Senior College Football Columnist

A Chance Alabama is thrilled it took

The best offensive player in the Alabama program is an O-lineman. He is not the most quotable lineman. (That would be center Barrett Jones.) Nor is he the most imposing O-lineman. (That would be one of the Tide's offensive tackles, either towering D.J. Fluker, Bama's 6-foot-6, 335-pound right tackle, or chiseled Cyrus Kouandjio, the 6-6, 311-pound left tackle.)

The Tide's best offensive player for the program poised to win its third BCS title in four seasons was actually the most lightly-regarded recruit of the whole decorated Bama O-line group.

Five years ago, Chance Warmack was a hefty 6-3, 320-pound kid who grew up in Georgia as a Bulldogs fan but was overlooked by Mark Richt's program even though he played for a state powerhouse that cranks out NFL talent. Warmack's quarterback for two seasons was Auburn great Cam Newton, so it wasn't like there wasn't plenty of attention around the place. His high school O-line coach played for the Dawgs in the '90s. Georgia Tech wasn't sold on the big lineman, either.

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But Alabama was. In Warmack's junior year of high school, the Crimson Tide became the first school to offer him a scholarship. And it's Warmack who perhaps best epitomizes what this Alabama team is right now, the kind of mauler that has blasted holes for one prolific Bama rusher after another as the Tide simply bullies its opponents.

"I don't take it as an insult that [Georgia] didn't recruit me, because if it didn't happen the way it did, then I wouldn't be here," the senior said Thursday in Florida. "I'm happy that I chose Alabama and I'm happy to be around great guys in a great atmosphere. I was just looking for an opportunity."

Led by the powerful left guard, the Tide -- despite having to replace all-America running back Trent Richardson this season -- is averaging 225 rushing yards per game and almost 5.6 yards per carry -- fifth-best in the nation. Both numbers for Bama are an improvement from last season. Warmack and his Bama linemates, though, will be in for their toughest test of the season Monday night when they square off against a big, physical and very nimble Notre Dame front seven, anchored by a trio of 300-pounders. The Irish lead the nation in scoring defense and are fourth in stopping the run. Warmack, though, is one of the biggest reasons many of the experts like the Tide's chances.

"Tackle to tackle, it's the best group we have played against," said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. "They're uniquely big and fast. They have quick-twitch. They're not on the ground. It's not another happy-go-lucky group of offensive linemen. This is an angry, aggressive, intense group of players that plays hard and finish blocks."

NFL personnel people point to Warmack as the best of the bunch.

"This guy is a true power guard," said one NFL scout. "He's the most explosive [offensive lineman] in the [upcoming April NFL] Draft. He's a big, strong guy. He's tough. He's passionate about football. He's a great kid. He's what you want.

"There have been a lot of great guys who are only about 6-3 or 6-2. And it's not like he's playing at Middle Tennessee. He's played against a lot of good players. Whoever picks him is going to be very comfortable."

The Crimson Tide staff was sold on Warmack after having him in camp and observing not only his tremendous physical gifts, but also how coachable he was. Better still, Warmack was young for his grade. (He won't turn 22 until September.)

"He had the size that you wanted, but the thing that is really unique about Chance is how well he can bend and move his feet," said Joe Pendry, who coached and recruited Warmack before retiring after the 2010 season. "Plus, he can really play with balance.

"Chance is a 'knee-bender.' A lot of guys are waist-benders who just can't create the power. But he's so explosive because he can unlock those bendable joints and has extremely 'heavy hands' -- so it's like that boxer with the 6-inch jab that can knock somebody out."

Pendry, who said Nick Saban never would pay attention to recruiting rankings, was surprised when told Thursday afternoon that Warmack was ranked only as a "three-star" recruit. The biggest improvement Warmack has made as he has developed at Alabama is learning the nuances of playing his position and being in concert, as Pendry put it, with his linemates while honing his technique.

For a blossoming O-lineman, "getting it" means not just knowing what to do, but understanding how to do it, and that means being precise with everything from footwork to hand placement to head placement.

Pendry now has quite a comparison for his protege. "He reminds me of [nine-time Pro-Bowler] Ruben Brown," whom Pendry coached in the NFL. "Chance has the explosive hips, can pull and he's not just some big power guy. He can adjust in space and he really understands the game."

Barrett Jones, the anchor of the Alabama front, gushed about just how much Warmack has improved in 2012 and become more of a leader.

Warmack's willingness to be outspoken and grasp a bigger picture of things has extended off the field this fall, too. In the offseason he approached Alabama sports information director Jeff Purinton about interning in the Crimson Tide SID office for the fall semester. It was an unusual request, but Warmack wanted to gain a better understanding of how that process worked. The All-American proofed game notes, learned to write press releases and found out how the school deals with situations when something negative happens.

Purinton said he believes it's a field Warmack could go into some day, "but I don't think it'll be necessary for him," he joked. "Although I really do think he could do a good job with it.

"The thing that stands out to me is his personality and how he is with people. You'd never know he was an All-American at Alabama. He is really down to earth. He's a real grounded guy. The offensive linemen are usually that way, but he's even more so."

The low-key Warmack humbly describes himself to reporters as "the best eater" among the stacked Crimson Tide O-line. He told USA Today that he wouldn't mind having his own show on the Food Network or Travel Channel so that he could travel around and eat different foods. Of course, the food correspondent stuff, the SID stuff, are likely to get shoved to the side for a while by a lucrative NFL future.

Asked this week in Miami what he thinks when he hears that he could be the first offensive lineman taken in April's NFL Draft, the former three-star recruit sounded touched.

"That is amazing to me," he said Thursday. "But that's not really the focus for me."

Next up is more serious business. Taking on the Irish and trying to win a third BCS national title.

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