By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Once the subject of serious doubt and worried speculation, the rebuilt Alabama offensive line has a new reputation.
The five regulars, three of whom had never started before September, are paving the way for a Heisman Trophy front-runner while keeping their quarterback on his two feet better than nearly every line in the SEC.
An interview with running back Mark Ingram never passes without mention of the big guys up front, and he leads the Southeastern Conference with 1,399 rushing yards heading into today's Iron Bowl matchup with Auburn.
In a rivalry series that's seen its share of upsets, team captain and starting left guard Mike Johnson said his 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 has come since spring practice.
James Carpenter, Johnson's neighbor on the line at left tackle, has likely experienced the most growth of the three new starters. 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 him seven other times in a 15-for-34 passing performance, and 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 video study. Led by Johnson and the other returning starter, Drew Davis, all the linemen bought into the concept.
The Alabama defense has to deal with the O-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."