Headliner: Cyrus Kouandjio (JR.)
Who To Watch: Ryan Kelly (SO.)
The Alabama Crimson Tide had one of the most dominating offensive lines in the country in 2012 and three of the players from that unit are now in the NFL. All-Americans DJ Fluker (right tackle), Barrett Jones (center), and Chance Warmack (left guard) were all drafted in this Spring’s NFL Draft (Fluker and Warmack in the first round) while only left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen are holdovers from the group that led the way for both Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon to run for more than 1,000 yards each.
Scouts and analysts are already predicted that Junior Cyrus Kouandjio could end up being a top five pick in next year’s NFL Draft if he jumps after this season, and the six-foot-six, 310-pound Maryland native graded out at better than 90 percent in six games last season and had 21 pancake blocks.
Analysts and scouts grade offensive lines by adding up points based on technique, aggressiveness, discipline, assignments, etc. and coming up with a percentage.
The Alabama coaching staff believed so much in Kouandjio’s ability last season that they moved Barrett Jones from left tackle, where he won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in the country, to center. Left Tackle is one of the most important positions on the field since that player typically protects a quarterback’s blindside. Kouandjio’s aggressiveness and physicality along with a surprising quickness for his size combine to make him one of the elite blockers in the country.
Senior Anthony Steen is the only other returning starter from last season’s team and may be one of the more underrated members of that 2012 O-line. Steen’s sophomore season in 2011 was very up and down as he had problems handling SEC defensive tackles at times, but another year under O-line coach Jeff Stoutland (who is now in the NFL) led to drastic improvement in 2012, with Steen turning out a very solid year. Steen is very disciplined and doesn’t get many penalties, and though he may not be the strongest or fastest lineman, he does everything well.
Barrett Jones was possibly the most versatile player in the country over the past few years, having won All-American honors at three different positions – left guard in 2010, left tackle in 2011, and center in 2012 – as well as the Outland Trophy at tackle and the Rimington Trophy last season as the country’s best center.
Jones was also one of the smarter players on the field (and off) and leaves a huge void in the Alabama O-line. Replacing him will be sophomore Ryan Kelly, who saw action in nine games last season. Kelly had the chance to learn the Alabama offense behind two excellent centers in William Vlachos in 2011, and last season under Jones. Kelly has some massive shoes to fill but if his Spring was any indication, Kelly could be the next in a long line of great centers at Alabama.
Replacing Warmack at left guard will likely be the older brother of Cyrus Kouandjio, Arie. Playing next to his brother will obviously be a great treat for both. Arie is comparable in size to Cyrus – six-foot-five, 315 pounds – and possesses the mobility needed to be a solid puller on the line much like Warmack. Arie has had the advantage of playing in ten games last season off the bench, as well as two games in 2011 to add a bit of experience.
Taking over for DJ Fluker at right tackle will likely be a battle between Junior Austin Shepherd and junior college transfer Leon Brown. Shepherd has played in limited action in parts of sixteen games while at Alabama – mostly garbage time in blowouts – and has comparable size to that of Fluker, though not quite the athleticism nor wingspan. Shepherd seemed to have the inside track on taking over the RT spot in the Spring, but don’t count out Brown.
The JUCO transfer is massive at six-foot-six, 313 pounds, and was able to get a jumpstart on learning the Alabama offense and working with new O-line coach Mario Cristobal as he enrolled early to join Alabama in the Spring. The powerful Brown will have the Summer as well to settle in before Fall Camp starts, where he is expected to push Shepherd for the starting spot.
Typically Nick Saban does not sign JUCO transfers if he doesn’t believe they can contribute early. Since coming to Alabama, Saban has signed Jesse Williams (DT), James Carpenter (OT), Terrence Cody (NT), and Deion Belue (CB) from JUCO, and all of them became starters almost immediately with Williams, Carpenter and Cody all in the NFL currently (Belue is the lone returning starter at cornerback for Alabama in 2013).
Alabama isn’t deep in experience at the O-line position, but that isn’t a knock on the talent on this unit. The question for Alabama will be whether this unit gel and settle in before the early season matchup with Texas A&M on September 14th.
One thing to take into consideration is that with the depth at receiver, Alabama may very well incorporate more spread looks along with quick passes to get the ball out of McCarron’s hand early and into the hands of playmakers. That type of gameplan early could allow the unit to gel as the season progresses, and move closer to the balanced attack that is a staple of Nick Saban teams.