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January 12, 2013

HURT: O-line might be best in Alabama history

D.J. Fluker made a perfectly understandable decision last week, deciding to join senior offensive line teammates Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack in departing for the National Football League.

For a man who seemingly couldn't get any bigger, Fluker grew in many ways this season, becoming more consistent, more vocal, more mature. Instead of playing quietly in the shadow of two of Alabama's greatest linemen ever, Fluker forged his own identity.

Now, with his departure, it's time to look at where this group of blockers ranks in Alabama football history. There is no question it was one of the greatest offensive lines ever assembled, not just in Tuscaloosa or the Southeastern Conference, but in the annals of college football. But was it the greatest in Alabama history?

That decision has to be subjective. There are statistics that apply - team rushing, sacks allowed, total offense, games won. Field a weak offensive line, and productivity in all of those areas will suffer. Simply comparing raw numbers, though, doesn't always tell the entire story. The Chris Samuels-led offensive line was very good, but how much of Alabama's offensive success was due to Shaun Alexander? Also, lines aren't independent entities. The 2011 line, with the underrated William Vlachos at center, was also very good. There is also a chronological consideration. There is simply no way to know how good the lines led by Fred Sington or "Tarzan" White or Vaughn Mancha were - excellent, I am sure. But the sport has changed so much that even the Tiny Giants of the 1960s really can't be compared fairly to 2012.

Ultimately, I think the other units in contention for "greatest line ever" at Alabama are the 1972 group with John Hannah and Jim Krapf, and 1979. Hannah is generally considered the greatest guard ever to play the sport (although he also played tackle at Alabama). But the '72 line did not accomplish what was achieved in 1979 and 2012. It did not win a national championship. So let the final tale of the tape come down to those two teams - if it can be settled at all.

Remember, though, that the two offenses were entirely different. In 1979, Alabama was a wishbone team and, without drastically oversimplifying things, the role of the offensive line was to fire off the ball and knock opponents off the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide center on that team, Dwight Stephenson, may have been the best ever at that and may be the only center in history whose inventory of assets included "speed." The offense also precluded the need for tall, NFL-type tackles. Jim Bunch earned All-America honors at that position, and if he was more than 6 feet tall, it wasn't by much. There was little need for pocket pass protection. The mission was to knock opponents off the ball, and they did it well.

The 2012 line, though, had to do it all. There were times when it opened the holes for power running, and times when it had to protect AJ McCarron. Certainly, size was an asset, but this was not a group of lumbering giants. When you take all those elements, and add leadership to the mix, I would rate 2012 as the best line ever. And looking at the remarkable qualities of the four young men walking out the door (Michael Williams has to be included with Jones, Warmack and Fluker), we may never see its like again.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 295-722-0225.

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