmage to the tune of 32:11 per game in time of possession, 70 seconds longer than the second-best team in the SEC. The line has allowed only 17 sacks, a small number for a team that doesn't spread the field.

But the public doesn't see offensive linemen. Fans don't see the almost balletic cooperation it takes for these five oversized fingers to work as one protective hand. And most don't want to hear about it.

"When somebody asks me about the team or a game," tailback Glen Coffee said, "I try to explain to them, 'It starts with the O-line.' Everything begins with them. Some fans understand that. Some people don't."

Just some? Coffee shrugged. When he brings up the O-line, he said, eyes glaze over.

"They want to hear about what [I've] done," he said.

There is no place on the football field where camaraderie plays a larger role, which is why conversations like the one above illustrate a vital aspect of Alabama's success. These guys know each other like they know their own families.

[+] EnlargeAndre Smith
John Reed/US PresswireAndre Smith, the biggest of the Tide's starting five, is a sure-fire first-round pick in the next NFL draft.
"If you're a receiver," Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "you're on one side, the other guy is on the other. He runs his route. You run your route. But whether you're blocking a pass-rush scheme, whether you're doubling a three-technique to come off to the linebacker, whatever it is, you're always working with another guy, almost all the time."

Saban understood before the season the role that his offensive line would have to play if the Crimson Tide were to improve from the 7-6 record of 2007. The line allowed 25 sacks. Time of possession fell below 30 minutes per game (29:34).

Saban called the linemen and senior quarterback John Parker Wilson into his office before the season started and explained that the quarterback could do nothing unless they provided order.

"I said, 'Look, you guys are the leadership and the dominant force for our offensive team,'" Saban recalled. "'...You guys are the sergeant at arms that is going to make him [Wilson] be able to do the things he needs to do to be a leader, because he can't do it by himself."

When Wilson watches video of the Tide offense after a game, his eye is drawn to the line.

"If I notice them during the game, I'm not doing my job," the senior said with a smile. "But I can feel it. I can know when somebody's coming. You can feel it up front. I know when they are doing a good job. A lot of times a guy will come free and Andre will just get a hand on him, which will push him off his path, which will let us get the ball off. It's little things, veteran moves. Those guys have been together for two years now. It's little things like that make them great."

Four of the five started at least seven games last season. Johnson moved from the right side to the left side this season. He marveled at the talent of Smith, who has the balance and athletic grace of a man half his size. In the 32-7 defeat of Mississippi State on Nov. 15, Smith sprinted toward the sideline to make a block in the open field. When the play ended behind him, and the closest Bulldog stepped aside, Smith casually performed a forward roll, got up and returned to the huddle.

At 6-5, 330.

"When Andre first got here," Johnson said, referring to 2006, "I kind of watched him. ... I didn't know what to expect. Everybody was talking about how freaky he is, stuff like that. The first day he was here, it was, 'Let's see what he's got,' you know? From that day on, his ability is unparalleled to me. The things he can do."

Johnson and Smith bonded so well on the left side of the line that when they're not finishing each other's blocks, they're finishing each other's sentences.

After the victory over the Bulldogs, a game in which the Tide line grew more dominant with every possession, Smith and Johnson chose to step around the idea that they had played their best game.

"When you think you've arrived," Johnson began, "you think you've played your best game, that's when you -- "

"Go downhill," Smith said.

"Exactly," Johnson said.

"I joke with them all the time," Wilson said. "They're brothers over there, the black guy and the white guy. It's funny, because during practice they're always getting water together, cutting up, and they'll be off by themselves like they don't want anybody else messing with them."

[+] EnlargeMike Johnson
Icon SMIMike Johnson and Smith have formed a bond on the left side of the offensive line.
They take their humor where they can find it. In a sport that demands order, at a position that demands precision, so much of a lineman's life is regimented. They stand in the huddle in reverse order -- right tackle Drew Davis on the left, across to Smith, the left tackle, on the right -- so that when they wheel around they are already in the proper sequence.

They watch video together. They practice together. Even when the offense comes off the field, the linemen have assigned seats on the bench. They sit as if they are moving to the line -- Smith on the left, Drew Davis on the right. On the cold, raw night in Tuscaloosa when the Tide pounded the Bulldogs, the seating benefited Davis. The heater blasting the entire offensive line sits to the right of the bench.

That is their only rest. In the bureaucratese of modern football jargon, the groups of receivers and backs shuttled in and out of today's offenses are called "personnel packages." At Alabama, linemen aren't included in personnel packages. They play every down. The members of the starting five rarely leave the field unless there is (a) an injury or (b) an Alabama rout.

All of them can handle the workload, from Smith, who no longer tries to play at 350 pounds, to Drew Davis, who has put on 24 pounds this year just to get to 300. Long before he won the starting job before the season, Drew Davis had won the admiration of his teammates.

"The thing I like about Drew as one of the starting five," Smith said, "is the way he works."

Caldwell looked at Drew Davis.

"Cover your ears for this," Caldwell said. "I don't want you gloating.

"I've never seen an offensive lineman that made improvement that fast during the season," the center continued. "From the first four or five games to the later half of this season has been two totally different players. That work ethic, that fear of getting beat, has made him the player he is now.... The game means so much to him that he's willing to do whatever it takes to win."

Work ethic? Meaning what?

"Last one to leave the locker room," Johnson said.

"Staying after practice, extra sets," Caldwell said.

"Hitting the dummies," Smith said.

"Film during the morning time," Johnson said.

"I know we're leaving some stuff out," Caldwell said. "Stretching in the training room."

"Taking care of his body," Smith said.

"Eating bananas and peanut butter," Johnson said.

That made Drew Davis respond.

"Crucial," he said.

Earning the trust of his more experienced teammates felt good, Drew Davis said, but like Smith and Johnson, he never felt as if he had arrived.

"It was like, 'You're here. You gotta work," he said.

It is true that the Alabama offensive line has benefited from good health. It is true that the line has benefited from the teaching of veteran position coach Joe Pendry (Saban does not makes his assistants available for interviews). But just as important has been their relationship. They like each other, and it shows on the field and off.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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