I absolutely love looking at the Spring roster and trying to forecast what the Alabama football team will look like when they kick it off against their first opponent. Spring practice is basically moving day as you begin to absorb which key players departed and you determine Bama’s biggest needs for the upcoming season. For 2013, I don’t think there is any question whatsoever as to which position will be the biggest question mark heading into the Va Tech game. This spring and fall, all eyes will be on the offensive line as new OL coach Mario Cristobal begins to learn the playbook, learn his players and teach them to be half as good as the 2012 OL was. Alabama will have to replace the best offensive guard in the country in Chance Warmack. He’s projected to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft which is basically unheard of for a guard. The Tide will also have to replace the heart and soul of the line in big D.J. Fluker – projected by most to be selected in the late 1st or early 2nd round as a right tackle. And, lastly, Cristobal has to figure out how in the world to replace a man who was the 2011 Outland Trophy Winner (at left tackle), 2012 Remington Award winner (at center) and 2012 Campbell Trophy Winner (for best combination of athletics and academics) as the most decorated offensive lineman ever to play at the University of Alabama. How will the Tide replace these guys? Here’s an spring preview of how we think things will shake out on the offensive line.
Cyrus Kouandjio – 6’6, 311 Junior
The most critical position on the offensive line is the left tackle position because he’s protecting the QB’s “blind side.” Blind side hits are typically the ones that de-crapitate the QB and send him limping off to the sidelines looking for Batman. The kids who man the left tackle position are the typically the most athletically gifted players on the OL so it’s no wonder that Cyrus Kouandjio is Bama’s starting left tackle. He’s a beast. Cyrus showed flashes of beastliness during his freshman season and gave a glimpse that someday soon he would be an impact player on the OL. Well, last season Cyrus proved to the world that he was certainly deserving of his five star status coming out of high school as he began to dominate SEC defensive ends. While big Cyrus did struggle at times early in the season, as he gained more and more experience, he became a dominating force up front. His combination of size, strength and agility should make him yet another three year player for Nick Saban and he’ll likely be the next to make the jump to the pros as a first round NFL draft pick after only three years of playing offensive line for Nick Saban.
Kellen Williams – 6’3, 303 Senior
Williams manned the second string left tackle spot last season but, truth be told, if Cyrus had gone down to an injury then Barrett Jones would have likely moved to the LT position instead of Williams. Williams has been on campus for four years but has yet to earn enough of the trust of the coaching staff to put him into the lineup (except in mop up situations). Last year, Williams and the entire second string line saw quite a bit of mop up duty as most of Bama’s games were over by halftime. While Williams did ok, he missed a few blocks and did little (in our opinion) to establish himself as the #2 left tackle. We look for him to be pushed by Brandon Greene during the spring and we think Greene should make a strong push to bump Williams down the pecking order eventually by the end of fall.
Brandon Greene – 6’5, 292 Redshirt Freshman
Brandon Greene is certainly athletic enough to man the left tackle position and, with a year of experience, we think that Greene will begin forging his way towards the top of the depth chart at LT. While he’ll never unseat Cyrus K, he definitely has an opportunity this spring to make a move on Kellen Williams. Greene is clearly the better athlete between the two of them so it will just be a question of exhibiting playbook knowledge and improved blocking techniques for Greene to move to the #2 LT spot on the depth chart. Watch him closely during A-Day to see how he handles Alabama’s defensive front. If he aquits himself well, look for the coaches to invest more of their time (and more playing time) in Greene than in Williams.
Arie Kouandjio – 6’5, 311 Junior
The Tidesports depth chart lists Chad Lindsey atop the depth chart at the LG position but we just can’t see that continuing thru the spring. The Left Guard position will be THE most hotly contested position along Bama’s starting offensive line and several different guards will get a look at this spot before it’s all said and done. The coaching mandate has been and always will be to find the five best offensive linemen on the team and make them into a cohesive unit. Of the players listed at the Guard position, it would be difficult to imagine that Arie K isn’t the best of the bunch. Injuries have slowed Arie down but he’s still a big, physical presence and, if he’s remotely healthy, we believe he’ll end up being the grand prize winner at the LG position simply due to his size and strength. If he shows any ability to pull whatsoever (again – see health concerns), we think the job is his to lose.
Chad Lindsay – 6’2, 290 Junior
Lindsay really projects better as a center at his listed size so we don’t really consider him to be the Left Guard of the future. True, Lindsey manned the second string LG position last year but this year he should be pushed by the bigger, stronger players like Isaac Luatua, Alphonse Taylor or Grant Hill. The Lighthouse is expecting Lindsey to settle in as the second string Center if one of the young pups can show enough ability to man the LG position.
Isaac Luatua – 6’2, 313 Sophomore
This is where it gets fun. If you project Lindsay as the backup center, then perhaps there is an opportunity here for Luatua to emerge at the Left Guard position. The big Samoan has not been able to get much time on the field so you’d have to consider him to be a dark horse candidate for the Left Guard position at best. Luatua’s size and strength should project pretty well for the position but we think mobility must be a bit of a question. Honestly, this is a HUGE spring for Luatua as this is his opportunity to stake a claim as the backup to one of the guard positions. If he fails to make a move this spring, he could very likely end up being passed up by bigger guards like Alphonse Taylor or Brandon Hill.
Alphonse Taylor – 6’5, 340 Redshirt Freshman
Oh baby, does size ever matter! As soon as big Alphonse Taylor stepped onto campus there was a vociferous battle amongst the coaching staff to get this big man on their side of the ball. The defensive staff wanted Taylor to line up as a massive nose tackle to become an even more athletic Terrance Cody. However, Taylor’s athleticism and ability to move translated so well that he projected as an absolute wrecking ball at Guard and that’s finally where the big ‘un landed. If you think the spring is important to Luatua, it’s even bigger for Taylor. If Taylor can show off some solid blocking techniques and is able to earn the trust of the staff by knowing the plays, Taylor’s upside as a guard simply cannot be ignored. Rumor has it that Taylor was very impressive on the scout team last season so the big man is primed and ready to make a run at the starting gig. If Arie K isn’t healthy, then we are anointing Taylor to be the dark horse winner at the LG spot. Tune in August 31st to see if we are right!
Ryan Kelly – 6’5, 290 Sophomore
Last season there were two kids who really acquitted themselves well during their time on the second string line. One was Austin Shepherd and the other was Ryan Kelly. Kelly’s ability to step in at center was so impressive that it allowed the coaching staff the flexibility to move Barrett Jones to virtually any position along the offensive line had an injury necessitated a move. Thankfully, the 2012 starting offensive line took nearly every snap they needed to together so Jones never had to leave his center position. Now that Jones is gone, Kelly becomes the key component of the 2013 line and will be looked upon to provide leadership to the young pups. Kelly is quick out of his stance and while he’s a little tall for a center, Barrett Jones showed that having a good amount of height can be a plus at the position. Kelly is a lock to be the starting center and should eventually be a strength at the position.
Chad Lindsay – 6’2, 290 Junior
Yes, Lindsay is also listed on our board at Left Guard so you can see where his time might be better spent backing up Kelly at center. Additionally, there will be two teams playing on A-Day so Lindsay’s reps will most certainly come as the starting center for one of the two teams. Taking the majority of reps at center means Lindsay won’t be able to stave off a hearty challenge from Arie K, Luatua, Taylor or Hill so this is why we think Lindsay settles in as the #2 center and is eventually bumped down the depth chart at LG.
Anthony Steen – 6’3, 303 Senior
When Steen first showed up on the scene, he was replacing Mike Johnson during the 2009 Auburn game and it was a total train wreck of a debut. Steen allowed Nick Fairley to blow by him twice on his way to game changing sacks so Steen’s future as a key component of the Bama OL was more than doubtful. Three years later, Steen is the most experienced offensive lineman on the team and will be counted on to provide a vocal veteran leadership to his three new linemates. If Steen isn’t the strongest player on the team then he’s certainly in the top two or three and the word on the street is that he’ll blow out the NFL combine when he gets to compete up there. Steen’s initial punch is strong and devastating which allows him to be the perfect Guard in a tandem blocking scheme. While Chance Warmack was a better pulling guard, Steen acquitted himself fairly well whenever he was asked to pull and he’s continually gotten better and better at doing so. Steen has become the consummate Bama guard and should be drafted in the middle rounds next year.
Arie Kouandjio – 6’5, 311 Junior
Yep, welcome back to the discussion, Arie! If Arie’s health limits his ability to be a full time starter, his smarts and size will certainly allow him to be the swing guard for the team. Basically, if there were to be an injury at RG or LG, you’d see Arie come in and fill the position. If forced to guess, the Lighthouse would project Alphonse Taylor as the starting LG with Arie K becoming the swing Guard for the 2013 team simply due to the injury concerns with Arie.
Grant Hill – 6’6, 300 True Freshman
Andrew Bone of Tidesports first spotted Hill in Huntsville and instantly predicted he would one day be an NFL first or second rounder. Yes, he’s that good. Hill is a blue collar strong man from similar mold as Anthony Steen so it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to see Hill garner a backup spot at one of the Guard positions. I’m certain that the staff would likely prefer that Hill take a redshirt this year but the simple truth is that Hill may actually be one of the four or five best guards as soon as he walks onto campus. If Grant were coming in as an early enrollee, you’d almost think he’d certainly see the field at some point but since he’s not enrolling until the summer the odds are against him.
Austin Shepherd – 6’5, 312 Junior
While Shepherd’s measurables likely won’t blow you away, he was one of the most consistent players on the second string line. Shepherd was always able to maintain his blocks and generate a push while his fellow second string linemates oftentimes did not. This will be Shepherd’s fourth year at the Capstone so he has a massive leg up on his RT challenger, Leon Brown. Shepherd’s knowledge of the playbook, game experience and overall strength should put him atop the depth chart at the Right Tackle position, in our opinion. We project Shepherd as the starting RT against Virginia Tech but the real question will be whether or not he can maintain the starting spot throughout the season because Leon Brown wasn’t signed out of the Juco ranks to sit on the bench.
Leon Brown – 6’6, 313 Junior
Leon Brown comes in as an early enrollee this spring from the Juco ranks as the 4th ranked Tackle on the Juco board. Brown projects as a very athletic but very raw tackle so it will very interesting to see how this translates during spring drills. Will his athleticism overcome his lack of technique and experience?? Many pundits predict that Brown will win the Right Tackle starting gig but there have been bigger and better young lineman than him who were more refined and yet they didn’t start (Fluker and Cyrus K to name two) right away. Granted, Brown is two years older than Fluker or Cyrus were when they stepped foot onto campus but in our opinion Fluker and Cyrus K were further along in their blocking techniques. So while it will be apparent that Leon Brown is a much more athletic tackle than Austin Shepherd, we think Shepherd’s strength and experience will win the job. Typically Saban’s Juco guys start right away, though, so this will be a tremendous battle to watch during A-Day.
Brandon Hill – 6’6, 370(?) True Freshman
Sweet mercy, this is one massive…MASSIVE…young man. When Hill reported as an early enrollee, it was said that he weighed around 400 lbs. Rumor has it that he’s lost quite a few lbs since then (I’m guessing the 4th quarter program helped just a wee bit) but we are still going to list him as being the broad side of a very sturdy barn. Hill is a year older than your typical true freshman but we think his size will force him to redshirt this season while his body adjusts to big time college football. But, between the two Hills (Brandon and Grant) the future appears alive with the sound of…..pain.
This is the first time since 2009 that Alabama has been forced to replace three or more offensive linemen so replacing the likes of Fluker, Jones and Warmack is going to be an impossible task. Additionally, I’d submit to you that Alabama actually lost four of their six offensive linemen since big Michael Williams essentially served as a third tackle – he was especially productive in the running game. More than any other position on the team, the offensive line will determine the success or failure of the 2013 team. Finding five starters and acquitting new OL coach Mario Cristobal into the Bama playbook will be the most important spring objectives for Saban & Co.
While Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen are two very solid NFL caliber players to build a foundation on, young guys like Ryan Kelly, Austin Shepherd, Arie Kouandjio, Alphonse Taylor and Leon Brown are going to have to step up and become big time players over the next month or so. Size and athleticism abounds among the reserves but experience is in an extremely limited supply. When you sit down to watch A-Day, keep an eye out to see which 10 linemen (5 on each team) are the starters. With the LG and RT positions as wide open as they’ve ever been, the practices leading up to A-Day will essentially be a daily regimen of hand to hand combat with the victors taking center stage on A-Day. If you think the offense will open up this season (and we do), then having a sturdy OL to protect AJ will be more imperative than ever this season. More dropback passes in 2013 will mean more blitzes and more opportunities for an inexperienced offensive line to get exposed by SEC defenses. How quickly Cristobal can turn these three new lumps of clay into a fortified line? I can’t wait to find out!