TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The practice fields on the University of Alabama campus will be a much quieter place in a few months when spring practice begins.
Former right tackle D.J. Fluker has left for NFL riches, leaving a crater where he once stood tall on the offensive line. The jovial big man from South Alabama was the vocal leader of the Crimson Tide offense, a constant source of motivation as he hooted and hollered in practice and during games. If Fluker was jumping up and down, that meant the Tide were rolling.
Now, the voice and the jersey are gone, and two rookies are poised to compete for the spot he vacated when the redshirt junior decided to leave school early and enter the NFL draft. In his place are two newcomers, Leon Brown and Brandon Hill. Neither are your typical rookies. Brown came to Alabama after spending two years at a junior college in New York and Hill arrived by way of Hargrave Military Academy, a well known preparatory school.
Both offensive tackle prospects called their experience prior to signing with Alabama necessary.
"Brooklyn was very, you know, needed," Brown said last week. "I needed to get the experience of getting a higher level of college football in. It prepared me very well to be here right now."
Said Hill, who wasn't cleared by the NCAA to enroll last year: "The military part was tough, but the football part was the same. You just worked out, and I had set things planned in and we were practicing every day. We made it each other better, but going up north, it was kind of hard to adjust to people, and it prepares you for college and being around a different culture.
"Now I’m back south where I’m home again."
And back to football. The competition, as Hill put it, is already intense during offseason workouts.
"Everybody's grinding," he said. "We're pushing each other every day in the weight room."
Brown said the battle began the minute he walked in the door.
"You gotta make a name for yourself," he said. "You gotta make sure everyone knows who you are in the weight room, make sure everyone knows you're working hard."
Strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran ought to be licking his chops with both prospects. Brown said he needs to gain a few pounds to get to playing weight, while Hill needs to drop weight -- and lots of it. If there's one noticeable knock on the talented tackle, it's his midsection. He enrolled at 406 pounds, and has since lost 16. His goal is to lose 40 more pounds by fall camp.
"When Coach Cochran does his thing that’s all you can do," Hill said.
Hill joked that he and roommate Darren Lake, who comes in at 315 pounds, have a system for keeping each other in check.
"We're pushing each other," he said. "I see something he's not supposed to eat, I knock it out of his hands. He sees something I'm not supposed to eat, he knocks it out of my hands.
"We're both on the same page."
Until Hill gets his weight down, it's unlikely he'll be a factor at right tackle. Against the league's athletic defensive ends, quickness is at a premium.
But he and Brown won't be the only ones competing to take over where Fluker left off. Sophomore Austin Shepherd took the second-team snaps at right tackle all of last season and should begin camp as the front-runner. Until Brown and Hill learn the playbook and grasp the concepts of the position, they'll be at a disadvantage. Luckily for both they have a few extra months to prepare by enrolling early.
"I have a little bit of a leg up," Brown said, "But I look forward to coming in and working for everything I get."
That will mean impressing a new offensive line coach. Jeff Stoutland, Alabama's offensive line coach since 2011, left for the same position with the Philadelphia Eagles last week.