UA Offensive Line Needs Attention

Ask anyone who follows Alabama football what the biggest question mark is for the 2014 Crimson Tide and the answer is almost certain to be "quarterback." That's the most important position on the team, AJ McCarron has been the starter for the past three years and now has finished his Bama career, and no one behind him was given any meaningful snaps in those three years.

Whether a team should play a back-up quarterback in the heat of battle is a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that Alabama's Nick Saban is with the majority in his profession in being a one-quarterback coach.

Times have changed since legendary Crimson Tide Coach Paul Bryant was asked by an ABC sideline reporter why he had put in his second team quarterback with the game on the line. "He wants to play, too," Bryant said. "They all practice and they all want to play."

Later he said, "Once I have the game won, I start thinking about the next game and the next year."

Bryant, of course, had the liberty of being able to substitute liberally because his teams were so dominant against most opposition. Games in which more than 70 Tide players saw action were the norm.

While everyone notices that modern football is a one-quarterback system, just as important insofar as replacement policy is that the offensive line – considered a team within the team – also usually stays together, so there is no experience built up at, oh, say, left tackle.

Former Coach Mike DuBose had a great answer when asked why he didn't play back-up offensive linemen. "Because I don't want to get my quarterback killed," he said.

It may be that Alabama's spring practice won't determine the starting quarterback for 2014. It's also possible that the next starting quarterback for Bama won't even be involved in spring drills.

Many believe the Tide's quarterback-to-be is Jacob Coker (6-5, 232, junior from Mobile), who will be transferring to Alabama in May after he completes graduation requirements at Florida State. The month of May, however, is after Alabama spring practice. A-Day is April 19.

Alabama will be working five men this spring. In order of seniority, they are:

Blake Sims, 6-0, 202, senior, Gainesville, Ga.; Alec Morris, 6-3, 230, sophomore, Allen, Texas; Cooper Bateman, 6-3, 208, redsdhirt freshman, Murray, Utah; Parker McLeod, 6-3, 193, redshirt freshman, Marietta, Ga.; and David Cornwell, 6-5, 215, freshman, Norman, Okla., who entered The University this semester.

Every time a quarterback candidate is getting a live snap, five offensive linemen also have to take a snap. That's the issue at Alabama. There are plenty of tailbacks and wide receivers, and even tight ends to work with the quarterbacks, but offensive linemen are in short supply.

Three of five starters in the offensive line return to the Tide from 2013. Gone are left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who elected to pass up his final season to enter the NFL draft, and right guard Anthony Steen, who completed his career as a three-year starter.

Back are left guard Arie Kouandjio, 6-5, 315, senior, Hyattsville, Md.; center Ryan Kelly 6-5, 290, junior, West Chester, Ohio; and right tackle Austin Shepherd, 6-5, 315, senior, Buford, Ga.

Those three have one year each of starting experience, having replaced Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones, and D.J. Fluker from the 2012 team.

Therefore, a key area for spring practice is the offensive line.

The two most important positions on the offensive line are center and left tackle. In addition to Kelly returning as starting center, the Tide returns Chad Lindsay, 6-2, 302, senior, The Woodlands, Texas, who played in seven games and started four last season as Kelly battled knee injuries twice during the season.

Just guessing, left tackle could be a battle between a senior and a freshman. Leon Brown, 6-6, 313, of Riverdale, Md., arrived last year from junior college. He ended up as the starter at right guard in the Sugar Bowl when Steen had to miss the game after undergoing post-season shoulder surgery. Also expected to compete at left tackle is Cameron Robinson, who is ranked the number one tackle prospect in the nation. The five-star from West Monroe, La., is 6-5, 330.

Although Brown was the right guard in the Sugar Bowl, all his other (limited) action last season was at tackle. If he moves to left tackle this spring, the competition could be those two men who Brown beat out in bowl practice. They are Alphonse Taylor, 6-5, 335, sophomore, Mobile; and Grant Hill, 6-6, 301, sophomore, Huntsville. Both played in back-up roles during the 2013 season.

Assumptions are dangerous, but we'll assume Kouandjio starts spring practice number one at left guard and Shepherd at right tackle.

Possible back-ups for Kouandjio are Isaac Luatua, 6-2, 313, junior, La Mirada, Calif.; and Brandon Moore, 6-0, 313, junior, Cincinnati.

And a possible back-up for Shepherd is Brandon Hill, 6-7, 350, redshirt freshman, Collierville, Tenn.

Just as it is unlikely that the quarterback battle will be decided in the spring, the competition in August camp will continue among offensive linemen. And by then the fray will be joined by incoming players. As of today, those offensive linemen publicly committed to arrive in addition to Cameron Robinson are:

Center Joshua Casher, 6-1, 280, of Mobile; center J.C. Hassenauer, 6-3, 290, of Woodbury, Minn.; guard Ross Pierschbacher, 6-5, 270, of Cedar Falls, Iowa; guard Montel McBride, 6-4, 305, of Plant City, Fla.; and tackle Dominick Jackson, 6-7, 315, a junior college transfer from the College of San Mateo in California.

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