Alabama has made winning football championships look easy since Nick Saban returned to the SEC six seasons ago. Winning three of the past four BCS titles was impressive, but that accomplishment would pale in comparison to the team seizing its third consecutive championship in 2013.
Saban, a master recruiter and pro-style head coach, has his work cut out for him if he hopes to turn that dream into a reality.
After losing three of his best offensive linemen to the NFL draft in April, Saban’s task will not be easy. After all, the Crimson Tide’s success has been largely predicated on their ability to control the line of scrimmage.
Controlling the point of attack allows the Tide to run the ball mercilessly. As a result, quarterback AJ McCarron has been afforded ample time in the pocket and plenty of freedom to find receivers while working off play-action fakes.
In order to perpetuate their nearly unparalleled success, Saban and his staff need to do what they do best this fall—coach and put the best players possible into key starting positions.
Who Will Replace D.J. Fluker, Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones?
Preseason Athlon Sports All-SEC selections tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and guard Anthony Steen are slotted to man two of the positions on the new-look line. But who will fill the void left by the three departed All-Americans?
New offensive line coach Mario Cristobal has a pretty good idea of the starting five after spring practices. In addition to Kouandjio and Steen, Ryan Kelly and Austin Shepherd appear to have honed in two of the spots vacated by their former teammates. The final spot could very well end up being filled by Arie Kouandjio, Cyrus’ brother.
“I love it," Arie Kouandjio said, according to Scout.com. "We're real in sync and we know how each of us feel and we don't really have to talk that much to know what’s going down and like that with each other.”
Having two family members on the unit might be a good thing for cohesion early on. Battling in the trenches together—as offensive linemen do—typically fosters meaningful and close relationships. Some compare it to being in a second family. The players eat together, study together and usually live together.
But who are the new additions, and how well will they transition into their new roles, assuming they hold onto their jobs after fall camp has concluded?
Kelly, a former No. 4 center in the nation, will likely replace Jones at the most important position on the line. Although he has never started a game, the redshirt sophomore has spent the past two seasons running with the second-team offensive line.
During that time, he’s progressed and earned the respect of his teammates. Jones said that he was a more talented center than he’d ever hope to become (ESPN Insider subscription required). His calls will make or break the group this season.
To Kelly’s left at guard, the elder Kouandjio brother will likely slide in. Battling injuries since his arrival in Tuscaloosa, he will finally get his chance to make an impact. His brother said he trusts his ability as much as he did Jones, according to Scout.com.
That leaves the right tackle position left to address. While Shepherd has earned the spot for the time being, he will be challenged by junior college transfer Leon Brown during fall camp. Brown is a physical specimen at 6’6” and 313 pounds who enrolled early in the spring in order to get a leg up on the playbook.
Experience doesn’t appear to be there on paper, but these prospective replacement linemen are well-versed in Saban’s system. Of course, newcomer Brown is the exception to that rule.
How Will This Year’s Group Compare to Last Year’s on Saturdays?
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Can this new unit replicate a stunning performance by the team’s trenchmen, who led the team, averaging 6.1 yards per carry on designed running plays a season ago?
Even more impressively, the unit boasted a 4.1 yards-before-contact average and helped their running backs gain at least five yards before contact on 35 percent of those designed runs.
While emulating that performance seems like a stretch, there’s plenty of reasons to be hopeful about this unit. Still, Saban is at least a little bit skeptical about the group he is planning to field upfront this season, according to Marc Torrence of The Crimson White:
That doesn't sound like someone in panic mode, although he could be downplaying his concerns.
Despite any remaining question marks, the future is looking bright for the Crimson Tide. With the top recruits in the country continuing to pile up and things starting to take shape upfront this season, there shouldn’t be a huge drop-off production-wise in the foreseeable future for this program’s offensive line.