Will Tide Offensive Line Dominate?

Listen to major league baseball managers during spring training. From Florida to Arizona, where everyone is undefeated (exhibition games don't count), the mood is upbeat, optimism brighter than the sunshine. Then comes the reality of the season when for every win by one team there is a loss by another.

That kind of optimism seems to emanate from the Alabama fan base as it regards the offensive line. Is that realistic?

To recap a dose of reality:

Chance Warmack, 2012 starting left guard, first round draft choice.

D.J. Fluker, 2012 starting right tackle, first round draft choice.

Barrett Jones, 2012 starting center, fourth round draft choice.

Suppose a team had five offensive linemen who were fourth – not first, fourth -- round NFL draft choices? That would probably be a very, very fine college football offense.

The Crimson Tide offensive line lost not only three starters, but also its coach. Jeff Stoutland preceded his three graduated linemen by also going to the NFL.

Alabama returns two outstanding starters in right guard Anthony Steen (6-3, 309) and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio (6-6, 310). Many of those who project the NFL draft think Kouandjio, an upcoming junior, will be another in the growing list of Nick Saban players taken in the first round by the pros.

New Offensive Line Coach Mario Cristobal has an outstanding reputation as a teacher, and he has the raw material to work with. Although things could change after Saturday's scrimmage in which Saban voiced displeasure with the performance of the offensive front, the key replacements seem to be:

Arie Kouandjio, a 6-5, 315-pound junior who worked at left guard until last week, when he switched to right tackle – the position he had played before suffering a knee injury; Austin Shepherd, also a 6-5, 315-pound junior, who swapped spots with Arie Kouandjio last week, moving from right tackle to left guard; and Ryan Kelly, a 6-5, 290-pound sophomore center.

As an example of optimism regarding this group, Kelly has never started a game for Alabama, and yet he was on the pre-season watch list for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center – an award won by Barrett Jones last year.

There are back-ups in the mix. Kellen Williams (6-3, 302, senior) has been mentioned as a competitor for a starting job at left guard. Leon Brown (6-6, 313) was brought in from junior college and has worked at both tackle spots. Alphonse Taylor (6-5, 335, redshirt freshman) is one of those "road grader" type guards. True freshmen Grant Hill (6-6, 301) and Brandon Hill (6-6, 385) are getting looks. Veterans in the mix include Chad Lindsay (6-2, 302, junior center), Isaac Luatua (6-2, 313, soph), and Brandon Moore (6-0, 313, soph). Bradley Bozeman is a 6-5, 310-pound freshman who had not expected to be with the team in fall camp and was not working with the squad in the summer off-season program.

The offensive line is sometimes called a team within a team. Communications is important in football, and no where is it more important than in the offensive line. Miscommunication in the up-front blocking group usually means a bad play, sometimes a disastrous play.

Rare is the college football team that can't find good skill position players, but good offensive linemen are harder to come by. A huge amount of justifiable credit for last year's national championship was given to an offensive line that enabled Bama to average 38.7 points, 227.5 rushing yards, and 218 passing yards per game in a 13-1 season.

The Tide will be trying to reach similar numbers this season, which begins in less than two weeks. Bama, the pre-season favorite to win the national championship, takes on Virginia Tech on Aug. 31 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Saban was ominous following Saturday's scrimmage. He said, "We've still got to improve in our ability to get movement in the running game on offense. We have to keep a solid pocket for our quarterback so he has a chance to operate and do things.

"I wasn't real pleased with the way they (offensive line) played today, to be honest with you."

Nevertheless, Saban held out hope. " I've always been really pleased with the way our offensive line has played and progressed," he said, "but I thought we didn't get a lot of movement. Too many times we had a soft pocket, we got pressure in the pocket, made some mental errors up front, had a couple false starts – things that our offensive line typically has not done.

"So hopefully this will be something they can learn from and improve on and we'll get better and continue to progress."

To be sure, Alabama is not the only place where fan optimism is based somewhat on faith. It is also fair to say that Saban-coached teams have earned that expectation.

On another fan website, there was a serious discussion that a team with a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, and a new quarterback would be so effective on offense that it wouldn't matter if its defense wasn't top level. That team last year was 13th in the SEC in scoring offense and 14th in total offense.

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