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August 10, 2010

Fluker works to make his case as staring right tackle

TUSCALOOSA _ Size 22.

Think about that for a moment and then look down at your own feet. D.J. Fluker's are so big that his shoes have the same number as Mark Ingram's jersey. Among those wearing the same size include Shaquille O'Neal, Dikembe Mutombo and some dinosaurs ... if they would have laced up.

"It always amazes me when I see those shoes and think how many cows just got hurt when puts those Nikes on," offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said.

Just buying a pair for everyday life or formal attire can be an ordeal. It's not like the redshirt freshman can window browse at the mall and ask to try on the latest fashion. The average measure only goes up to 15, so a store would have to specially order a bigger one before specially ordering whatever purchased.

"It's kind of hard moving them, but you get used to it," said Fluker who laughed when asked if he had to go to a clown store for footwear during the University of Alabama's recent football media day. It turns out he has a good store to order from on the Internet - even though reallybigfeet.com only goes up to size 21.

There's an obvious analogy to be made here that the 6-foot-6 Fluker has big shoes to full when it comes to playing right tackle for the Crimson Tide and seems perfectly suited to do so physically. Yet even though he's already inherited the title of biggest man on the Crimson Tide from Terrence Cody, and was just as much of an instant sensation upon hitting the campus, this wasn't nearly as simple.

Cody was a junior college transfer who specialized in clogging up the middle. Like most offensive linemen, Fluker needed some refining out of Foley High School.

Go back to his first few practices in 2009, when coaches practically threw Fluker immediately into the mix to see how he would do and found the rookie was simply out of place. After initially weighing close to 400 pounds he was too raw. His first step was slow, the footwork lacking and the pass protection ... well, let's just say his quarterbacks would have had reason to be nervous.

In contrast, he's now established and beginning to live up to the potential that came with being named the top recruit in the state, and third-overall in the nation (behind Bryce Brown and Rueben Randle, with Trent Richardson sixth according to Rivals' 2009 rankings).

"He's totally reshaped his body," offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said. "It's unbelievable what he's done to help himself from that standpoint. Obviously he's a big guy."

Fluker says he's down to 325 pounds, but wants to play at roughly 330 this season. While shedding 70 pounds over the last year he simultaneously worked hard in the weight room to get his strength up and really saw and felt the difference over time.

"He got way quicker by losing that weight," senior left tackle James Carpenter said.
"I can breathe a whole lot better too," Fluker said.

Although his huge frame has continually caused most Crimson Tide fans to drool, the real reason why Fluker is on pace to start is his work ethic. Alabama coaches have been quietly raving about it behind the scenes and now his teammates have joined in.

"It's hard to say anyone works harder than D.J.," sophomore right guard Barrett Jones said. "He works his butt off and that's something we all respect him for."

While no one on the roster made more improvement from the end of last season to the start of spring, Fluker's progression has continued into fall camp, with one person in particular having helped.

"It's come on a lot since spring," Fluker said about his footwork. "I've been working hard with my teammates and I got a little help from Barrett. He's been really good for me, been like a brother to me and helped me with my footwork every day.

"It's been all good so far. Working hard."

That isn't all. While the tackle was talking to reporters by the north upright at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Jones had quietly moved in behind the post and was listening in along with William Vlachos. The junior center may not have come up any higher than Fluker's shoulder, but they were looking out for him.

"I think the thing that is going to help D.J. most is the experience that we have coming back at right guard," McElwain said. "What I mean by that is that offensive football is about communication. Offensive football is making sure all 11 are on the same page - guys making calls together, making sure everybody understands where they're at. Having Barrett Jones next to that position is huge for us, because he is a guy that played all the games, is a very smart guy and will be able to help and communicate the different things we need to do to be successful at that position.

"The other thing we need to do is just make sure that the right tackle position develops. There is no need to expose when we don't need to expose. In other words, let's make sure we're doing the things that he does well or that position does well and not try to ask them to do things that he's not ready for yet."

It's not like Fluker will step in and suddenly be an All-American, in fact he wasn't that far off from becoming a guard. His predecessor, Drew Davis, was also a staple who manned the position for 28 games.

But what running back wouldn't want to run behind him and this line, which last year helped secure Alabama's first Heisman Trophy. Run-blocking remains Fluker's biggest strength, and there are few, if any, defenders who will be able to stand up to the pounding, both his and the running game in general.

With Carpenter (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) having a year under his belt, which has improved his technique, and 300-pound sophomore Chance Warmack taking over at left guard, one would be hard-pressed to find a bigger, thicker line in Alabama history.

"They've been looking forward to it their whole career and are stepping in," Ingram said. "I think they're more than capable enough of being just as good or better. So I don't think our offensive line will lose much at all, it'll be great and they've made a lot of progress in camp and did well in spring.

"Coach (Joe) Pendry always has that unit ready."

A nice bonus for Jones is that Fluker isn't hitting him with the size 22s as often, which makes the guard smile. Those things can hurt, especially with what's in them.

"We're working on that," Jones said.


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