TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It took Arie Kouandjio about three hours and a talk from his dad to feel all right again.
Kouandjio had played mop-up duty on the offensive line as a redshirt freshman in Alabama’s 38-14 thumping of Arkansas in 2011 but was playing on weakened knees. He had ignored the pain for much of his high school and early college career.
“I'd been fighting it for a very long time, convincing myself that I was fine,” he said. “Eventually, someone else had to tell me I wasn't fine.”
Kouandjio was told he would need multiple surgeries on both of his knees and pondered if he would ever play again. But those thoughts soon went away.
“But that only lasted three hours or so,” he said. “Somehow my father found out and my parents found out and they talked to me and I was fine again.”
Saturday, Kouandjio is expected to start at left guard next to his brother, Cyrus, in the Crimson Tide’s season opener against Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Cyrus, who is a year younger than Arie, started all 14 games at left tackle last year.
The departure of Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones—all of whom were selected in this year’s NFL draft—left a hole next to Cyrus that will now be filled by his brother.
Two years ago, the thought of the brothers starting side by side seemed like only a dream.
As Arie began the long road to recovery, his brother shined on the field. Cyrus played in eight games at left tackle in 2011 as a true freshman. Then he sustained a knee injury of his own, but it wasn't as serious as his brother’s.
Arie watched from the sideline last year as his younger brother developed into one of the top left tackles in the country. Cyrus protected quarterback AJ McCarron’s blind side as he broke the Alabama record for passing touchdowns in a season (26). According to stats kept by Alabama, Cyrus only allowed 3.5 sacks all year.
Arie said he can’t point to a moment when he felt his knee was ready to go. But by the time spring practice came, he was ready to go.
“I don't think I've seen anybody more dedicated or determined,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Most of the time you do this one time. He had it multiple times. We knew it would take him a long time to come back.”
The advantages to having the Kouandjio brothers next to each other on the left side go far beyond the pair’s talent level. There is obviously a level of familiarity, and both said that the communication is enhanced.
“He knows what I’m thinking, and I know what he’s thinking by just a look,” Cyrus said.
Alabama’s rebuilt offensive line will go a long way in determining the success of the 2013 Crimson Tide, and whether they can repeat as national champions. Alabama has a stable of talented backs and one of the deepest receiving corps in the country returning on offense.
And, of course, two-time national champion AJ McCarron.
Saban has, for the most part, stuck with the same starting five on the offensive line through fall camp but has tinkered with the rotation. Arie and Austin Shepherd have switched between right tackle and left guard.
But Arie, at least for the time being, will finally get his chance to start, less than two years after considering if he would ever play again. And he’ll do it next to his brother.
“It’s crazy, because I know he’ll break his back trying to help me out and I’ll do the same for him,” Cyrus said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
All quotes were obtained through firsthand interviews.