TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There was a reason AJ McCarron developed into one of the best quarterbacks in his rookie season under center, and it wasn’t because he took his vitamins.
There was a reason Trent Richardson made it all the way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and it wasn’t because of the shoes.
There was a reason Alabama converted on nearly half of its third down plays, and it wasn’t because the Tide had a high-flying offense.
No, for Alabama it all started, and ended, up front. The offensive line, led by Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, quietly powered the Tide.
Alabama allowed a measly 17 sacks through 13 games. Alabama ranked in the top 20 in rushing offense, a testament to the work of the offensive line as much as Richardson, Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler.
In 2012, much of the line returns to provide the framework for an even better offensive effort than the one that earned the Tide its 14th national championship.
Obviously, Jones will return for his senior campaign to add to an already stellar career. The question, though, is where he will play. The versatile lineman played much of the year at tackle in 2011, but could slide in at center to make up for the loss of William Vlachos. Jones has the intelligence to captain the line and will likely improve his draft stock by further showing his versatility.
Chance Warmack, Anthony Steen and D.J. Fluker also return with significant experience. Cyrus Kouandjio and Arie Kouandjio might be back from season-ending injuries by spring practice and, if healthy, will provide a major boost to the line with Cyrus taking over at left tackle. If Cyrus isn’t able to stay healthy, Jones could scoot back outside to protect McCarron’s blindside.
It will be interesting to see how Tyler Love handles his final season. The former No. 1 tackle in the country coming out of high school has done very little in three years on the Tuscaloosa campus. There’s been little indication of a step forward in that time, but Love still is 6-foot-6 and more than 300 pounds. He’s always had the look of an NFL lineman. Now, time is running out to fill out the role.
With the bulk of the offensive line returning for 2012, there isn’t much of an opportunity for the challengers to break into the rotation. However, there is always a need for depth. Alabama has a bevy of choices for backups, but nobody who has played any significant minutes.
Redshirt freshmen Ryan Kelly and Isaac Luatua, who both signed with the Crimson Tide in 2011, could be in the mix. Kelly’s versatile enough to play all five positions along the line, whereas Luatua projects more as an interior lineman. The incoming freshmen, Brandon Greene and Brandon Hill, don’t figure to break the rotation their first year on campus, but they both have bright futures at UA. Greene, a 6-foot-5 tackle, has a better chance to play early and could turn into a solid starter down the road.
The UA coaching staff understands that it could lose the majority of the offensive line after this year and has made the position a priority for the 2013 recruiting class. Alabama has already secured commitments from in-state linemen Bradley Bozeman and Grant Hill, and the Tide continue to keep looking for more talent at the position.
TideNation's Greg Ostendorf contributed to this story.