Top Answer Needed In Spring Football

What is the biggest question to be determined in spring practice at Alabama? That was put to me in a radio interview the other day. It was not a specific to which I had given thought, but the answer came automatically.

The offensive line.

Alabama begins spring football practice Saturday, March 16, and the 15th and final practice will be the public A-Day Game on April 20. The Crimson Tide will be the nation's most discussed team of the spring because Bama has won three of the last four national championships, including the last two. Moreover, Bama has the face of college football in Coach Nick Saban.

A solid offensive line is frequently the difference between a great team and a good team. There is a long held belief that almost every team can find decent skill position players (quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, defensive backs) and big men who can run to play on the defensive line and at linebacker. But offensive linemen are far more difficult to recruit and to train.

A key to the last two national championships was the Crimson Tide having men like Barrett Jones, an All-America at left tackle in 2011 and at center last year; three-year starter and 2012 All-America Chance Warmack at left guard; and D.J. Fluker at right tackle.

Not only are those three gone, but so is the man who coached them. Jeff Stoutland had taken over for Joe Pendry after Pendry's retirement. Stoutland did an outstanding job as was able to produce terrific rushing game numbers and protect quarterback A.J. McCarron.

Alabama has lost Jones, Warmack, and Fluker from the offensive line. They will be in the NFL next season. And so will Stoutland. He left Bama for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Saban made what is regarded as an outstanding hire to replace Stoutland, bringing in Mario Cristobal. Cristobal had been head coach at Florida International and recently had been hired by the Miami Hurricanes. Cristobal is regarded as one of the very brightest minds in college coaching and his expertise is the offensive line, which he played at Miami.

It seems the key question on the offensive line is right tackle.

Assume for the moment that Cyrus Kouandjio (6-6, 311-pound upcoming junior) will remain at left tackle and Anthony Steen (6-3, 303, senior) will be back at right guard for his third year as a starter. It can also be assumed that Ryan Kelly (6-5, 288, sophomore), back-up to Jones last season, will move up to number one at center. Left guard seems to depend to some degree on what happens at right tackle.

Under both Pendry and Stoutland, a feature of offensive line play has been that Bama players learn to play more than one position. That training may be what facilitated the move of Barrett Jones from a right guard on the 2009 national championship team, a left tackle on the 2011 national champions, and a center on the 2012 title team.

While there has not been a great deal of evidence such as keeping up with Jones, that multi-tasking preparation of players factors in to the end product. The teaching of offensive linemen to play more than one spot is almost certainly in the parameters of the Saban process. The method also probably is helpful in identifying the five best offensive linemen, and then getting them into the right spots.

A factor making it difficult to assess offensive linemen is that Alabama (like most colleges, following the lead of the NFL) rarely plays back-up offensive linemen.

The back-up man to Fluker the past two seasons has been Austin Shepherd, a 6-5, 312-pound upcoming junior.

Being back-up one year, however, does not necessarily mean being promoted to number one when the spot becomes vacant the next season. After all, there is no depth chart at Alabama.

Arie Kouandjio is a year older than his celebrated brother, Cyrus, but because Arie was redshirted, the brothers both are upcoming juniors. Arie, 6-5, 310, had very little playing time going into last season because he had been redshirted as a freshman, and then played in only two games in 2011 before suffering a knee injury. He played in 11 games last season, working both at guard and tackle.

Saban is on record as saying that he brings in junior college players to fill a need and that junior college transfers come to Bama with the expectation they will be in the rotation, perhaps starters. This year Bama brought in Leon Brown, a 6-6, 308-pound tackle from ASA College in New York. Brown, like the Kouandjio brothers, is a native of Maryland. Conventional wisdom has it that Brown will get his first look at right tackle.

Brandon Greene, a 6-5, 292-pound redshirt freshman, has generally been lumped among offensive linemen who might break in somewhere, but Greene's status was elevated when Saban mentioned him as among the redshirt freshmen who showed great progress last year. If Greene is a tackle candidate, he might be in the mix on the right side.

Kellen Williams, 6-3, 303, had been listed as the back-up at left tackle to Cyrus Kouandjio. Although Williams has another year of eligibility, there had been unconfirmed reports that as a graduate, he would discontinue football. Should Williams return, he could be a factor at a guard or tackle spot.

There are two reasons to consider Arie Kouandjio as a prospect for the vacant left guard position. One is that he played back-up right guard through most of 2012. Another is that brother Cyrus has reportedly said that he expects Arie to line up at left guard, next to Cyrus.

It is likely the favorite for the starting job at left guard, though, is Shank – Alphonse Taylor, a 6-5, 340-pound redshirt freshman. Taylor entered The University in January of 2012 and went through spring practice, beginning as a nose tackle, then switching to offense. He has been given high marks by no less an authority than the man he seeks to replace, Warmack, and was also cited by Saban for his improvement.

Speaking of getting props from the man being replaced, Barrett Jones has predicted that Ryan Kelly will be an All-America center for the Tide.

Four men seem to be in the mix either at guard or center this spring. They are:

Chad Lindsay (6-2, 290, junior) was listed as the back-up right guard last season, but was also projected as a possible center candidate.

Isaac Luatua (6-2, 313, soph) was redshirted as a freshman and worked at both guard and center last season.

Caleb Gulledge (6-4, 280, redshirt freshman) has worked primarily at guard.

Brandon Hill reported to Alabama in January from Hargrave Academy. The 6-7 freshman said that he was at 390 on Feb. 6 (Signing Day) and that he had lost 16 pounds. He said he hopes to play at 350. He also said that he thought he might be a candidate for the right tackle spot, though most expect him to be a guard.

One last thing to remember: Saban doesn't have to have all the answers in the spring. Players will be in Tuscaloosa through the summer working out and then there will be a fall camp before the Tide opens the 2013 season Aug. 31 against Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome.

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