Don’t Be Surprised At Tide’s Offensive Line

A school of thought is that the difference between a very good football team and a great football team is the quality of the offensive line. Alabama’s offensive line took quite a hit from graduation following last year’s Southeastern Conference championship season, one reason the Crimson Tide’s likelihood for success this year is being questioned.

Alabama returns only two starters from last year’s offensive line that helped Bama to a 12-2 record and a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. That offensive line was part of a unit that set a Crimson Tide record for passing (277.9 yards per game), ranked 17th in the nation for total offense (484.5 yards per game), and scored 36.9 points per game.

Fortunately, those starters are the ones considered the most important on the offensive line – the center who makes the line-blocking calls and who handles the football on every play and the left tackle who protects the backside of a right-handed quarterback in normal passing situations.

And Bama doesn’t just have those starters back. They are exceptional starters.

Although he didn’t get many awards last year, Ryan Kelly was probably among the very best centers in the SEC and appeared to be the best in this state, even though a center at another state college won the Rimington Award as the nation’s best. If there was a minus on Kelly’s part last year, it was that he was a relative lightweight. A good off-season program in the weight room has helped the 6-5 Kelly push his weight up over the 300 mark.

At left tackle, Cam Robinson (6-6, 326) was a star at the critical position in just his first college season. He was a Freshman All-America last year and is considered a strong candidate for not only All-America this year, but also for lineman awards such as the Outland and Lombardi. He is one reason Tide starting quarterback Blake Sims was sacked only 10 times last year, best in the SEC. Robinson allowed just three sacks while turning in 32 knockdown blocks in 861 snaps.

Lost to graduation were left guard Arie Kouandjio, right guard Leon Brown, and right tackle Austin Shepherd. Kouandjio and Shepherd were both NFL draft choices.

It is understandable that many question the chances of success for 2015 Alabama football in part because 60 per cent of the offensive line must be replaced. Speaking of questions, a recent one was “What do you expect to be the biggest surprise for Alabama football this season?”

Our answer was “The offensive line.”

We admit to a little bit of cheating. Through the grapevine we had heard that Alabama coaches had confided a belief that this would be Bama’s best offensive front of the past five years.

That would include some pretty nifty lines.

Mario Cristobal coaches the offensive line, and, as other offensive line coaches under Coach Nick Saban, most linemen are taught to play more than one position. The idea is to put together the best team within the team – the five men who best work together.

Saban and his staff are not caught off guard by losses to graduation, or even early departures to the NFL. Recruiting of offensive linemen over the past few years has been solid, and those men are ready to step up.

That doesn’t mean Bama wasn’t unpleasantly surprised by the mysterious disappearance of upcoming junior right tackle Grant Hill. The 6-6, 320-pound Hill, an athletic lineman who was outstanding in throws for his high school track and field team, played an important role behind Shepherd, particularly in key wins over Texas A&M and Auburn. There have been no explanations for him leaving the team or suggestions that he might return.

The 2014 signing class included the nation’s number one junior college prospect regardless of position, offensive lineman Dominick Jackson. Jackson, 6-7, 330, saw playing time in over half of Bama’s games last year and has worked at both guard and tackle, but came out of spring practice as the likely starter at right tackle. Jackson also has been used in the jumbo package as a blocking back. Junior Brandon Greene (6-5, 307), who has seen playing time at tight end, worked with the offensive line in the spring and is expected to be at right tackle.

At right guard, there is a battle between two powerful men, sophomore Bradley Bozeman (6-5, 310) and junior Alphonse Taylor (6-5, 335. If the offensive line as a group is a surprise, it may be that Bozeman is the biggest individual surprise of the group. He was originally scheduled to grey shirt in his 2013 freshman year, but came in, redshirted, and then played in nine games last year. When Kelly had to miss a couple of games with injury, Bozeman replaced him in the starting lineup. Taylor came to Alabama as a defensive lineman, but has worked mostly on the offensive line and mostly at right guard.

An excellent group of true freshmen who arrived last season are all redshirt freshmen going to the 2015 season. Two of them, J.C. Hassenauer (6-3, 290) and Josh Casher (6-1, 280) are listed behind Kelly at center and likely will battle for that job beginning next spring.

Another in that incoming class is Ross Pierschbacher (6-4, 295), and he came with a reputation for fierce play. He came out of spring as the number one left guard, ahead of senior Isaac Luatua (6-3, 290). Another to watch at the position is a true freshman who reported for duty in the spring. Dallas Warmack (6-1, 301) looks like a possible successor to his older brother, Chance Warmack, who was an all-star for Bama at guard a few years ago.

There’s no mystery about the starter at left tackle with Cam Robinson handling the spot, but every position needs depth and it appears to be provided by a former defensive lineman. Junior Korren Kirven (6-5, 281) moved to the offensive line in the spring and is working behind Robinson.

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