TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — You really have to watch Andre Smith on every play to appreciate what he does for Alabama’s offense.
Most people recognize something only when he’s not there, like during Alabama’s woeful performance against Tulane when Smith sat out with a knee injury, but watch him for every play and you realize his tremendous influence on the game.
So with Smith’s ailing elbow feeling better and Ole Miss boasting one of the most feared defensive lines in the Southeastern Conference, last Saturday’s game seemed like the perfect time to watch the left tackle for every play through my binoculars. I saw him make checks at the line of scrimmage. I saw him sprint to the second level and demolish a linebacker.
Mostly, I saw a lot of frustrated Ole Miss players.
It did not matter who the Rebels sent at Smith. Kentrell Lockett tried often. So did Greg Hardy and Jerrell Powe and Marcus Tillman. Linebacker Allen Walker got in Smith’s way on one play — that was a terrible idea.
Smith simply made them disappear. On numerous occasions, I had to wait until after the play to catch the number of Smith’s latest victim, because he simply used his 340-pound frame to swallow each overwhelmed defender.
“He has no flaws, no weaknesses,” Alabama running back Glen Coffee said. “None.”
I’m no expert on offensive line play. But I know what I see. On running plays, Smith simply takes the defender and places him where he wants, almost like he’s rearranging furniture and suddenly decides where he wants to put the next object.
“Sometimes he picks up guys that he shouldn’t pick up or they’re just not his guys, but he blocks them anyway,” quarterback John Parker Wilson said.
During one of Coffee’s runs on Alabama’s second touchdown drive, Smith wiped out linebacker Walker. Coffee gained 13 yards and everyone congratulated him. Smith stood alone, pulled the top of his jersey down to adjust his shoulder pads and walked to the huddle without any notice.
With better binoculars, I might have seen a smile.
“I love doing that,” Smith said Monday of racing to block a linebacker. “I tend to get in trouble for doing it, too. I don’t block the tackle long enough. You’re supposed to block the tackle, then go for a linebacker.”
On passing plays, Smith stops the rusher at the point of attack and refuses to release. It’s like the pass-rusher is attempting to break down a door but can’t get through. During Wilson’s 16-yard pass to Brad Smelley after a route broke down, he had extra time to look for that option only because Smith shut down the talented Hardy.
Here’s what I appreciated the most from watching Smith: Ole Miss ran 67 plays, and he did not appear to mess up any of them. He did not allow a sack. His consistency is remarkable. Even when the play was long past him or run to the other side, he never stopped blocking until he heard a whistle. He didn’t miss a play.
“His nastiness is the difference,” Alabama defensive end Lorenzo Washington said. “He likes to finish. He has the mentality of a defensive player on the offensive line, which is really what you want. You want your linemen to finish and dig down deep and just punish the defensive line. That’s Andre.”
Not even the players who compete against Smith in practice can agree on what makes him so great. They do agree that the Rebels’ Michael Oher, the only tackle who might go ahead of Smith in the NFL draft if Smith leaves school early, was impressive. (Smith said he watched Oher for a few plays but didn’t want to make any comparisons.)
Alabama’s players are partial to Smith.
“The thing about Dre is that he’s so big and physical but he’s really athletic,” defensive end Brandon Deaderick said. “Usually, you get a big tackle and he’s real physical but he can’t move. You get a quicker guy but he’s a little lighter and you can move him. But Dre can put his weight down on you and adjust as well. I think that’s what makes the difference.”
If he allows one sack, people will remember that play and not the other 66. And so will Smith. It happened against Kentucky, and Smith clutched his chest when asked how he felt when his man dragged Wilson down.
“My heart hurts,” Smith said. “It hurts extremely bad.”
And that’s why he never stops blocking, pushing, trying. He cannot take a chance that his man will get back in the play.
“You know,” Smith said, trying to explain, “I don’t ever want to be the reason why a play is messed up.”