By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA -- Once the subject of serious doubt and worried speculation, the rebuilt Alabama offensive line has a new reputation.
Those five, three of whom had never started before September, are paving the way for a Heisman Trophy frontrunner while keeping its quarterback on his feet better than nearly every line in the SEC.
Statistics of their own don't exist, so the success of others generally quantifies the success or failure of an offensive line. That, and the praise they receive from the big names.
An interview with running back Mark Ingram never passes without mention of the big fellas up front who clear paths for the patient runner who leads the SEC with 1,399 yards heading into Friday's Iron Bowl matchup with Auburn.
Being a rivalry game that's seen its share of upsets, team captain and starting left guard Mike Johnson said this group can't afford to take anything for granted. The fact that Auburn's defense ranks 10th in the SEC against the run and is seventh in sacks won't affect the mental approach this week.
For Johnson, this is yet another opportunity to prove how far this group came since spring practice.
James Carpenter, Johnson's neighbor on the line at left tackle, has likely experienced the most growth of the three fresh faces. As a junior college transfer who stepped into the job of Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith, the learning experience involved a few rough patches.
"We really had to talk (Carpenter) through the Virginia Tech game," Johnson said. "He's not using training wheels anymore. He's his own guy out there, making calls and helping out the tight ends. He's become a good player and someone we can really lean on in this offense."
As the lineman guarding the blind side of right-handed quarterback Greg McElroy, Carpenter is vital in limiting the sack total to 11 this season -- good for a first place tie in the SEC with Tennessee and Georgia.
And when McElroy is protected, his numbers are noticeably better. The teams who got pressure in his face -- Ole Miss and South Carolina -- forced him into two of his worst performances of the season. The Rebels sacked McElroy twice and hurried seven other times in a 15-for-34 passing performance while the varied blitzes of South Carolina led to two of the Tide quarterback's four interceptions this season.
Keeping the stars upright involves extra time breaking down game footage.
When any offensive player has been asked about what makes the line so effective and able to improve each week, the answer involves film study. Led by the exhausting studiers in Johnson and the other returning starter Drew Davis, everyone else bought into the concept.
Whatever they're doing, it's not lost on the Alabama defense that deals with the line every day in practice. Defensive end Brandon Deaderick remembers the time when chemistry was still forming and the edges were rough. Every week, however, the progress is evident.
"They know what to expect," Deaderick said. "They're understanding the fronts, what the defenses are trying to do, making the right calls. We can see it in practice, too. We'll get out there and we'll think they're doing this. But really they're changing the blocking scheme against personnel that's in there or how we're lined up. They've been doing a real good job."