Alabama left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is one of just two returning starters on the offensive line, but the rest of the unit will be under Nick Saban's microscope in the spring.
In the second installment of my spring practice preview series for the 2013 edition of the Alabama Crimson Tide, I will break down a unit that may be the team’s biggest question mark this season: the offensive line.
Alabama must find new starters at three positions that were manned by All-Americans a year ago at a segment that is perhaps Nick Saban’s biggest concern when the pads come on next month.
Additionally, the line will have a new leader in charge of the position—with Saban hiring former Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal as the Tide’s new offensive line coach earlier this week (h/t, rolltide.com).
Even though it will be tough to replace stars like Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker, Cristobal will rely on left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen as a pair of veteran anchors for the unit to build around.
Despite the turnover in the trenches, Alabama has a talented group of understudies that are ready for their turn in the spotlight.
Center Ryan Kelly, guards Arie Kouandjio and Chad Lindsay plus tackles Kellen Williams and Austin Shepherd are players that have been in the program for at least two years and have gained valuable experience as backups.
Add mid-term JUCO enrollee Leon Brown to the mix and it becomes clear that there will be healthy competition for the trio of vacancies.
Which players have a leg up on those positions entering the spring, and which spot will produce the most fiercely contested battle?
Get inside of this spring practice primer on the Tide’s offensive line that gives Tide fans everything they need to know about the group before they hit the field next month.
LT – Cyrus Kouandjio, Junior
LG – Chad Lindsay, Junior
C – Ryan Kelly, Sophomore
RG – Anthony Steen, Senior
RT – Leon Brown, Junior
Cyrus Kouandjio came into last season as the biggest question mark as the line’s only new starter, but one year later, he may be the group’s biggest strength—and one of the nation’s top left tackles to boot.
Steen enters his third season as a starter, and gives the unit a steadying presence on the right side of the line.
Of the three projected new starters, Kelly—an All-SEC freshman selection last season—appears to be the safest projection to maintain his starting role into fall camp.
The battles at left guard (between Lindsay and Arie Kouandjio) and right tackle (between Brown and Shepherd) will be one of the spring’s most closely monitored storylines.
Given that Saban has shown the tendency to shift linemen around in the spring in an effort to get the best combination of five linemen on the field, the spring should produce more moves and experimentation.
Conventional wisdom would favor the five players above entering the spring as the best contenders to earn starting nods.
But at a place that thrives on the spirit of competition, the final determination on a starting lineup will ultimately be decided by which players can separate themselves leading up to the season.
Biggest Position Battle - Left Guard (Chad Lindsay vs. Arie Kouandjio)
Lindsay enters the spring as a fourth-year junior with two years spent as Warmack’s understudy to his credit.
Kouandjio—a heralded member of the 2010 recruiting class, and the older brother of Cyrus—has battled injuries throughout his time at the Capstone.
However, Arie Kouandjio bounced back nicely last season appearing in 10 games and displaying the versatility to be able to contribute at several positions up front (h/t, Andrew Gribble, al.com).
Assuming he’s 100-percent healthy, the elder Kouandjio possesses a similar frame to the departed Warmack (two inches taller, but 10 pounds lighter).
Lindsay’s experience and familiarity with the position and scheme give him a slight nod entering the spring, but expect Kouandjio to make this a race that likely will carry on into fall camp.
Impact Newcomer – OT Leon Brown
Saban’s track record with bringing in JUCO players has been nearly flawless, and with the Tide’s needs on the offensive line, getting a player that can contribute right away was a top priority for the 2013 class.
Brown represents his latest addition from the JUCO ranks, and he projects as a player that can slide into Fluker’s old right tackle spot.
Brown—who was rated as the country’s top JUCO tackle prospect according to 247 Sports Composite rankings—is a 6’6”, 310-pound specimen that displayed enough athleticism to star as a two-way lineman at the prep level.
Shepherd will provide an experienced challenger for the right tackle spot, but considering the Tide’s history with JUCO players recently, Brown was likely signed with the intent of stepping in right away and filling a hole.
Strength of OL Entering Spring – B
Replacing three early-round NFL talents on the offensive line will not be easy—even for a school like Alabama that reloads like few teams can.
However, the Tide are in a unique position where they will count on a mix of talented newcomers and a group of players that have spent years developing in their program.
The hire of Cristobal is another coup for Saban, and the unit should not suffer any drop-off from a coaching standpoint.
Considering the strength of all of the units around the line, the spring will be about working through some initial growing pains and finding some cohesiveness at the position by the time the A-Day game arrives.