Offensive Line Made Progress

In the spring of 1971, Alabama Football Coach Paul Bryant decided to institute some awards to recognize those who made the best efforts to improve during spring football practice. He also named the awards after former great players. He didn't have a "Most Improved Offensive Back" award in that first year because the man he was going to name it for – Johnny Musso – was still on the team.

Most awards are selected by the coaching staff, based on the body of work, currently 15 practices. But Bryant had the media select the most valuable player in the A-Day Game, the winner of the Dixie Howell Award. That's not too difficult in most years. T.J. Yeldon has won it the past two spring games.

Over the years, coaches have added awards, including the Dwight Stephenson Most Valuable Lineman of the A-Day Game Award, also selected by the media. Now that's tough. Sports reporters are just like everyone else, watching the ball, not the big uglies. Nevertheless, the media seems to have done a decent job with such recent winners as Marcell Dareus, Barrett Jones, and Adrian Hubbard.

It's interesting the number of times that the selection – named for perhaps Alabama's all-time greatest center – has been a center. Mike Zuga, Roger Shultz, Alonzo Ephraim, Antoine Caldwell, and Barrett Jones have been centers who were Stephenson Award winners.

Thus it was again this year. The sports reporters selected sophomore center Ryan Kelly.

The performance of Kelly, 6-5, 290, in 2013 will be very important for Alabama. He is moving up to replace Jones, winner of the Rimington Award as the best center in the nation a year after he won the Outland Award as the nation's best offensive lineman. Moreover, he is one of three new starters on the offensive line.

Left guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker have also finished their Bama careers. All three former Tiders are expected to be drafted by National Football League teams.

The storyline prior to the start of spring football practice focused on the development of the 2013 offensive line. The storyline now that spring training has finished may very well be that the line has developed very, very well. That development has come under a new assistant coach. Jeff Stoutland left the Bama staff at the conclusion of the 2012 national championship season to head to the NFL. He has been replaced by Mario Cristobal, the former head coach at Florida International who spent a few months on the staff of his alma mater, Miami, before joining Nick Saban at Alabama.

Kelly said that Cristobal shares some of the same characterisitics as Saban. "Both are very serious on the field," Kelly said. "They know what it takes to get there. Coach Cristobal knows what you can do and if you're not doing it, you're going to get your ass chewed a little bit. You can't take it personally. He gets onto me about all sorts of stuff. I respect him as a leader. He wants the best for the offense. He knows how good we can be."

Returning offensive line starters are junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, 6-5, 310, and senior right guard Anthony Steen, 6-3, 309.

In addition to Kelly, the first offensive line was rounded out by junior Arie Kouandjio, 6-5, 315, plugged in next to his younger brother at left guard, and junior Austin Shepherd, 6-5, 315, at right tackle.

That group was part of the White team that won Saturday's A-Day Game, 17-14. They will be eating steak Monday night.

Meanwhile, the "beans and weenies" members of the Crimson team – which was second offense and first defense – included an offensive line of senior left tackle Kellen Williams, 6-3, 302 (who also spent time at guard); redshirt freshman left guard Alphonse Taylor, 6-5, 335; junior center Chad Lindsay, 6-2, 302; sophomore right guard Isaac Luatua, 6-2, 313; and junior right tackle Leon Brown, 6-6, 313.

Also seeing playing time in the offensive line were redshirt freshman Brandon Greene, 6-5, 307; redshirt freshman Caleb Gulledge, 6-4, 286; true freshman Brandon Hill, 6-6, 385; and sophomore Brandon Moore, 6-0, 313. A couple of walk-ons, junior Harold Nicholson, 6-5, 283, and sophomore Paul Waldrop, 6-4, 276, provide depth.

Saban said, "The offensive line has done a really good job all spring. I think Anthony Steen and Cyrus have done a really good job from a leadership standpoint. Ryan Kelly has played well all spring long. He got a lot of experience last year, which I think was helpful to him. Arie had a really good spring. Austin Shepherd had a really good spring. Leon Brown is guy that has ability that can give us depth; so can Kellen Williams. Those guys are still in competition for positions and rightfully so based on what they've been able to do. We need to continue to try to develop more players at that position but I'm pleased with the progress that that group has made."

Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron said, "I'm very pleased with them. We did well. Things are simple (in the spring game). We don't do any of our protections that we use in a (real) game, so it's just ‘base' everything. It's almost really like one-on-one type of stuff. I felt like they did a great job up front controlling our big guys.

"The chemistry is coming along with those guys, but we're definitely going to have some work to do in the summer."

Kelly said he thinks the offensive line "started to blend a lot better" in the 15 practices. Continuity and camaraderie have been good.

"There's a lot of competition," he said, "and competition makes you better. I think you see that after 15 practices. We have some holes to fill, but we have time to do that. Everyone is working hard."

Is there pressure to measure up to the 2012 offensive line?

Kelly admitted that the offensive line "had a little chip on our shoulder" because of talk that it was an area of concern. He thinks the offensive line showed in the spring it can do the job.

He added, "We're not looking back."

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