FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Offensive linemen are usually the unsung heroes, the guys who only get talked about when they screw up.
Not at Alabama, where the second-ranked Crimson Tide’s road to the BCS championship game has been paved by five talented 300-pounders, including two-time All-American and four-year starter Barrett Jones.
“This has a chance to be the best offensive line I’ve ever played on, and we’ve had some good ones over the past few years,” Jones said.
No. 1 Notre Dame’s offensive line doesn’t have quite the star power or balance. The Fighting Irish don’t hide the fact that they lean left — at least when it comes to running the football. Notre Dame has made a living running behind tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt.
“We certainly use the left side of our offensive line I’d say at a ridiculous rate,” Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. “I’m not giving away any secrets. They’re not very good at what they do if they don’t know some of the tendencies we have running the football. We typically like to go left. It’s not by accident.”
When the Irish and Crimson Tide meet Monday night in Miami, the BCS championship could very well be on the lines — the offensive lines to be specific.
That the smart and personable Jones has become the face of the Crimson Tide seems rather apropos. Alabama has reached the BCS championship game for the third time in four seasons with a power running game as its foundation. No spread offenses, read-options and up-tempo in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Jones, from Germantown, Tenn., played guard in 2009 when he was opening holes for Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Last year he was Alabama’s left tackle, helping Trent Richardson become a Heisman finalist. This season Jones moved to center and has been as good as ever. According to Alabama, he has missed only six assignments, playing 731 snaps. And Alabama has two 1,000-yard rushers in T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy.
“He’s just a smart player,” Notre Dame guard Louis Nix III said. “He knows what he has to do. He’s strong at the point of attack. Just an overall great player.”
As good as Jones is, he’s not even the best NFL prospect on Alabama’s line.
Left guard Chance Warmack holds that distinction. Guards tend not to get picked in the first round, but Warmack is projected to be one of those rare commodities. Right tackle D.J. Fluker might jump to the NFL as a junior after the BCS title game. Sophomore left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is a rising star who could develop into Alabama’s next great tackle, joining the likes of Andre Smith and Chris Samuel. Steady right guard Anthony Steen is a two-year starter.
“We don’t play running back but we got skills, too,” Fluker said.
Those skills were never more on display than in the Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia. The Tide fell behind 21-10 in the third quarter and went to the running game to shift the momentum. Alabama finished with 350 yards on 51 carries and all that running set up AJ McCarron’s 45-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass to Amari Cooper off play action.
Against Notre Dame, Alabama will face possibly its toughest test of the season. The Fighting Irish front seven, led by All-American linebacker Manti Te’o and stud defensive linemen Nix and Stephon Tuitt, has allowed only two rushing touchdowns this season.
“Great O-line,” Nix said. “Arguably, the best O-line in the country.”
If you ask Notre Dame coaches, they will tell you they have the best offensive lineman in the country in Martin. The two-year starter from Indianapolis has been a rock for the first Notre Dame offense to average 5 yards per rush since 1996.
“Ridiculous,” Chuck Martin said of his left tackle. “He should have two scholarships. He’s been so good every week. So consistent every play. He rarely misses his block. He’s been such a dominant, dominant force for us.”
Watt, a senior, is Zack Martin’s right-hand man.
“I would say we certainly don’t use it 50-50 right and left,” Chuck Martin said. “(Zack Martin) and Watt get the lion share of tough blocks.”
The Irish also have a center who ranks among the best in the country in Braxston Cave, a third-team All-American. On the right side, Mike Golic Jr. holds the guard spot and Christian Lombard is the other tackle. It’s a group that has started every game and allowed only 18 sacks while protecting a first-year starting quarterback in Everett Golson.
Chuck Martin gives plenty of credit to line coach Harry Hiestand, who is in his 30th season in coaching and first at Notre Dame. Martin said Hiestand has taught toughness and technique and Notre Dame will need both to run the ball against an Alabama defense that allows only 2.5 yards per rush, anchored by powerful nose guard Jesse Williams.
“Technically, he’s as good as anybody in the world at teaching guys how to move people,” Martin said of Hiestand. “If you play with great technique you’ve got a chance. If you don’t play with great technique, you’ve got no chance. That’s what we’re up against with Alabama. We have to play with great technique every snap up front or we’ll have zero chance to ever get a yard rushing. If you do (play with great technique), it’ll still be hit or miss, but hopefully you cover up enough people, you’ll get a little bit of movement.”