Last year, Alabama’s starting offensive line, from left to right, was: Cyrus Kouandjio, Anthony Steen, Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker.
Without question, these five guys combined to form the best and most decorated offensive line in school history.
Have any doubts about this? Consider the following:
* Barrett Jones: A two-time All-SEC selection and two-time All-American (in 2011 as a left tackle and in 2012 as a center). Won the Outland Trophy in 2011 and Rimington Trophy in 2012. Started in three BCS title games at three different positions. Jones was a four year starter on the line.
* Chance Warmack: An All-American and All-SEC selection in 2012 and a first round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans. A pure road grader and generally considered one of the top guards in college football during 2012. Warmack was a three year starter at Bama.
* D.J. Fluker: An extremely large human being who was a first team All-SEC and All-American selection in 2012. Daniel Lee Jesus Fluker was a three starter at right tackle and was a first round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers.
There’s also an excellent chance Kouandjio and Steen will earn All-American honors this year, meaning the entire 2012 offensive line would have been decorated as such.
Like I said, the 2012 offensive line was the best in school history.
But Jones, Warmack and Fluker are now playing in the NFL with only Steen and Kouandjio left behind.
That makes 2013 either a rebuilding or reloading year along the offensive line and it makes that position group one of the major questions heading into this season.
As we all know, I’m not doing brain surgery here. The offensive line is obviously key, in any season, to what an offense intends to achieve. And with the talent Bama has on offense, coordinator Doug Nussmeier and the gang intend to achieve a lot.
AJ McCarron is coming off of the best season, statistically or otherwise, that a quarterback has had at Alabama. He’s entering his third year as a starter and shooting for his fourth national title.
T.J. Yeldon is coming off of a phenomenal freshman season and is one of the top backs in the country heading into this season.
And the receiving corp, my oh my, the receiving corp. Amari Cooper, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, Chris Black, DeAndrew White and five-star recruit Robert Foster could play as a freshman. It literally is an embarrassment of riches.
And I haven’t even touched on the tight ends and H-backs…
But without an offensive line that gels from the get-go, life won’t be quite so easy for McCarron, Yeldon and the other weapons. In fact, some would even attribute the 2012 success of these guys specifically to the offensive line. You see this logic creep into the discussion of the draft prospects of players like McCarron or Eddie Lacy.
I don’t buy that line of thinking, but there’s definitely no denying the importance of a solid offensive line and last year’s line play was spectacular.
On top of that, the Tide’s offensive line coach of the last couple of years, Jeff Stoutland, left to join Chip Kelly’s new Philadelphia Eagles’ staff. He’s been replaced by former Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal. He should make a fine addition to the staff, but changing any position coach is a challenge and he’ll have his work cut out for himself.
What we know so far is that three of the spots are, for the most part, settled: Kouandjio at left tackle, Steen at right guard, and redshirt sophomore Ryan Kelly at center. You don’t have to look far to find “insiders” claiming that Kelly, who has the potential to be a three-year starter , could be an upgrade over Jones. That’s probably not the case from day one, but Kelly does have a boat load of potential
That leaves the “other guard” and the “other tackle” positions.
The odds-on favorite to get the nod at right tackle is junior Austin Shepherd, a 6’5″-315 pound product of Suwanee, GA. Shepherd isn’t and won’t be D.J. Fluker, but he’s backed up Fluker for two seasons and should be ready mentally and physically to step into the role.
At left guard, there’s a two-way battle between redshirt senior Kellen Williams, Cyrus Kouandjio’s older brother, Arie and Chad Lindsey, who can play guard or center and is the top backup to Kelly. Arie is a big ‘un, too: 6’5″ and 315 pounds, and exited the spring as the leading candidate to play next to Cyrus.
Playing offensive line is much different than the other football position groups. Any spot on the line requires a great deal of physical and mental maturity. Freaks like Cyrus K and Fluker come along occasionally, especially under Nick Saban, but normally playing OL requires time in the program to develop physically and it requires time to understand the mental aspects of the position.
So, it’s not unusual that the candidates to replace Jones, Warmack and Fluker have been in the program for three or four years each. Just because they didn’t play right away doesn’t mean they can’t play. (And for that matter, who could unseat Jones, Warmack or Fluker?) But now is their time. It’s their time to step up, gel and play as a unit – and there won’t be any warm-up cupcakes with Virginia Tech first up.
Is the offensive line rebuilding or reloading? The answer will go a long way in determining how this season goes for the Tide.