He can laugh about it now, but Ryan Kelly’s first real hit during a University of Alabama football practice was about as memorable as it gets because he really doesn’t remember much of what happened after.
“I got destroyed by Dont’a Hightower,” he said. “My first concussion in college.
“I was out for like a week-and-a-half. When you’re a freshman, coming up, that’s kind of hard to take in. I wanted to prove myself. Things happen. It’s called football.”
Kelly doesn’t take the concussion side of it lightly, far from it, and said it’s the only one he’s had at the Capstone. But there aren’t too many players on the Crimson Tide who can tell a Hightower practice story, or of the guys who were first-round picks from 2011 NFL draft: Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones, James Carpenter and Mark Ingram.
Fifth-year senior right tackle Austin Shepherd can.
While it’s still a little weird for him not to be lining up next to his good friend Anthony Steen, who played in 51 games and made 34 starts at right guard, he’s now considered one of the old men of the Crimson Tide—a role only reinforced by his ability to win any beard-growing contest with ease.
“I've been here five years,” he said. “It's been a while, but I love it.”
It goes without saying that Cyrus Kouandjio’s departure at left tackle resulted in a huge hole on the Crimson Tide offensive line, but just as important this spring is finding players to fill the leadership void too.
While there are three starters returning, none have been so for more than a year. Alabama also lost a couple of key reserves in Kellen Williams and Chad Lindsay.
Additionally, there was working with a new line coach last season, Mario Cristobal, the recent addition of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator and the steady arrival of prize recruits. Consequently, there’s been very little continuity at the position group that may covet it the most.
“It’s just different playing with new guys,” Kelly said. “But obviously here that’s something we’ve been pretty successful in reproducing.
“This is a big spring. A lot of guys rotating, just kind of getting the camaraderie. They had to adjust to it when I came in there too.”
As the Crimson Tide prepares for their first spring scrimmage scheduled for Saturday, most of the personnel changes on the offensive line have been minimal thus far. Senior Arie Kouandjio is still at left tackle. Senior Leon Brown, who filled in for Steen in the Sugar Bowl, is getting the first look at left tackle, with massive sophomore Alphonse Taylor (6'5", 335 pounds) likewise at right guard.
“He’s actually really athletic, can bend really well and he’s got a lot of power,” Shepherd said about Taylor. “I think this spring’s going to be really big for him.”
With there being only one center on the roster until the summer, redshirt freshman Bradley Bozeman has been snapping the ball with the second unit, while Grant Hill is working there some as well. The sophomore who played in five games last season is still primarily a tackle but could probably play anywhere on the line and continues to draw the praise of teammates.
Meanwhile, on the left side reserve Brandon Greene has moved back from tight end and early enrollee Cam Robinson (6'6", 335), the fourth-overall prospect in the nation, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, is beginning to learn the college game.
Robinson’s situation may be similar to Kouandjio’s, as he too came in highly regarded and physically imposing but needed a little time to adjust. He was coming on strong and making a serious push to start midway thought his freshman season before sustaining a knee injury.
“He’s got a lot of ability,” Shepherd said about Robinson. “Anytime you’re coming from high school to college it’s going to take a while to kind of get acclimated to it. Older guys have been helping him along the way, kind of showing him the ropes, because it can be eye-opening at times, coming from high school to college.”
All the more reason for the leadership to get established and for the veteran players to act the part even though there’s no guarantee that the starting five this week will still be so at the end of spring or during training camp.
Shepherd says he’s trying to be more vocal in the film room, while having experience at center could be crucial, especially with the Crimson Tide set to have a new starting quarterback.
“I’ve been pleased with the progress they’ve made,” Coach Nick Saban said about the line. “I’m sure that probably before the end of spring we’ll probably shuffle them a little bit like we did last spring with some guys playing different spots to see if there’s a different combination of guys that gives us a better opportunity to be successful. So we’ll at least know heading into the fall, adding some new players who will be competing as well, what guys' capabilities are and what they can do.”
Perhaps Kelly and company can also help Robinson and the rest of the Crimson Tide’s prize offensive line additions, including tackles Ross Pierschbacher (6'4", 290, Cedar Falls, Iowa) and Dominick Jackson (6'7", 304, San Mateo, Calif.), centers JC Hassenauer (6'5", 292, St. Paul, Minn.) and Joshua Casher (6'1", 297, Mobile, Ala.), and guard Montel McBride (6-4, 329, Plant City, Fla.), who will all arrive in the summer, get off to a little better start.
“You look where Donta’s at now, I can’t be too upset,” Kelly said.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.