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October 13, 2010

Stepping in for Fluker, McCullough finally gets his chance

TUSCALOOSA _ It's always been in the back of Alfred McCullough's mind that he wanted to someday start for the University of Alabama.

One year, two years ... you get the idea. It's been a long time coming and not at the position he arrived playing.

Saturday, when the Crimson Tide hosts Ole Miss for homecoming, McCullough's expected to finally get his chance, replacing injured D.J. Fluker at right tackle. The redshirt freshman sustained a severe groin injury at South Carolina and it wouldn't be surprising if he's out until at least the LSU game on Nov. 6.

"I'm very excited about it," McCullough said. "I've been ready. I've been ready every week in case someone does go down as D.J. did. It's unfortunate, but I'm going to do my best."

Tuesday, Fluker wore a black jersey and rode an exercise bike during practice while McCullough worked ahead of true freshman Arie Kouandijo (pronounced kwan-jo), whom coaches are hoping to redshirt, while junior John Michael Boswell was the backup left tackle.

But seeing McCullough with the top group of lineman isn't that unusual and he's already played in five games this season.

"We have the utmost faith in Alfred McCullough because we know what he can do," sophomore tight end Michael Williams said. "We know he's talented and he's stepping in pretty well right now."

McCullough went into the spring as the de facto incumbent at right tackle, where Drew Davis had started for 28 straight games. Yet his competition was nothing to sneeze at, former five-star prospects Fluker and sophomore Tyler Love, and the versatile Boswell.

Coaches liked his long reach, how well he knew the offense and steady play, but at 6-foot-6, 330 pounds loved Fluker's potential. When his work ethic matched his upside they started working him alongside guard Barrett Jones to speed up has assimilation.

McCullough had sort gone through something like that too. One of just a few remaining players on the roster who committed to the Crimson Tide before Nick Saban arrived (others from the Class of 2007 include Nick Gentry, William Vlachos and Alex Watkins, while 2006 members include Earl Alexander, Preston Dial, Greg McElroy, Brian Motley and David Ross), the Athens product started off on the defensive side and saw action in just one game during his freshman year, notching a fumble recovery and an assist during the season-opening 52-6 victory against Western Carolina.

Then he sat, and waited, and learned.

Although McCullough posted six solo tackles, a sack and two pass deflections to win the Dwight Stephenson Most Valuable Lineman Award for the 2008 A-Day game, he made the switch to offensive lineman.

Like usual with such a move he ended up redshirting, but the mental conversion took a while and if someone had asked him which side he'd rather play the answer probably would have been "defense."

"But I'm comfortable with where I'm at now," he said. "I like what I'm doing."

Six games off the bench last season, including a little left tackle in the SEC Championship Game, and he worked into the role of being, take your pick: third tackle, sixth offensive lineman, first off the bench.

However, it'll be interesting to see how Fluker's absence might affect the play-calling. Obviously Alabama can't use the short-yardage formation when senior left tackle James Carpenter and he lined up next to each other, but might Alabama run a little more left?

McCullough thinks he's a little better in run blocking so do coaches give him some early help to boost his confidence?

Does Alabama's offensive identity change?

Probably not.

"We're no different from everyone one," the 6-foot-2, 309-pound McCullough said. "We have our own styles, but we have the same responsibilities as anyone else."

Against South Carolina the Crimson Tide didn't run like it wanted, but the majority of carries were behind the right side of the line, including junior running back Mark Ingram's game-best 13-yard run. Its propensity to have sophomore left guard Chance Warmack pull to his right also worked against Alabama on the play-action sack-and-fumble when the Gamecocks effectively blitzed into that hole.

A week before against Florida nearly everything was up the middle to the right, although a notable exception was sophomore Trent Richardson's 30-yard carry around the left end. The ground game was more evenly balanced at Arkansas, but again the most carries were up the middle.

"I think I did all right, could have done better," McCullough said about South Carolina. "It was tough that we lost, but you just have to be into the game the whole time and watch the players you may have to go against if you do hear your name called."

It finally has, with No. 8 Alabama (5-1 overall, 2-1 SEC) looking to rebound against Ole Miss (3-2, 1-1), a physical opponent that rested up last week. Defensively, the Rebels are 11th in the conference against the pass (96th nationally), seventh vs. the run (31st), and last in scoring (103rd).

But it's still Ole Miss, a division rival coached by the creative Houston Nutt, and his players are talking up the game.

"They have a great defensive line," McCullough said.

So how does that dream of someday starting come out?

"I don't know," he said. "We'll see."


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