ATLANTA—The looks on the players’ faces did not look like those of 35-10 victors in a season opener.
The Alabama Crimson Tide players held their heads high as plastic toy cows rained down from the sky, and Nick Saban stood on a podium with a leather hat trophy, but the smiles were few and far between.
The Crimson Tide won the game (beating the spread in the process), but 21 of those points came from special teams or defense. The offense mustered just 206 yards of offense, including just 96 on the ground.
A big part of the reason for that was the offensive line.
Too often, running backs didn’t have lanes to run through, or already had defenders on them in the backfield by the time they got the ball. Quarterback AJ McCarron was sacked four times.
“I was looking at the guys earlier, we all kind of seemed down a little bit,” senior right guard Anthony Steen said. “We weren’t quite as—smiling, cheerful in the locker room. And that’s just because we expected more of ourselves. But we weren't sad by no means, because we went out there and we won the game obviously. And that’s fine by me.”
Alabama lost three players to the NFL draft this offseason—two of whom went in the first round, and the other was a Rimington Trophy winner—from a line that was considered one of the best of all time. Saturday showed that replacing those three wouldn’t be as easy as previously thought.
Austin Shepherd started at right tackle, while Arie Kouandjio lined up next to his brother, Cyrus, at left guard. Junior Ryan Kelly lined up under center.
But a little over halfway through the game—Alabama mustered just 97 yards of total offense in the first half—Arie was pulled for Kellen Williams.
And it wasn’t just the new faces who struggled. Cyrus Kouandjio, considered the lock on the left side of the line, was called for two holding penalties. He was consistently beat in run blocking, too.
“I don't think we're talking about the inexperienced guys not playing well,” Saban said. “I think we're talking about the entire group realizing they need to play a little bit better, play a little bit better together, be a little more physical. “
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster also threw blitzes and stunts that Alabama wasn’t prepared for at first.
“We finally found out what they were doing,” Cyrus said. “It’s always good to get that first game under your belt. That little experience you have in that first game is always good.”
Alabama has a bye week to get things right before it faces Texas A&M in what could be the biggest game of the college football season. Both Cyrus and Steen stressed that the mistakes were fixable.
With the skill players and quarterback that the Crimson Tide has, it could have another historic year on offense. But the offensive line has some work to do first.
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