It's no secret that Alabama's offensive line is talented. They improved ten-fold between 2010 and 2011 and sent Trent Richardson to New York as a Heisman finalist. But they are more than talented, they are the best in the nation.
It's a bold statement, certainly, but a statement that can be backed up with tangible evidence sprinkled with a bit with opinion.
Alabama's 2012 offensive line loses only one starter, so for all intents and purposes they are the same unit from 2011, and therefore, it is safe to assume their performance will be better in 2012.
Here are eight reasons why Alabama's offensive line is the best in the nation heading into 2012.
The Tide has four returning starters heading into next season, but I must admit that one, Anthony Steen, was only a part-time starter. Then again, a starter is a starter.
Starting experience goes a long way, especially when you have as much as these linemen do.
Here are the returning linemen's career starts:
- LG Chance Warmack: 26 starts
- C Barrett Jones: 35 starts
- RG Anthony Steen: 9 starts
- RT D.J. Fluker: 22 starts
The majority of Alabama's line has a significant amount of starts under their belts, and that experience goes a long way. They have seen a lot more than practice and cleanup duty.
Steen, the freshest starter, will be a redshirt junior with three full years of practice and game experience under his belt.
The O-line does have one rookie, but he is by far the most talented on the team...and possibly the nation as well.
He's up next.
Did I just say that? Yes, I did.
Cyrus Kouandjio is better than Barrett Jones, even though he has considerably less experience.
First, Kouandjio has better size than Jones. Jones is 6'5", 311 lbs., and C.K. is 6'6" (just a hair under 6'7") and 322 lbs. The weight seems comparable, but Kouandjio has considerably less body fat and looks more like a gigantic middle linebacker at first glance.
Second, Kouandjio is a pure left tackle. Jones' natural position is between the tackles, and he only played at left tackle out of necessity in 2011, but he did play it well.
Granted, Kouandjio has little to go on other than pure potential, but he transferred that potential into production in practice and Nick Saban really toyed with the idea of starting him in 2011. When Saban puts that kind of faith into a true freshman, it is completely warranted.
Yes, Jones won the Outland Trophy and numerous All-America honors. However, barring injury, Kouandjio will likely meet and exceed that standard.
I am a huge William Vlachos fan, the Tide's former starting center, but he had plenty of flaws despite all his success and accolades.
I started calling him the "Battle Dwarf" a couple years ago, and for good reason. He's closer to 6"-nothing than he is to 6'1".
He was strong as an ox, but his stumpy little arms really limited his ability. His equally short legs limited is average level footwork.
Worst of all, Vlachos had a habit of getting penalized for holding in his last two seasons, especially in 2011. A free 5-yards is, more often than not, a first down.
The new starter, Barrett Jones, is better in every aspect, but his biggest asset is his intelligence and decision making.
I'm not saying Vlachos is dumb, because he isn't, but Jones' intelligence is borderline superhuman. And with that intelligence he is a better playcaller, and the center is responsible for leading the offensive line.
Jones will do a much better job with the audibles against the SEC's ever-changing defensive looks.
This isn't just opinion, it's the truth.
But I have something more concrete to prove the point: The NFL draft. Players are scrutinized by scouts from the time the sign their letters of intent, and 'Bama always impresses.
So what does the line's stock look like?
- LT Cyrus Kouandjio: First-round talent should he continue to improve at his current rate. If not for the three-year rule on going pro, he would be in the NFL, if only based on pure size and potential.
- LG Chance Warmack: Second-round talent based on current accolades, likely first-round prospect by end of 2012. Tide's most underrated offensive lineman. A beast in the trenches that has become one of the best guards in the nation. Lacks agility to be an elite tackle, but that's why he plays guard, his natural position.
- C Barrett Jones: Outland Trophy winner and multiple-time All-American. Most versatile lineman in the nation and can literally play anywhere on the line with no drop in production.
- RG Anthony Steen: Will likely see NFL some day with continued improvement due to his potential, but has had many growing pains. One of the strongest players at Alabama. Fairly inadequate in pass-protection against speed rushers, but nearly unstoppable in run-blocking schemes.
- RT D.J. Fluker: Already NFL talent; would have been drafted in mid-to-high rounds in 2012 NFL draft had he declared early. Another year of proven production will solidify him as a first-round pick. Lacks elite footwork to play left tackle, but that is why he plays right tackle.
The Tide have four linemen guaranteed to play in the NFL someday while the fifth has the potential with continued improvement. At least two are likely to go in the first round. This is my opinion, but it's also the opinion of many draft scouts already drooling over some of these players.
There are plenty of offensive lines in the NFL working with underachieving draft picks and ineffective veterans on their lines due to lack of options.
Anthony Steen has been regarded by fans as the O-line's weakest link since he struggled in relief duties in 2010.
He didn't look much better in 2011, but better is better. However, it didn't help that he eventually lost his starting position to Alfred McCullough after going down with a concussion in the later parts of the season.
Even after he recovered, he didn't win the position back.
Steen doesn't seem to be the brightest offensive lineman and can get beat by clever opponents, but he's more like a real honey badger than LSU's Tyrann Mathieu is. One he grabs hold of something, it has no chance of getting away.
Again, he's one of the strongest members on the team and his strength rivals that of guys like Chance Warmack and defensive lineman Jesse Williams.
His footwork needs a lot of improvement and his technique is raw as hell, but when it comes to pushing around defensive linemen to open up holes, Steen is top-notch.
Alabama's infamous Fourth Quarter Program has played a key part in the Tide's success, but it has paid off with interest on the offensive line.
Let's be honest here. These are 300-pound men that are expected to play with the cardio of cross-country runners.
Offensive linemen require much stronger motors than defensive linemen as rotating the O-line to "catch their breath" is about as good an idea as rotating quarterbacks for the same reason.
Due to the "FQP" the Tide's linemen are some of the most hardened in the nation.
Need more evidence?
The Tide runs a clock-control offense. Run the ball a lot more than you pass it, eat up clock, and keep the defense fresh is the Tide's offensive M.O.
I've never played on an offensive line in football but I know for a fact that run-blocking requires more gut-checks than pass protection.
On top of that, Alabama was second in the SEC in time of possession with just under 33 minutes per game. Those 33 minutes can feel like an eternity for a 300-pound man with a sizable gut.
It's true that Alabama's backup offensive linemen are inexperienced, but that's true anywhere. As stated before, it's simply a bad idea to rotate fresh offensive linemen in often.
But the depth that the Tide have is incredible.
All of the backups are pushing 300-pounds or more, and they are all beasts in the trenches when it comes to run blocking. Pass-blocking ability will come with time, but the ability to block for ball carriers is more important to the Tide.
The real reason the Tide has incredible depth is Barrett Jones.
Again, Jones can play anywhere on the line, and is a proven master at the left tackle position, and you can bet that if Cyrus Kouandjio goes down, Saban will move Jones right back to left tackle.
An Outland Trophy and All-American backup left tackle? Really?
It wouldn't be a problem either, as Alabama has several redshirt players on the bench with several years of experience under their belt ready to step up and play center.
There is a reason that quarterback A.J. McCarron had success in 2011, especially in the national title game against LSU.
Alabama's offensive line shuts down pass-rushers.
He had forever and a day to throw the ball. Some of that was due to his sorely underrated pocket awareness, but most of it had to do with stellar pass protection from his offensive line.
Alabama was first in the SEC in sacks allowed with only 17, despite the fact that they played against some of the best defenses in the nation which included LSU...twice.
LSU was first in the SEC and 12th in the nation in sacks.
Alabama's offensive line is specialized in run-blocking, but they can protect their quarterback as well as anyone in the nation.