Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday between now and national signing day, TideNation will review each position and look at who figures to start, who could rise up the depth chart and who might be on the way. Today we’ll look at the offensive line.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was never a secret that D.J. Fluker would forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. Alabama's hulking right tackle put his four years in and decided it was time to go. Coach Nick Saban even said way back in November on his weekly radio show that Fluker was a "a guy who is probably going to go out for the draft."
But Fluker is just one loss on an offensive line many considered the best in all of college football. Center Barrett Jones is leaving the Capstone as one the most decorated football players in the school's history. His three national championships playing three different positions on the offensive line is unprecedented. Winning the Outland Trophy as a junior and then switching to center and winning the Rimington Trophy is mind boggling.
Chance Warmack is off to the pros as well. The left guard widely regarded as the best offensive lineman in the country could very well find himself among the top 10 NFL draft picks come April, breaking through what is generally viewed as a glass ceiling for interior linemen. But after the performance he put on during his senior season, earning All-American honors, it's no wonder the gregarious lineman has so many NFL franchises seeking his services.
With three-fifths of the offensive line gone, the burden falls to the two returning starters: left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen. While neither has earned the accolades of their fellow linemen, don't discount their value. According to Saban, it's just a matter of time before the country recognizes just how good they both are.
"I think, you look through the history of the last four or five years here, the older guys that have been starting for a longer time tend to get more of the accolades and the attention," Saban said before the BCS title game. "Probably in some ways rightfully so, for what Fluker and Barrett Jones and Chance (Warmack) have done in terms of their starts and their body of work and the long time they've been playing.
"I think Anthony Steen and Cyrus are two guys that have played very, very well all year long, and their time is coming. They're going to be the guys who get featured next year as being the most experienced guys, who have the most starts, who have played with the most consistency, that people will be looking at as guys who probably will receive a lot of accolades."
Battling for No. 1: Ryan Kelly is all but a shoe-in to replace Jones at center. As a matter of fact, it was Jones promoting his back-up earlier in the year, calling the former No. 4-ranked center in the 2011 class more talented than he'll ever be. If that's the case, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has to feel good about the base of his unit. Who starts at guard and right tackle, however, is another question. Arie Kouandjio is the front-runner to start at left guard -- or right guard if Steen slides over to play alongside Cyrus Kouandjio -- but he'll be challenged by freshman Alphonse Taylor, who redshirted this past season. The competition for the starting job vacated by Fluker could turn into a three-man race. Austin Shepherd is the incumbent, but junior college signee Leon Brown and prep school signee Brandon Hill will have their say.
Strength in numbers: Fans will likely focus on the starting five that will develop come A-Day and the season opener, but what keeps coaches up at night very well could be the No. 2 unit. Alabama had the comfort of not only maintaining the same starting offensive line throughout the 2012-13 season, but the backup line never changed either. Take Kelly, Shepherd and Arie Kouandjio suddenly out of the mix, and you're looking at replacing a total of six positions on the depth chart. But the good news for Stoutland and the rest of the coaching staff is there's plenty of depth at the position. Taylor is blossoming and if he's not ready to start this coming season, he could serve as a valuable backup. Fellow freshmen Brandon Greene and Caleb Gulledge could take steps forward during their second year on campus. Isaac Luatua, Alex Shine and Kellen Williams will all add much-needed depth.
Help on the way: Take Hill and Brown out of the equation since they're both already enrolled and instead take a look at the rest of the 2013 class poised to sign on February 6. Guard Bradley Bozeman said he will take a greyshirt next season, leaving Grant Hill as the lone lineman to sign scholarship paperwork next month. Hill took a huge leap up in the final ESPN 150 rankings, leaping all the way up to the No. 1 offensive guard in the country. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound product of Huntsville, Ala., impressed scouts with his all-around game at the Under Armour Game in Orlando. But depending on what happens during the next few weeks, he might not be the only highly regarded offensive lineman who chooses Alabama. Laremy Tunsil, a five-star offensive tackle from Florida, is down to Alabama and Georgia. His relationship with Alabama early enrollee Derrick Henry, a fellow Floridian, is a chip in the Crimson Tide's favor.