Fluker has the size and skills (cont.)
Watson explained to Fluker, who had already committed to Alabama, how valuable 6-7, 350-pound offensive tackles are to NFL teams. He pointed out that dominant left tackles are the second-highest paid players in the game behind franchise quarterbacks. He also explained that while Fluker would succeed as a defensive tackle, he could excel as an offensive tackle. "Usually with linemen, you sacrifice speed for size or vice versa," Watson said. "He's got the whole package." Problem No. 1 solved.
To solve Problem No. 2, Watson turned to a sales representative from Hibbett Sports, a local sporting goods store. The rep, after some searching, returned with a shoebox about the size of a school desk marked "Pro Players Series." "I don't know where he tracked it down from," Watson said. "I think it was made for the guys in the NFL."
Problem No. 3 remains unsolved. Watson never found gloves to fit fingers that nearly reach the elbow of an opposing hand-shaker. Fluker isn't even sure Alabama will come up with the leather to cover his prodigious digits. "I'll probably have to play bare-handed," Fluker said. "I always have."
Shoulder surgery in early '08 sidelined Fluker for much of spring practice. Fluker didn't see any significant snaps at offensive tackle until Foley began preseason practice. The transition wasn't seamless, but a 6-7, 350-pounder with the (size-22) feet of a ballet dancer can mask flaws in his technique. As the season went on, Fluker's fundamentals improved dramatically. Watson had a feeling Fluker might be one of the nation's best players, but the recruiting gurus were using only junior season film to evaluate Fluker. Watson, who got to know the nation's recruiting analysts more than he probably cared to last year during current Crimson Tide receiver Julio Jones' recruitment, sent video of Fluker playing offense to ESPN's Tom Luginbill.
"When we saw him, it looked like he'd been coached. He'd been instructed. He was finally at the right position," said Luginbill, who evaluated Fluker as a defensive tackle in '06 and '07. "We saw a guy that we think could be a potential first-round draft choice in four years." Like Watson, Luginbill also saw similarities to Smith. "Fluker's not the same technician, and he's probably not as polished as Andre Smith was coming out," Luginbill said. "He has every bit the ability, the size, the strength and the penchant for finishing plays that Andre Smith had. I'm not so sure he's not in the top two offensive line prospects we've seen in the past five years."
Fluker blasted up the rankings. He will sign as Rivals.com's No. 1 offensive lineman and No. 3 prospect overall. ESPN ranks Fluker as the top offensive lineman and the No. 12 overall prospect. Watson believes Fluker progressed so quickly because he brought a defensive line mentality to the offense. Fluker loved nothing more than driving his defender into the soil, leaving him on his back with his feet in the air. "When I'm on the field, all I think about is burying my opponent," Fluker said. "I take all the fear, all the pain, whatever I'm feeling at that moment, and I put it on that one person."
Still, Fluker was nervous when he traveled to San Antonio for the All-American Bowl. He would play against the nation's best, players who had played their positions far longer than he had played his. And though he dominated in some drills, he did lose a few matchups. The most embarrassing loss may have come to fellow offensive lineman Shrive in a chicken-wing eating contest. "I smoked him," Shrive said.
It remains to be seen whether SEC defenders will smoke Fluker next season. Fluker, for one, wouldn't have minded if Smith had stuck around for his senior season. He would have enjoyed having a mentor. "I wish he could have stayed, too," Fluker said. "I could have been his backup for a year and started after he left." Don't confuse the maturity of a player who understands he has much to learn with fear, though. Fluker expects to compete for a job quickly. "I've got to make my own name for myself, just like [Smith] did," Fluker said. And don't worry, Watson said, about Fluker caving to the pressure to replace college football's best left tackle. "He's a guy that's very competitive," Watson said. "He'll put enough pressure on himself."
When Fluker does crack the lineup, Alabama coach Nick Saban should send him out for the pregame coin toss, where representatives from each team typically shake hands before kickoff. The first time Fluker's finger tickles an opposing player's elbow during a handshake, the game will be over.