Tide's rebuilt O-line impresses
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Alabama left guard Mike Johnson, the elder statesman of the No. 1 Crimson Tide's rebuilt offensive line, can laugh about it now.
When Johnson was asked Tuesday how junior William Vlachos was able to fill departed center Antoine Caldwell's enormous shoes, Johnson delivered one of his many punch lines.
"Well, Vlachos has much smaller feet," Johnson joked.
Heading into the 2009 season, Alabama's offensive line wasn't a joking matter. The Crimson Tide had to replace three starting linemen, including left tackle Andre Smith, the 2008 Outland Trophy winner as college football's best lineman. Caldwell, an All-SEC center in 2008, and Marlon Davis, a two-year starter at right guard, also departed after last season.
If the Crimson Tide were going to contend for an SEC championship and national title in 2009, their offensive line would have to jell quickly.
"We were really being looked at as a group that needed to excel for this team to be successful," Johnson said. "We knew our backs were against the wall and we had to work."
Alabama's offensive line did more than that this season, paving the way to a perfect 13-0 record heading into Thursday night's Citi BCS National Championship Game against No. 2 Texas in the Rose Bowl.
With three new starters, Alabama's offensive line helped tailback Mark Ingram run for a school-record 1,542 yards and become the school's first Heisman Trophy winner. The line also helped Greg McElroy flourish in his first season as the team's starting quarterback, allowing only 15 sacks in 334 pass attempts.
"To be honest, I really didn't know how we'd play," Johnson said. "Until you turn on the lights, you really don't know how good you are."
The Crimson Tide got a head start on their rebuilding job when junior college transfer James Carpenter enrolled in school in January. Carpenter, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior from Augusta, Ga., immediately stepped into Smith's spot at left tackle. He was challenged by highly regarded freshman D.J. Fluker during preseason camp, but started all 13 games and was named second-team All-SEC this season.
Redshirt freshman Barrett Jones replaced Davis at right guard, and Vlachos replaced Caldwell at center. Johnson and senior right tackle Drew Davis were the line's only returning starters.
"They're athletic," Texas defensive tackle Lamarr Houston said. "They're big. They're quick. They're strong guys. They're able to block and run and a lot of teams can't do that. They're able to get to second and third levels."
Vlachos, a junior from Birmingham, Ala., was perhaps the most unlikely of the Crimson Tide's new starters. Generously listed at 6-feet-2 in the Alabama media guide, Vlachos is much shorter than typical SEC linemen.
"In the weight room, we have to lower the rack for him," Johnson said. "We have a lot of fun with him and definitely let him know he's shorter than the rest of us."
But Vlachos compensates for his lack of height with superior technique and effort.
"I've always been told the low man always wins," Vlachos said. "It's all about leverage and pad level."
Alabama's offensive line will face a stiff test from Texas' defense, which ranked No. 1 in the country in run defense (62.15 yards per game), No. 3 in total defense (251.08 yards) and No. 8 in scoring defense (15.15 points per game). The Longhorns also ranked fifth in sacks (three per game) and sixth in tackles for loss (8.08 per game).
"They're not only playing with speed, but they're playing with an attitude," Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said.
Alabama's offensive line faced similar challenges during its SEC schedule this season and usually came out on top. Part of Alabama's recipe for success under coach Nick Saban includes controlling the clock, and the Crimson Tide ranked fifth nationally in time of possession with their offense having the ball for more than 33 minutes per game.
Alabama's offensive line doesn't shoot itself in the foot, either. Remarkably, Crimson Tide linemen haven't been penalized for a holding call since the second quarter of their fifth game against Kentucky on Oct. 3. They haven't been called for a holding penalty in each of the last eight games, playing more than 500 minutes without one.
Johnson said offensive line coach Joe Pendry emphasizes hand placement, which has helped lead to the holding drought.
But Johnson also admitted that officials probably missed a few holding calls, too.
"What do you think?" Johnson said. "Sit back and watch the film, and I'm sure you'll find a few."
McElwain said he used to lose a lot of sleep worrying about his team's offensive line.
He figures he'll have at least a couple of more sleepless nights on the West Coast.
"I think probably in [three days], when this game is over, we'll all be able to sleep," McElwain said.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.