TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - It's not for James Carpenter to worry about who held his position before he did. That he may be Alabama's best answer to who will replace Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith can't be his concern.
The transfer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College was good enough to command a first-team presence throughout spring drills with the Crimson Tide. For now, that's about all anyone in his position could have hoped for.
But make no mistake - he is a key figure at the key position of a key unit.
Alabama's 2008 offensive line was thought to have held the Crimson Tide's fortunes in its collective hand because of all its experience. This year, the offensive line may play the same crucial role because of its inexperience.
But count Jared Powers as one man who won't be a bit surprised if Carpenter flourishes in a starting role. Powers was Carpenter's offensive line coach at Coffeyville last fall. As part of a new coaching staff, it was Powers' only season to work with the 6-foot-5, 305-pound tackle.
"I would say he is the most complete offensive tackle I've ever had," Powers said. "I've had Anthony Boudreaux, who was 6-9 and 370, Kyle Burkhart at Southern Miss, I've coached against [former Oklahoma standout] Phil Loadholt.
"Some of those guys may have been bigger, faster or had better feet, but at the time I saw them, none of them had a better combination of all those things than James did."
No amount of success for Carpenter will shock John Bowen, either. Bowen, coach at Hephzibah (Ga.) High, knew Carpenter long before Powers did. Carpenter played a guard position in a Wing-T offense under Bowen at Hephzibah. And in the Wing-T, with its endless variety of traps and counters, quickness is just as important at the guard position as size and strength are.
"He trapped a lot, and not always the easy trap at center," Bowen said. "A lot of times we asked him to pull, lead the opposite off tackle hole, his man wasn't always in front of him. He had to go get somebody."
Bowen said he didn't quite realize how special an athlete Carpenter was until he tried him on special teams. As a member of Hephzibah's punt coverage unit, Bowen said Carpenter was among the first players downfield.
"That was really an eye-opener," Bowen said.
Bowen took the Hephzibah coaching job after the 2004 season when Carpenter was a sophomore. At that time, he was already nearly as big as he is today, and he also played basketball for the Rebels. Bowen remembers a shy, reserved kid who kept to his own business. But he also remembers a player who knew early on that he wanted to play big-time college football.
And a few times when Carpenter's quiet nature gave way to assertiveness.
"We were playing Glenn Hills his senior year and he came up to me at halftime, and he hardly ever talked," Bowen said. "I don't remember exactly what he said, but he was upset we weren't running the ball directly behind him. It kind of took me off guard. That kind of showed the way he bloomed late."
Carpenter also struck Powers as someone who took his business seriously.
"He talked so little, I wasn't sure he even liked me at first," Powers said. "But once you invest some time in him, you see that's just his nature. But physically, he was extremely talented from the beginning. He has every tool and a great motor. He's always in the picture at the end of the play."
While Carpenter established himself immediately in spring drills on Alabama's first offensive line, competition will continue in fall camp. It will come not only from Alfred McCullough, who worked in the second group at left tackle, but also from incoming five-star freshman D.J. Fluker. Alabama coach Nick Saban said in the spring that he was pleased with Carpenter's progress, but noted his pass blocking has more room for improvement than his run blocking.
That's not surprising, considering opportunities to pass block were few and far between in high school and not much more frequent in his first year at Coffeyville.
"A lot of the stuff we did passing was play-action," Bowen said. "We did have some run-and-shoot elements, but that's not true five-step pass protection."
As a freshman at Coffeyville, Carpenter was also in a run-dominant scheme. It wasn't until last season, his first under a new coaching staff and Powers, that he got a chance to play in a balanced offense.
"He didn't give up a sack here the whole year, and I think we threw the ball around 250, 300 times during the season," Powers said. "For his first time really pass protecting a lot, he did a great job. He picked up the footwork, the hands, the little intricacies of pass blocking. At first he thought that pass blocking was for softer guys, but he learned you can be aggressive, you just have to let them approach you first."