You have to hand it to Mike Shula.
When it comes to freshman offensive tackle Andre Smith, Alabama's head coach has done his best to downplay the astronomic expectations that accompanied the nation's top-rated offensive line prospect for the class of 2006 to Tuscaloosa.
Ideally, Smith would have traveled a path similar to the one most first-year offensive linemen follow. Get your nose in the playbook, become best friends with the strength and conditioning staff and we'll see you in the spring, kid.
Of course we all know that was never an option for Shula. Even if the Tide wasn't in need of an upgrade at left tackle, keeping an amazingly nimble 340-pounder who finishes blocks like Kobayashi does hot dogs off the field would have been extremely difficult.
And it's not as if Alabama is the only place where Smith could have began his collegiate career as a starter. Of the schools he paid official visits to during the recruiting process (LSU, Miami, Florida, Southern Cal and Alabama), USC is the only place he might have struggled to pull the trick.
As for his rise to the top of the depth chart, there's a reason why Smith has taken all of his reps on the left side. Despite having never gone against a defensive end the caliber of Wallace Gilberry, it took all of one pass rush drill to see that Smith was the Tide's top protector at tackle. One week into camp, the competition was no longer between Smith and incumbent Chris Capps. Instead, it became a question of who would start on the right side: Capps or Kyle Tatum?
"There's like a glow around him and I had to get a piece of that glow," Gilberry said of the encounter. "He's everything they said he'd be."
Talent aside, what has impressed me the most about Smith over the last two weeks has been his constant presence on the practice field. During that time, no fewer than six offensive linemen have spent time in orange, non-contact jerseys. Though he's obviously not in peak physical condition, Smith hasn't missed a beat. In fact, he's handled reps with both the first and second teams at left tackle on more than one occasion.
As good as he's been in his high school body, Tide fans should go Tom Cruise just thinking about what Smith will be capable of once he completes a full offseason in Rocky Colburn's strength and conditioning program. He's getting by right now on instinct, desire and natural ability. A fine mixture of assets, no doubt, but additional strength and stamina will take him to another level altogether.
This isn't to say Smith will skate through his freshman campaign without getting beat. As the Tide's starting left tackle, he's going to be taking on some of the best pass rushers in all of college football. True freshmen starters at left tackle in the SEC are about as common as Phil Fulmer visits to a salad bar. Off the top of my head, Reggie Green of Florida (1992) and Willie Anderson of Auburn (1993) come to mind, but that's about it.
Remember, we're not talking about a right tackle who can count on consistent help from a tight end. Yes, Smith will likely get an assist from a back or tight end from time to time, but he'll be isolated one-on-one with speed rushers far more then either Capps or Tatum. As a result, he's going to take some lumps.
And those lining up across from Smith would be wise to take advantage of Smith this fall, because John Parker Wilson's blindside won't be open for business in a year's time.