When two-time defending national champion Alabama takes the field for spring practices next month, one of Nick Saban’s most pressing concerns will be addressing three vacancies on the offensive line.
That task became magnified with the recent departure of offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, who left for a position on Chip Kelly’s staff with the Philadelphia Eagles (h/t, Andrew Gribble, al.com).
Stoutland departs the Capstone after serving on Saban’s staff for two seasons, and his segment was the backbone on offense that was instrumental in helping secure the program’s back-to-back national titles.
Stoutland joins former secondary coach Jeremy Pruitt—who moved on to become the defensive coordinator at Florida State—as the second assistant coach to leave Tuscaloosa this offseason.
But, it is worth noting that not even the time-tested theory of poaching assistant coaches from a winning program—which may have assisted the demise of powerhouses such as USC and Florida in the past decade—has been able to slow down the Alabama freight train.
This marks the fourth time in Saban’s tenure (and third occurrence in the past three years) that multiple assistants have been hired away—so this exercise is not unfamiliar territory for the Tide.
However, if there is one position where traits like familiarity and stability are a necessity, it would be offensive line.
No one individual segment in the game of football personifies the ideals of teamwork and accountability like the five-man group that mans the trenches.
This spring will represent the most important one in recent memory for a position that saw players like Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack—all candidates to be early and potentially first-round draft choices in April—start for the past three seasons.
The good news for the coach that Saban eventually hires is that Alabama has two veteran anchors to build the front wall around in left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen.
Additionally, Alabama has a number of talented prospects—like Austin Shepherd at tackle and Chad Lindsay and Arie Kouandjio at guard—that have patiently waited for their turn in the starting rotation along with some talented newcomers (like midterm enrollee and JUCO transfer Leon Brown) brought in from the Tide’s top-rated recruiting class.
An added bonus for Saban is the stability at the positions surrounding the offensive line—with the skill positions seemingly loaded with talent (like receiver Amari Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon) and a fifth-year senior at quarterback in A.J. McCarron who has experienced nearly everything possible at the college level.
While the rest of the offense appears settled, the offensive line remains one of the mysteries of spring practice for the Tide.
Saban has mastered the art of absorbing attrition—for both his roster and his coaching staff—perhaps better than any program in recent memory.
Reloading on the offensive line would spell doom for most coaches and most programs, but as Saban has proven time and again, Alabama’s constant focus on the process will see them through whatever transition period it encounters with the changes up front.