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November 9, 2012TUSCALOOSA | They were pegged for greatness before they even set foot on the practice field to prepare for the 2012 season. The University of Alabama's offensive line returned four starters from a national championship team - including last year's Outland Trophy winner and two others who joined him on the preseason watch list for that award - with the fifth spot filled by a sophomore who ranked as the nation's top offensive line prospect coming out of high school.
That greatness didn't develop immediately. It took time, but now the Crimson Tide's offensive line enters the 10th game of the season as perhaps the best up-front blocking unit in the country and one of the best in school history.
"We do have a lot of talent," center Barrett Jones said after Alabama man-handled Michigan in the season opener, "but there's a lot more to making a great offensive line than just talent. We know that.
"Communication is a big part of it, and chemistry, so those parts have to be developed. But certainly we have the groundwork to be a great offensive line."
On average, Alabama's linemen stand a shade over 6-foot-41⁄2 and weigh about 314 pounds. Right tackle D.J. Fluker is the biggest of the big men at 6-6 and 335 pounds and he plays next to the runt of the unit, guard Anthony Steen, who goes 6-3 and tips the scales at 303 pounds.
Arkansas coach John L. Smith saw UA's line up close in the third game of the season. That was enough for him.
"It almost looks like, I hate to say this, that they put them in a clone machine and kind of ran five of them out there that all look the same," Smith said. "They're all about the same height and they're all over three bills and they all can flat run around the field and get on you.
"When they do get on you, it's just so darned hard. They're great with their feet so it's hard to get rid of them. Seeing them first-hand was something I don't want to see again this year, I can tell you that."
Big, strong linemen aren't rare in college football. Big, strong, athletic and mobile, however, is a combination that is harder to find. Howard Schnellenberger, who coached UA's offensive line in the 1960s under the late Paul W. "Bear" Bryant and won a national championship at Miami, saw Alabama in person this season against Florida Atlantic and has seen most of the other games on television. He is impressed with the play in the trenches.
"They are an embodiment of the Coach Bryant recipe of how to build championship teams and championship programs and a championship dynasty," Schnellenberger said. "It all starts with big guys, and particularly those guys on the offensive line. They take advantage of their cohesive strength and athleticism."
The biggest lineman on UA's 1965 team, Schnellenberger said, was right tackle Cecil Dowdy at 6-2 and 220 pounds. There were starting linemen under 6 feet tall and less than 200 pounds. Schnellenberger notes that he stood 6-2 and had children to grew to 6-4 and grandchildren who top out at 6-5. He has also observed how bigger athletes, once thought to be clumsy and immobile, have become more dynamic over the decades with earlier coaching and training.
"I'm not a pathologist," he said. "I don't know about evolution and natural selection and how we evolved from the trees to the stars. Who would have ever thought that (players so large and athletic) would be the norm rather than an aberration?
"Now we've got a big man who can move like a smaller man could, with all the coordination. We all know that force is mass times velocity squared, so it's not only a matter of mass. These bigger athletes are able to explode off the ball with the velocity that the smaller players used to have and it creates a bigger collision."
Jones, at 6-5 and 302 pounds at center, Chance Warmack at 6-3, 320 at left guard and Cyrus Kouandjio at 6-6, 311, join Steen and Fluker in creating a wall of force that drives Alabama's offense.
"The offensive line has done a really good job," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "We have been really pleased with the job Barrett Jones has done at center, the leadership that he provides and the way that all five of those guys have played as a unit."
The key to the development of Alabama's offensive line this season was the move of Jones from left tackle, where he started last year and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top lineman, to center. UA needed a new center with William Vlachos graduating after starting three years in the middle of the line.
Jones, who played some at center as a backup last season, made the transition to the new position, which requires him to not only block but to call the blocking schemes for the line.
"I am a center," Jones said this week. "I guess I am now. I think we're past that."
Jones, who played on the outside last year after playing at guard earlier in his career, had to learn to play inside again.
"He just had to get used to doing the snaps and certain footwork," Steen said.
Jones helps also serves as the unit's on-the-field mentor. He has worked with Kouandjio, a sophomore who had to grow quickly into his role as blind-side protector at left tackle.
"You know, sometimes when coach (Jeff Stoutland, UA's line coach) coaches me on something it sounds better when I hear it from somebody who actually played it and who knows exactly how it is out in space there on the left side by yourself," Kouandjio said. "Barrett comes in and he gives me a word or two and it's easier for me to hear it from him."
Even with five individual talents who could probably start anywhere in the country, Alabama's linemen had to learn to work as a unit. Even though four of them had started together the year before, Jones' move inside meant the group had to work out communication and come to play as one.
"We're communicating a whole lot better, on a whole new level, basically," Fluker said. "And that's the great thing about playing offensive line, because you play with each other so many games and you kind of figure it out after a while."
The line's development into a cohesive unit didn't come overnight. Alabama gave up six sacks against Western Kentucky in the second game of the season and was able to rush for just 125 yards against Ole Miss in week five.
"I've been very pleased with the chemistry that we've developed over these games," Jones said. "Everyone has improved this year and we've also improved as a unit."
As the chemistry has developed, linemen have gained an almost radar-like ability to know what each other are doing.
"It usually takes a while to build chemistry on the offensive line," Kouandjio said, "especially when you've got a new addition to the group. These guys are a whole bunch of old barons and I'm the new guy. It took a while, but eventually we've built the chemistry and we have it going."
Said Fluker, "The more time you play with guys, the more you learn their moves, their footwork."
That communication and chemistry in action is easy to see for veteran observers.
"It's a beauty to behold," Schnellenberger said.
All of Alabama's offensive line chemistry, and all of its communication skills, were tested last weekend at LSU. Going against a defensive front with two projected first-round National Football League draft picks - Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery - Alabama averaged 6.4 yards per play and pulled out a thrilling 21-17 victory despite having possession for just over 20 minutes.
The line played through deafening noise at Tiger Stadium.
"There's certain times in the game where we can just look at the (defensive) front and I'll know what (Fluker) is doing and he'll know what I'm doing," Steen said. "We won't have to say anything, we'll just look at each other and we'll know. Sometimes I'll just wink at him and he knows what we're doing.
"Last week's game, it was pretty tough. It was loud, but we got through there pretty well. We had one or two plays where we couldn't even hear each other talking. I made a call one time and I was yelling as loud as I could and D.J. still couldn't hear me, but we got through it just fine."
Kouandjio battled Montgomery head-to-head all night.
"I had a front-row seat to see that," Warmack said. "I was there, you know, and he held his own against that dude."
Not only did he hold his own, he did it with relish.
"Going against Sam, I tell you, he's a grown man," Kouandjio said. "He's a grown man on the edge and I love his personality. We talked a little bit back and forth on the line, we talked our little trash, but it was fun. I tell you, it was the funnest experience I ever had, that's the funnest person I ever played against. Me and him went at it the whole game, he won some and I won some. I talked to him after the game ... and we shook hands and went home."
Work in progress
UA's offensive line isn't satisfied that it has reached a summit. With the possibility of a Southeastern Conference championship and the chance to play itself into another national championship game still ahead, the linemen are still working.
"I think we've grown pretty well right now," Steen said, "and hopefully we'll keep getting better and see where it takes us."
Alabama's up-front blockers aren't looking for style points.
"As a group we know that it's not always going to be pretty, it's not always going to be efficient every time, but I think as the weeks go on we get more and more together," Warmack said. "It's always good to play with somebody for a long time because you start to understand where they're coming from or what tendencies they have or what they need to work on. I think we can all say for each other, we all know our strengths and weaknesses. We build off that."
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.