With Alabama in the final stages of its preparations for Saturday’s spring game, one unit that fans and coaches will be paying close attention to is the offensive line.
As pointed out by Bleacher Report’s Michael Felder, a priority for Nick Saban and his staff is getting the offensive line to regain its physical identity up front. This is key to the Tide’s quest to claim a spot in this season’s upcoming playoff.
After a spring filled with a number of experiments, Saban and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal have used the same first unit over the last two weeks. BamaOnline’s Marc Torrence reports that—from left to right—the line consists of Brandon Greene, Arie Kouandjio, Ryan Kelly, Leon Brown and Austin Shepherd.
Bleacher Report’s Christopher Walsh noted earlier this month that Saban has been pleased with that unit’s progression in the spring, but the final starting five likely won’t be settled until fall camp.
“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,” he said.
Regardless of which players fill out the Tide’s starting group against West Virginia on Aug. 30, developing the type of cohesion and consistency that characterized the units on the Tide’s title-winning teams under Saban will be critical to the team’s offensive success.
Which players among the Tide’s trench unit will be counted upon to step up this fall?
After a bitter ending to the 2013 season, the Tide’s offensive line entered spring with virtually an open competition for all of the spots along the line.
However, with the transfer of veteran Chad Lindsay, fourth-year junior Ryan Kelly is probably the safest bet to assuming a starting role at center.
One of three returning starters from last season’s line unit, Kelly can provide a steadying presence at a position often referred to as the “quarterback” of the offensive line.
For Kelly, who missed some time last season due to a knee injury, staying healthy and providing the type of leadership that his predecessor, former Tide All-American Barrett Jones, displayed throughout his career will be an area of focus for him in 2014.
When reliable senior right guard Anthony Steen was lost for the Sugar Bowl due to injury, Saban and Cristobal turned to JUCO transfer Leon Brown—originally recruited as a tackle—to fill in.
After starting out the spring getting work at both tackle spots, Brown appears to be settling into the spot he manned against Oklahoma. As AL.com’s Mike Herndon detailed, Saban endorsed Brown as a player with a good shot to be in the starting lineup against West Virginia on Aug. 30.
"Leon Brown has played in the bowl game and we have a lot of confidence in him and I think he's probably a guy that'll be in the best five guys," Saban said.
If Brown ends up at right guard, he will have his hands full replacing the most dependable player on last season’s unit.
After battling injuries throughout his career, it was a minor miracle for Arie Kouandjio to earn a starting job alongside younger brother Cyrus prior to last season.
With his brother off to the NFL, the elder Kouandjio is tasked with building on his first year as a starter—one that included its share of rough moments.
Thus far through spring, Kouandjio has maintained a grip on the left guard spot he occupied last season. He will have to continue to improve in order to hold on to that post with the Tide set to welcome a number of talented linemen from the 2014 recruiting class in the summer.
While the depth chart is still a long way from being finalized, another year of seasoning for players such as Kouandjio, Brown and Kelly will only help them grow individually and make the line stronger as a unit.
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