With Alabama down by three in the third quarter of the SEC Championship game a few weeks ago, right tackle D.J. Fluker shouted to his teammates, his coaches, anyone who could hear him.
“Keep running that play right! Keep running that play right!”
Starting at the 3:04 mark on their own 26, the Crimson Tide drove 74 yards on seven plays, all of which were rushes by Eddie Lacy or T.J. Yeldon, four of which were zone plays to the right side. As time ran out in the quarter, Alabama got the ball on the Georgia 1-yard-line and three seconds into the fourth, Lacy pounded in a touchdown and the Tide took a 25-21 lead.
The right side was always supposed to be the weak side. But in this game, it wasn’t. Alabama called the same zone play over an over. Fluker would plow into Georgia’s 358-pound nose tackle John Jenkins, and right guard Anthony Steen would smash into his weak side and move him out of the gap, creating a clear path for Lacy or Yeldon to burst through.
“I think if you go back and watch that drive, we ran the same play five times in a row,” said center Barrett Jones after the game. “That’s your favorite thing as an offensive lineman. You know it’s a run and they know it’s a run and they still can’t stop it.”
Running the same play to the same side can exploit exhaustion and fatigue, but it didn’t. Fluker made sure everyone's motor kept on running.
Before that drive, Fluker noticed that some of his teammates’ heads were down. But like he’s done all year with his ‘Get your mind right’ chant and upbeat attitude, Fluker picked everyone up with his energy and Bama was able to put together a necessary drive to get back in the game.
“Coach says hunger manifests, and when one guy is motivated they’re all going to be motivated together,” Fluker said. “That’s the main thing, so you have to pick up your teammates when they’re down. That’s what we do best. When we’re down, someone’s going to pick you back up. I feel like I was the guy who was going to do that.”
Fluker said that drive in particular tested the line’s mental toughness.
“Coach always says you have to fight through pain sometimes,” he said. “That’s what we did.”
When all was said and done and the championship confetti had fallen, Alabama had run over UGA for 350 yards.
But before Fluker, a junior, could truly take on the role of a leader and pick up his teammates like he did, he had to be picked up himself. In the first half of the season, Fluker’s play was sluggish. The 6-foot-6, 335-pounder was heavy-footed on the line and slow out of his stance, allowing more athletic defenders to run past him. After the Western Kentucky game, though Alabama won 35-0, it came out that Fluker might have been tipping plays accidentally. He was getting a lot of criticism.
So before the LSU game, Fluker said his teammates—namely Steen, left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and quarterback A.J. McCarron—called him out and told him to step his game up.
“Everyone was, ‘You can do it. We believe in you,’” Fluker recalled. “That’s what a team is. Everyone depends on one another.”
What his teammates said to him stuck and Fluker had as impressive of a performance as he had all year against the Tigers, prohibiting one of the best pass rushers in the country—LSU’s Barkevious Mingo, who is a projected first-round draft pick—from touching McCarron.
“I try to do my best every game, but sometimes you really have to go out there and take what you want,” Fluker said. “[My teammates] know when I’m motivated, and when someone else motivates me, I’m going to go there and do it. When we played LSU my teammates were like, ‘We really need you this game to come and step it up’ and that’s what I did. When someone calls your number or name out like that, you have to go out there and perform.”
Tight end Michael Williams said the main thing he’s seen improve in Fluker this season is confidence.
“You saw D.J. as a freshman and athletically he had all that, but he wasn’t very confident in making his calls or telling me to do this or that,” Williams said. “Now, he listens to me, I listen to him and we just gel together. It’s supposed to happen like that after three years of being together and working beside each other. The chemistry is there and we’re a cohesive unit.”
Fluker, who said last week that he will wait to make a decision about leaving Alabama early for the NFL until after the national championship game, is looking forward to facing Notre Dame’s defense, especially All-American linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o.
“Everybody has their own way of [challenging] us,” Fluker said. “We’re going to go right for him. He’s what they call the best of the best, so gotta take it to him.”
The Crimson Tide has faced some of the nation’s biggest, most physical defenders this season in LSU’s Mingo and Sam Montgomery, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore, and Georgia’s Jenkins and Jarvis Jones. Fluker believes that his team’s experience against that caliber of player will help them against the Fighting Irish.
He’s also more cognizant after stepping up his game this last part of the season how important it is for everyone to be on the same page mentally, especially when bodies are exhausted from running right five plays in a row, for example. And to that, Fluker says, smiling: “Get your mind right.”
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