With only a week to go before spring practice, I review the offensive line as my sixth and final installment.
OT James Carpenter graduated
G Brian Motley graduated
C David Ross graduated
OT Aaron Douglas, Jr College Transfer
No area struggled as badly as the offensive line in 2010. If you read my articles, you know I rarely heap sharp criticism on individual players; this review will be an exception.
More than any other position group, the offensive line sets the tone for the team and a season. For example, 2008 and 2009 saw the offensive line take it to the other team physically, control the line of scrimmage and dominate the time of possession.
Alabama could not push anyone around in 2010. The most embarrassing display of the year came against tiny Georgia State, playing mostly washouts and wanna-be's. Alabama could no more push them off the line than they could LSU. The game was never in doubt thanks to Alabama's superior athletes, but the line proved that day that the problem was not going away.
At season's end, the offensive line coach retired. I don't know that the retirement was because of, or hastened, by the terrible performance last year, but new line coach Jeff Stoutland has been hired to get it fixed—and get it fixed immediately. No doubt, Stoutland will be in a good mood this spring.
I believe former Tide guard Mike Johnson was a real leader on the line. When he moved on to the Atlanta Falcons last year, Alabama lacked the leadership needed—starting the day after the National Title game.
I say that because a lack of physical play on the line can virtually always be tied to a lack of effort in the weight room during the winter. Don't take that as a knock on the strength coach, however.
Cochran and staff are the best in the business. When a coach tells you to push through to failure on a drill, it is still a judgement call by the player on where "failure" is. The coach can't read his mind and know if he really had another rep in him.
A rep here and a rep there makes a difference over the long winter months. The glare coming off of those national title rings took its toll a day at a time.
I've been criticized for this interpolation about the weight room in the past, but the proof is in short yardage; there, technique goes out the window. It boils down to a sumo match, and the strongest, most determined man usually wins. We used to call it "gut check." Alabama failed that test consistently all year.
Even if you throw all those arguments out, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson couldn't get 100 yards behind that line. That, my friends, is what they call "Epic Fail".
Johnson's absence may have also exposed a weakness at center.
Many, myself included, were surprised that fireplug center William Vlachos fared so well in 2009. While he still did well against slower nose types, he lacked the size to move them out and became an outright liability against speed rushers up the middle. Once film study showed this, it became like a broken dam up the middle.
Left guard Chance Warmack had good plays here and there but was not a consistent replacement for Mike Johnson. His starting job is probably on the line this spring.
The right side of the line fared a little better but spent most of the second half of the season in the rehab department.
Massive tackle DJ Fluker was on the way toward a fairly solid opening season, when a severe groin injury put him down for a number of weeks. By the time he returned, right guard Barrett Jones was down for the remainder of the regular season.
Flukers replacement was Alfred McCullogh. He was serviceable in pass protection but utterly failed to get movement in the run game.
Jones' replacement Anthony Steen seems to be a good young player but didn't look ready for prime time.
Steen would be on one play and totally whiff the next. He waved at Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley as he sailed right in front of him on his way to hammering Quarterback Greg McElroy. That whiff caused the devastating red zone fumble.
I've given a long review of what happened last season to fully qualify how much work has be done to get Alabama back to title contention. I cannot put a fine enough point on this. Alabama will not get back to Atlanta playing anything like they did in 2010.
This spring if Jones and Fluker continue solid work it's a good bet they will return as starters. After that I don't know if anyone should be considered a safe bet.
Center William Vlachos will likely start this upcoming season as well but there is little doubt the staff will attempt to find someone who can replace him should he struggle against speed rushers.
Red-shirt sophomore Chad Lindsay, or possibly sophomore Kellen Williams, may get a look at center. Neither has any experience though, so little is known about them.
After the drama that was the the 2010 national signing day, we have all learned more about the Kouandjio brothers than we probably wanted to know.
Older brother Arie will get his first action this spring. He's a massive and powerful lineman who could push for playing time. His natural position appears to be on the right side to take advantage of his road grader size.
If he can prove to be the guy at right guard, it could push current starter Barrett Jones over the left side and last year's starter Chance Warmack to the bench.
Anthony Steen is still around, and though he had a rough go at it last year, his playing experience should serve him well in his fight for minutes this spring.
DJ Fluker is likely going to hold the right tackle spot for now. His most likely backup is senior John Michael Boswell. Boswell—a local kid from Northport who played extensively as a freshman but hasn't been able to crack the lineup since. He has experience at guard and tackle.
Another reserve tackle is red-shirt freshman Austin Shepherd, a 6' 5" prospect out of Swanee, Georgia.
With no heir apparent for departed left tackle James Carpenter, Alabama dipped into the junior college ranks to sign Aaron Douglas.
Douglas started as a red shirt freshman at Tennessee in 2009 and was considered its future left tackle until he abruptly quit the team, shortly after Lane Kiffin bailed for USC. He spent a year in junior college and has surfaced again at Alabama.
Shortly after committing to the Tide, however, he was arrested for a DUI. While not being part of the team at the time may mitigate his punishment somewhat, there is no doubt Nick Saban will have a zero tolerance for any future idiot choices by Douglas.
The stakes are extremely high for him, because starting at left tackle at Alabama is about as close to NFL training as you can get. He may walk into the position this spring, but this fall "little brother" Kouandjio will report to campus, and he might just have the ability to take it from him.
Behind Douglas is senior Alfred McCullough. McCullough is better suited to the left side than the right, where he failed to replace DJ Fluker last year.
Still further down the chart is former five-star recruit Tyler Love, who has not been able to crack the lineup. He held the second string job last year, but he will have to improve to stand pat this season.
So how is it all going to shake out? With a new line coach and a bad track record from the year before, I'd say all spots are open.
I do believe DJ Fluker is a star in the making. If he can continue his hard work, I believe he will continue at right tackle.
I think we will see a dog fight between Arie Kouandjio, Anthony Steen, Chance Warmack and Alfred McCullough. One of those guys is going to start—its possible the rest won't.
The winner of that duel will likely team with Barrett Jones, who likely has too much experience and smarts to be beat out.
Aaron Douglas will probably get the first look at left tackle with Tyler Love and possibly Austin Shepherd attempting to compete. That battle will continue in the fall when Cyrus shows up, but I still expect the older and more seasoned Douglas to win out.
The wildcard is center. Vlachos can be counted on for the most part, but the game film from last season is still out there. We can expect speed rushers up the middle until its proven he can stop it. I would not be surprised to see someone else moved to center to train this spring. It wouldn't shock me to see Warmack, Kellen Williams or Steen snapping the ball. Arie is too big and McCullough too old switch.
This spring many eyes will be on the line. The hopes and dreams of the 2011 season rest on getting the line back to dominant status.