Alabama Football: Offensive Line Spring Practice Preview
One of the staples of Alabama’s most recent dynasty has been strong play from its offensive line units.
However, in 2013, Nick Saban’s troops experienced some noticeable stretches where that group had its share of struggles.
Entering the spring, offensive line coach Mario Cristobal will be searching for two new starters in addition to developing the type of cohesion the Tide have enjoyed up front in recent years.
Between tackle Austin Shepherd, center Ryan Kelly and guard Arie Kouandjio, the line unit has a trio of experienced veterans who are familiar with the Tide’s system and the rigorous trench wars that take place in the SEC.
There are also younger talents such as tackle Grant Hill and guard Alphonse Taylor who have an excellent chance to make their case to earn a starting role. Also, the arrival of Cameron Robinson, the nation’s top left tackle prospect in the 2014 class, is sure to add a little intrigue to the race to fill Cyrus Kouandjio’s shoes.
What should Tide fans need to know about the offensive line unit heading into the spring?
All recruiting information and rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Biggest Strength: Experience and Depth
Biggest Weakness: Stability at Guard Positions
Despite its struggles a year ago, Alabama enters 2014 with potentially the SEC’s best collection of talent and depth up front.
Additionally, the 2014 line class, which includes one JUCO product and five decorated linemen from the prep ranks, will only add to the Tide’s stocked cupboard of skilled bodies in the trenches.
Between Kelly and Chad Lindsay, the Tide are in excellent shape at the center position. Austin Shepherd is a steadying presence at right tackle.
The main issues for the Tide will be solidifying the guard positions and finding the best option at left tackle.
Arie Kouandjio had an up-and-down year as a first-year starter at right guard, and the Tide will have to replace the dependable Anthony Steen at left guard.
While Cristobal will have his share of experienced veterans to work with, his biggest challenge will come in finding the best five players who complement one another as a unit.
Biggest Battle to Watch in the Spring
Right Tackle: Austin Shepherd vs. Grant Hill
Technically, every position should be treated as being up for grabs, but the battle at right tackle features a proven veteran in Shepherd trying to hold off an emerging young talent in Hill.
Shepherd is a senior who has contributed at various positions throughout his career before earning the right tackle job last season. However, Hill made enough of an impression as a true freshman to log time with the first team against Kentucky, as noted by Andrew Gribble of AL.com.
Both guard positions will also be interesting to monitor, as will the vacancy at left tackle. Regardless of how it shakes out in the spring, things could get a little more interesting when the five additional newcomers join the club in the summer.
Impact Newcomer: Cameron Robinson
At 6’7”, 335 pounds, 5-star offensive tackle Cameron Robinson was literally the biggest pull for Saban and the Tide’s coaching staff in the 2014 class.
To get a player with NFL size at the most important position on the line, with the added benefit of stealing a top talent out of rival LSU’s backyard, was a huge coup even for an ace recruiter of Saban’s caliber.
Even better for Tide fans, Robinson is already on campus and will take part in spring drills, according to Michael Casagrande of AL.com. While it’s rare for true freshmen to get acclimated enough to make an immediate and significant impact at a position such as left tackle, Robinson isn’t your typical true freshman.
Expect him to compete with Leon Brown for the starting job and, at the very least, develop into a player who can contribute this fall.
Grade on O-Line Entering Spring
Grade on O-Line Entering Spring: B+
The talent and depth on the offensive line for the 2014 edition of the Tide is similar to the recent title-winning teams Saban has fielded.
However, the biggest difference is that this year’s team enters the season without a proven star who is clearly one of the nation’s top players at any one position.
Another area where the offensive line can seek improvement is developing the type of chemistry needed in a group that depends on communication and mental toughness perhaps more than any other unit on the field.
Alabama’s line endured its share of failures in critical situations late in the season against Auburn and Oklahoma. With that in mind, expect the main agenda in the spring to be about the Tide getting back to establishing a physical identity in the trenches.
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