Alabama Crimson Tide: D.J. Fluker
This season's line wasn't the same as its predecessor, but it was expected to have the same type of production. Just look at Ryan Kelly. He was no Barrett Jones, yet he was hyped as a possible improvement over a player with more accolades than any in Alabama history. How crazy was that?
At the same time, you don't sneak Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker out the back door and expect no one to notice. Those were two first-round NFL draft picks. You could have run a rusty wheelchair behind them and picked up first downs. Granted, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd were talented replacements, but they hadn't started a game in their careers. We didn't even know if Kouandjio could stay healthy for an entire season, for goodness sake.
In other words, we should have seen Alabama's early-season struggles on the offensive line coming. We should have expected the performances vs. Virginia Tech and Colorado State when the line didn't get push, AJ McCarron was pressured, and the running game never materialized. We shouldn't have thought the success of 2012 would transition into 2013 without so much as a blip in the radar. It doesn't work that way.
All they really needed was time and more realistic expectations.
So it's no wonder we've seen such a dramatic improvement from Alabama's offensive line over the past few weeks. The line hasn't allowed a single sack since the third quarter of the Ole Miss game on Sept. 28 -- that's a streak of 17 quarters for those keeping score at home -- and the running game is suddenly potent again. The offense has begun to click on all cylinders, jumping up to No. 35 nationally with 462.8 yards per game.
Coach Nick Saban touted their improved chemistry and trust with one another, saying how important experience has been to their development.
"They have played well," he said. "They've run blocked well these last few weeks. The last four weeks we thought played well on the offensive line. I think that's important to us, especially with AJ. If he doesn't get pressured in the pocket and we get people open, he's pretty accurate throwing the ball and makes good choices and decisions.
"I think it's a key to us being successful that they continue to improve and play well up front. We'll play against some good defensive linemen and some good defensive teams down the road."
By "down the road" Saban meant this Saturday's game against LSU. Though the 13th-ranked Tigers' defense has been up-and-down this season, they still possess some of the country's best talent on the defensive line. Tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson are monsters at 309 and 294 pounds, respectively.
LSU currently ranks fifth in the league in scoring defense (24.8 ppg), sixth in passing efficiency defense (131.9) and have accounted for the fifth-most sacks (20) in the league.
Had Saturday's game come earlier in the season for Alabama, there might be a full-blown crisis among Tide fans over the state of the offensive line. We'd be hearing questions about whether they could handle the pass rush and if that would mean the offense as a whole wouldn't score enough points to win.
But instead, we're hearing next to nothing. Luckily for Alabama, the offensive line has found its stride in the nick of time. It's almost as if the early struggles never happened. The names of Jones, Warmack and Fluker aren't forgotten in Tuscaloosa, but they're not as agonized over as they were in the first few weeks of the season.
"The past three or four games we were clicking on all levels of the run game and pass game," said right guard Anthony Steen, "and right now we’re just trying not to lose the beat and stay on top of things.”
Steen, a veteran presence with more than 30 starts under his belt, didn't know about the line's streak without allowing a sack until a reporter told him. He wasn't focused on that, he said, and neither were his teammates. Rather than getting to up or too down, he's tried to keep everyone even-keeled.
What's been said and what's happened this season won't matter when LSU comes to town this weekend, and Steen knows that. He said the Tigers' defensive line "will be the most physical line we'll see all season" and that's the only challenge he's worried about.
"We know it’s going to be a tough game," he said. "We know it’s probably going to come down to two or three plays. If they have two good plays and an 80-yard pass and an 80-yard run, then we might lose. But if we have two or three good plays then we might win.
"It’s going to be that type of game. We know that, and we know it’s going to come down to the end."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He'd like to talk about football. Period. Alabama coach Nick Saban doesn't care about hype or allegations or outside distractions. He simply doesn't want to hear it. If it were up to him, life would operate in a bubble that measures 360 feet by 160 feet. There's chalk inside that box, lines every 5 yards and a bright yellow goalpost on either end.
Saban's singular focus has no room for what happens out of bounds. Leave the rest to the administration to sort out. When reports like the one that broke Wednesday afternoon occur, he stays away. In fact, he doesn't even read them. Less than 72 hours away from No. 1 Alabama's date with No. 6 Texas A&M, he wants to talk about the Aggies and nothing else.
It has been a long week already for the Crimson Tide, and the scathing report was the imperfect cherry on top. Alabama lost to Texas A&M and its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel at home a year ago. The players have been asked repeatedly since then how they'll get their revenge. And time and time again, they've said it's not about revenge or retaliation, that they don't buy into the hype and won't participate in the media build-up. Like their coach, they wanted the focus to be on the game and nothing else.
But it's hard to tune out the outside noise once it reaches a certain pitch.
Saban can say again and again how outside influences won't be distracting, but his body language said something different on Wednesday. Earlier in the week he talked about the value of playing without emotion in raucous environments like the one his team will face Saturday, but from the podium he was showing just how hot under the collar he can become.
"As I said before, I made a statement," Saban said. "Don't ask me any more questions about this!"
It was a rare instance where an exclamation point was deserved, as Saban shouted at a room full of reporters.
"It hasn't been distracting for me, because I don't read about it," he said. "I'm focused on what we need to do to play a game. That's what's fair to our players. That's what we owe our current players. So this has not been a distraction for me."
C.J. Mosley called the news involving former teammate D.J. Fluker disappointing, but was sure to add that it was in the past and that's where he was intent on keeping it. UA's All-American has been busy all week trying to figure out how to handle stopping Manziel. As Mike linebacker, he'll be tasked with spying the fleet-footed quarterback.
Junior wideout Christion Jones was similarly flip about the allegations. He wasn't worried about what allegedly happened a year ago. His focus was on Saturday.
"I don't really get involved with that," Jones said. "Our compliance does a great job teaching us about all those things and staying away from agents and stuff like that. We can talk about A&M and leave it at that. I don't really get involved with that."
It was easy to say, but it will be harder to put into practice. The question now is whether the distractions have reached a breaking point and whether it will have any influence on what happens on the football field come Saturday.
Knowing Saban, it will be kindling on an already intense fire, a burning source of motivation for a team already looking to prove something against Texas A&M. Getting back at the Aggies was enough. Now, players can take the "us against the world" mentality to heart.
Saban was defiant Wednesday night. He wanted to talk about football, not media reports. After three questions about off-the-field matters, he'd had enough. When no one followed up with an actual question about preparing for Texas A&M, he walked off, but not before adding his sarcastic thanks to the crowd.
"Appreciate your interest in the game," he said.
And that was the last anyone will hear from him publicly until after Saturday afternoon's game in College Station, Texas. Then, maybe, he'll be able to talk about what he wants: football.
No. 79 Austin Shepherd
Redshirt junior offensive lineman
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Former Alabama offensive lineman D.J. Fluker's Twitter account caused quite the stir early this week.
The controversial tweet from Fluker's account read: "Yea I took $ n college so wat. I did wat i had to do. Agents was tryin to pimp me so I pimped them. Cast da first stone."
It was quickly deleted and Fluker later claimed that his Twitter account was hacked. His agent, Deryk Gilmore, also said that he knew who was responsible for the tweet.
“We know who did this,” Gilmore said. “This is totally fiction, but I’m waiting to get some proof. I’ve been on the phone with Twitter."He also added: “I’ll tell you, of course, this wasn’t him. It was [expletive], and it’s a shame. And anyone who believes it was him and wants to believe the worst, you go ahead and do it."
On Wednesday, Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked about the tweet on the SEC coaches teleconference and said that Alabama's compliance was still looking into it, but added that he and his staff are very involved in teaching players what's right and wrong in the off-field world of college football.
"We're trying to do things the right way," Saban said. "We've tried to do everything we can to educate our players to do things the right way when it comes to selecting an agent or being involved in the NFL draft."
Saban also said that staff members will even do in-home visits with parents to help educate them as well. He's also very adamant about agents and those associated with agents not contacting players before they've used up their eligibility. Saban said he's been "very involved" with the NFL's Players Association and the NCAA to create some sort of new rules and "cause-and-effect" consequences for those who do attempt to contact players early.
"We want to do anything that we can to prevent any sort of circumstance or situation that could get a player in trouble or an organization in trouble and to get people to manage things the right way."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At a certain point, there's too much work to be done on the football field. So much so that the idea of competition goes out the window. With three vacant starting positions on the Alabama offensive line this spring, the idea of actually battling for playing time is unthinkable, at least to left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.
The depth chart, he noted, is still open.
"Everybody is just working," Kouandjio said following Wednesday's practice. He and guard Anthony Steen are the only two returning starters on the line. "At this time, we're not even thinking about competition."
They might be the only ones, though.
If Alabama is going to have anywhere near the success it had last season, the offensive line must come together, and in a hurry. Kouandjio might have the luxury of feeling good about his position on the depth chart, but he's the exception to the rule, as Alabama must replace three NFL-caliber offensive linemen in Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. That's not to mention the other seven former starters now plying their trade elsewhere.
At least Kouandjio would admit that practice felt different without his former teammates around.
"It feels weird," he said. "I've been with those guys for a long time."
But he's been with his brother, Arie, longer. And with Warmack gone, Arie has a chance to start alongside his twin at left guard. He'll have to fend off Kellen Williams for the spot, but so far he's the favorite to win the starting nod.
Chemistry, the glue of any good offensive line, is already set on the left side. After playing together in high school, the Koundajios don't have to say a word to communicate to one another.
"It's my brother" Cyrus said, "of course we already have camaraderie. We already understand each other.
"I love playing with my brother. He's always pushing me, and I'm always pushing him."
The camaraderie of the line as a whole won't come from either Kouandjio, though. Ryan Kelly, the man charged with replacing Jones at center, is looking to make his stamp as the leader of the unit now. And as Cyrus put it, he brings a lot to the table, rivaling Jones in at least one respect.
"He's the most professional person I know," Cyrus said of Kelly. "He's really serious, and that's the perfect center right there. Most centers have to be really tough, and I trust him 100 percent. I trust him as much as I trusted Barrett Jones last year.
"I think things are looking good for him."
Cyrus also singled out rising sophomore Brandon Greene for his improvement this offseason. He, Williams, Isaac Luatua, Alphonse Taylor and newcomers Leon Brown and Brandon Hill have added depth to the offensive line.
"He's doing so much better from last year," Cyrus said of Greene. "He got so much better over the break. His hands are where they're supposed to be, his footwork is good, he is where he's supposed to be right now."
Head coach Nick Saban, for his part, downplayed the transition taking place on the offensive line. He said new position coach Mario Cristobal is doing a "really good job" at coaching and connecting with the players.
"He’s done a good job teaching them," he said. "He’s got good energy and enthusiasm. He brings some new ideas. That’s always welcome when you have new coaches join the staff. So everything about this so far from a transition standpoint has been positive."
And like everything with the offensive line, Saban's remarks came with a caveat.
"But that's a work in progress, too," he said.
Combine results: N/A
The latest: For the next week or so until Alabama holds its pro day, NFL general managers and scouts will have to rely on game film when breaking down the top-rated running back in the draft. A small tear of the hamstring kept Lacy from participating in drills in Indianapolis, but he made the trip all the same to weigh in and take part in team interviews. ESPN's John Clayton believes there wasn't a first-round running back on the field Sunday, which could be good news for Lacy. A strong pro day -- tentatively set for March 13 -- could be the final push Lacy needs to separate himself from the rest of the class and solidify his first-round status.
OT D.J. Fluker
Combine results: 5.31 second 40-yard dash, 21 bench press reps
The latest: Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago says Fluker could be a target for the Bears with the 20th overall pick. That's how far the former Alabama right tackle has come since concerns about his weight and athleticism. Coming in at a trim 6-foot-4 and 339 pounds in Indianapolis helped nearly as much as his performance during on-field workouts. While it's still not clear whether he ends up at tackle or guard, teams are clearly interested.
In the SEC, getting a high number of early enrollees is becoming more and more of a priority for coaches. This year, all 14 SEC teams had players from their 2013 classes enroll in school early. Georgia leads the SEC with 13, Alabama has nine, and Florida and Texas A&M both have eight. In fact, 73 players from this year's recruiting class enrolled early at SEC schools in this year.
ESPN colleague Travis Haney unveiled his top impact early enrollees from around the country Wednesday, and of his five players who made the cut, three came from the SEC. Well, four, because he said defensive backs Tray Matthews and Reggie Wilkerson would make immediate impacts at Georgia.
Florida running back Kelvin Taylor, who was the nation's No. 1 running back, and Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who was an ESPN 150 member, also made the list.
Those all make sense. Georgia is basically replacing its entire secondary outside of cornerback Damian Swann, so the Bulldogs will need all the help they can get in the secondary. Florida proved that it could survive -- for the most part -- on a very strong running game last fall, but workhorse Mike Gillislee is gone, so the Gators will need help for Matt Jones and Mack Brown. Taylor is an elusive, physical back who could find himself getting a boatload of carries this fall. And Howard is a real difference-maker at tight end. The Alabama coaches are very excited about his big-play ability and his ability to create a lot of mismatches for defenders.
Haney also gave Tennessee wide receiver Paul Harris the honorable mention nod. Harris comes in at a position of great need, and it will only benefit, well, everyone, having him on campus early.
But what other players who decided to trade in their prom tuxes for shoulder pads could make immediate impacts in the SEC? Glad you asked, because here are some other guys I think you should all keep an eye on:
Christian LaCouture, DL, LSU: With LSU losing starters at both end spots and one at defensive tackle, LaCouture has a chance to get immediate playing time. He can play inside or outside for the Tigers.
Christian Morgan, TE, Ole Miss: The Rebels lost three senior tight ends from last season's team, and the returning players lack experience, so Morgan could step right into a starting spot with a successful spring.
Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida: The Gators need receiving weapons, and Robinson might be the most versatile of the bunch on campus right now. He's the play-making type this offense desperately needs.
Junior college transfers
Leon Brown, OL, Alabama: Three starting offensive linemen are gone, which means Brown could find himself playing a lot this fall. He could be in line to take the vacant right tackle spot left by D.J. Fluker.
Justin Cox, DB, Mississippi State: Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay are gone, and Cox is already impressing people around the program. Word is he's already one of the fastest guys on the team, and could come in and start immediately at cornerback.
Za'Darius Smith, DE, Kentucky: With all the late movement in UK's class, Smith might have been overlooked, but Mark Stoops is very excited about him. He's been a monster in the weight room and could play right away this fall.
It's only fitting that the best offensive line in college football would produce some of the most intriguing prospects in the NFL draft. Alabama will likely have three offensive linemen taken in the first few rounds in April, further proof of the talent that resided in Tuscaloosa this past season.
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."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was never a secret that D.J. Fluker would forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. Alabama's hulking right tackle put his four years in and decided it was time to go. Coach Nick Saban even said way back in November on his weekly radio show that Fluker was a "a guy who is probably going to go out for the draft."
But Fluker is just one loss on an offensive line many considered the best in all of college football. Center Barrett Jones is leaving the Capstone as one the most decorated football players in the school's history. His three national championships playing three different positions on the offensive line is unprecedented. Winning the Outland Trophy as a junior and then switching to center and winning the Rimington Trophy is mind boggling.
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"Returning in 2013 will give me a chance to improve my draft status," he said in a news release, "while also providing the opportunity to enjoy another season with my teammates, coaches and our fans."
Steen was part of an offensive line that was arguably the best in the nation, producing two 1,000-yard tailbacks and accounting for more than 3,000 yards on the ground. The 6-foot-3 Mississippi native will be joined by sophomore tackle Cyrus Kouandjio on the line next season as it's likely junior right tackle D.J. Fluker will turn pro. Center Barrett Jones, the Rimington Award winner, and All-American guard Chance Warmack were both seniors this season and are likely NFL draft picks.
"We are glad that Anthony has decided to return and he'll be one of the senior leaders of our offense," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He's done an outstanding job for us as a starter at guard on the last two championship teams and I think he can become an even better player and improve his status for next year's draft with another season here."
Saban said that while most people spoke about Jones, Fluker and Warmack this season, he expects to hear a different tune in 2013.
"I think Anthony Steen and Cyrus are two guys that have played very, very well all year long, and their time is coming," he said. "They're going to be the guys who get featured next year as being the most experienced guys, who have the most starts, who have played with the most consistency, that people will be looking at as guys who probably will receive a lot of accolades. I don't think that just because you don't get media attention or make some team that it doesn't mean you haven't been very effective as a player. A lot of times, people do a numbers count on how many guys are from this this team -- you can only submit so many guys for these teams -- but Anthony's done as good a job as anyone on the offensive line."
Steen, who has started 25 games in his career, came to Alabama as the No. 39 prospect at defensive tackle, according to ESPN.
"I enjoy Tuscaloosa and our fans way too much to leave early," Steen said. "We are also losing two great seniors this year and this will give me the chance to help get players ready for their new roles in 2013."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There was no more dominant an offensive line in college football than Alabama's. In fact, it's hard to recall a line in recent memory that performed as well. But what made the Crimson Tide's front five so solid -- its talent and experience -- will take a serious hit next season as center Barrett Jones and left guard Chance Warmack graduate to lives in the NFL and junior right tackle D.J. Fluker likely follows their lead and strikes while the iron is hot.
With three-fifths of the offensive line gone, where does coach Nick Saban turn? Who will offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland prepare as their replacements? Will it be an incumbent or a rookie who wins the jobs of tackle, center and guard?
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Alabama: There's little doubt that Alabama has the most talented offensive line in the country. If there was, it was likely erased when the Crimson Tide bullied their way to an SEC title game record 350 yards rushing against Georgia. It was a display of just how dominant the front five can be -- D.J. Fluker bowling over defenders, Chance Warmack bursting to the next level for a key block, Barrett Jones orchestrating the action from center.
But Alabama's line hasn't been without its flaws. In the same display of dominance in Atlanta was a show of weakness. In the first half, Georgia attacked the line and had good success rushing the passer. AJ McCarron was harassed and rattled early on, forcing a number of errant passes that would force offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to turn almost exclusively to the running game.
While Georgia had one of the best pass rushers in the country in Jarvis Jones and a front seven that's arguably more athletic than Notre Dame's, the worry of a repeat exists. The Fighting Irish are balanced up front and can attack the offensive line in a number of ways. Brian Kelly's squad ranks in the top 25 in passing defense, rushing defense, sacks and red zone defense.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish might not have Barrett Jones, but they have the next best thing in Braxston Cave. The 6-foot-3, 304-pound senior was a candidate for the Outland and Lombardi awards, as well as a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, an award for the top center in the country which Jones just so happened to have won.
Notre Dame's line might not come in with the hype of Alabama's, but their effectiveness is without question. It starts with their experience as all five linemen are juniors or seniors. And all five linemen are big. The unit averages 304.4 pounds with right guard Mike Golic Jr. the smallest at a mere 295 pounds.
"They're a pretty good group," UA defensive end Damion Square said. "The center is a big, physical guy. All those guys have great size on them, great height. They protect (quarterback Everett Golson) back there pretty well. It's definitely a game we're going to have to strap it up and come to play. It's power football."
Final Verdict: Fawn over the skill players and pass rushers all you want, but this game will be decided by what happens in the trenches. Both Alabama and Notre Dame are built on the simple premise that if you win the line of scrimmage, you'll likely win the game. And while both schools have big, powerful offensive lines, there's none more overwhelming and physical than Alabama's. When Jones, Warmack and Fluker get going, there's no stopping them. Every coach that has witnessed the Bama o-line has come away with the same impression. Said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze: "That’s why they are where they’re ranked now and why they’re in the national championship hunt."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala -- The hype began before the season had even started. Michigan head coach Brady Hoke watched film of the Alabama offensive line before the season opener and said it was the best he'd seen in college football. Barrett Jones was the defending Outland Trophy winner at center, Chance Warmack was arguably the most talented lineman in the country as a guard ,and D.J. Fluker was a potential top-20 pick at right tackle. Even sophomore left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who hadn't started a game in his career, had credentials as the former No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the class of 2010.
The front five didn't disappoint in Dallas as Alabama manhandled Michigan up front. The Crimson Tide tallied 431 total yards of offense in the 41-14 win, 232 of those yards coming on the ground.
Michigan learned about the offensive line's strength. So did every other team that faced Alabama throughout the season. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said, "It's one of the best I've seen," in late September, pointing toward the trenches as the reason Alabama was ranked No. 1 at the time. The Tide would slip with a loss to Texas A&M, but regained traction in the weeks that followed, securing a trip to the BCS National Championship Game with a win over then-No. 3 Georgia in the SEC title game. Alabama set a record for the most rushing yards in the conference championship with 350.
"They didn't do anything new," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "They just lined up and played inside drill for a while. ... I don't even know if they threw it, it might have been one pass and two drives or something like that, but they just lined up and knocked us off the ball."
Richt was left without answers, but Kouandjio wasn't.
"We would not be denied," Kouandjio said, citing an attitude the unit possessed since Week 1 of the season.
"We didn't want to settle for average," Warmack said. "We all want to be exceptional."
With just one game remaining, it appears as if the promise of the Alabama offensive line has been fulfilled. Jones won the Rimington Trophy for the nation's top center, Warmack and Fluker were both All-SEC selections, and UA averaged more than 224 yards per game on the ground, good enough to finish 20th in the country.
If success in the SEC starts up front, it's no wonder Alabama ended the season on top of the conference with a shot at being on top of the college football world.