NEW ORLEANS — Alabama coach Nick Saban confirmed Wednesday that it is not an NCAA matter but rather an institutional one that caused him to suspend All-America left tackle Andre Smith for the Sugar Bowl.
That means the 6-foot-5, 330-pound junior still could return to Alabama if he does not enter this spring’s NFL draft, where he is expected to be a top-five pick.
The rules violation Smith committed wasn’t announced when Saban issued the suspension Monday, but it has been widely reported that he had improper contact with an agent.
Saban issued a statement about Smith at the beginning of a terse press conference Wednesday, saying he wouldn’t go into any further details about the suspension.
“It’s very disappointing and unfortunate that not good judgment was used in a circumstance that has created consequences for him,” Saban said. “It’s unfortunate, but hopefully it’s something we can all learn from and hopefully other players from our team can learn from as well, in terms of (if you) do what’s right, things usually work out the right way. And if you don’t, they don’t.”
It is Mike Johnson who is charged with the task of replacing Smith, winner of this year’s Outland Trophy, given to the nation’s best lineman. Johnson moved from his left guard position, and David Ross, usually the backup right guard, will start in his place.
“One thing we’ve always harped on as a line is: One goes down, another one steps in,” Johnson said as a media throng pelted him with questions. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound junior, has started 26 straight games, earning second-team All-SEC recognition this season.
Ross, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound sophomore, has played in 26 games, starting two of them.
“I think it’s an opportunity for somebody else to play well,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We’re going to do what we do best and feature the best players that we have, and that’s not going to change.”
The change on the line is not altogether foreign for the Crimson Tide. Smith missed the Tulane game in the second week of the season because of a sprained right knee.
Alabama responded the same way as it will for the Sugar Bowl, sliding Johnson, a left tackle throughout his high school career, down the line and replacing him with Ross.
But the Tide, which also lost starting right guard Marlon Davis (Carver High) to a strained hamstring in that game, had its worst offensive showing of the season against the Green Wave in a 20-6 win.
Alabama finished with season lows in rushing yards (99) and total yards (172) and allowed a season-high four sacks.
“We’ve got a whole year under our belts,” Johnson said. “We’ve come a long way since then, as an offensive line and as a team. Hopefully, we can adjust a little bit better.”
Utah presents a formidable challenge defensively. The Utes are 12th nationally in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) and 18th in total defense (295.9 yards per game). Defensive end Paul Kruger, who lines up on the right side, directly against Johnson, had 15 tackles for a loss and 7 1/2 sacks this year, putting him among the leaders in the Mountain West Conference.
Still, Utah doesn’t expect the Tide to do anything differently on offense without Smith.
“It’s Alabama,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We are sure they have several blue-chip guys right behind him.”
Saban, who became irritated throughout Wednesday’s meeting with the media, is trying to do all he can to make sure Smith’s suspension doesn’t become any more of a distraction for his team than it already has been this week.
“This team has made a tremendous commitment,” Saban said, “from the very beginning, from the end of last year’s bowl game through the offseason program, all through spring practice, all through the summer, all through the season. And they’ve made a tremendous amount of progress because of the choices and decisions they’ve made and the commitment they’ve made to playing good football.
“And my focus as a coach is to help those guys finish the season the right way.”