TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They never took a snap that meant much, but it didn't keep Alabama's second-team offensive line from taking pride in its work last season. The "Touchdown Twos" they'd call themselves, a hungry group of reserves eager to make the most out of the garbage time at the end of games.
Alabama had no trouble getting out to a big lead last season -- the Tide averaged a two-touchdown lead at the half and won games by an average of nearly 28 points -- which meant plenty of playing time for offensive linemen like Ryan Kelly, Austin Shepherd and Arie Kouandjio. The fourth-quarter reps they'd receive would add up to nearly two full games by the time the season was over.
"That was awesome," said Kelly, who is tasked with replacing Barrett Jones at center. "I remember the first game going in against Michigan. There’s five minutes left in the fourth quarter and I hadn’t played in a game since my senior year in high school. It was my second year and I was so nervous. I didn’t know what we were supposed to do, got in there, messed everything up. Arkansas (Week 3) came around and we’re beating them pretty good at halftime and come into the third quarter, they asked us to play the third, the rest of the fourth and from there you just feel more comfortable as the games go on.
"I give all the credit to the ones for making that happen. That’s only going to spark our careers and every rep you get in a college game is more valuable than you can imagine."
Kelly and Co. made the most of their opportunity, not just sustaining leads in the fourth quarter, but building upon them. After a few late scores, the Touchdown Twos were born.
"That was something we joked around about when we went in because that was our chance to shine because we couldn’t get the playing time," Shepherd, the projected starter at right tackle, said. "Touchdown Twos, try to score, have fun with it. It was just kind of a joke."
Looking back, though, Kelly said it was more than a joke. The twos were learning a lesson. They were learning how to be starters.
"Being a one is a little more serious," Kelly said. "Being a two you still need to be ready but at the same time mentally it’s kind of hard. You don’t know if you’re going to play so you get ready mentally, but at the same time you might not play. That’s the best you can ask for, to go out and have fun with it."
Kouandjio, who is battling for the starting job at left guard, said the fourth-quarter experience was just the beginning, he explained.
"We’re going to keep building," he said, "keep stacking those bricks.”
As Alabama hits the homestretch of spring practice, a picture of the offensive line is emerging. The area once viewed as the biggest question mark this offseason is suddenly one of the team's most promising units.
"I like the way the offensive line is progressing," UA coach Nick Saban said on Wednesday. "They obviously need to continue to improve, but Arie has really had a good spring and done a nice job at left guard. Kellen Williams continues to make improvement, and he's playing center and guard. Austin Shepherd and (Leon Brown) both are making good progress at right tackle. Some of the other younger players are making progress as well. Ryan Kelly has really done a good job at center.
"That part of it, I feel like is taking shape. I think we have some other parts of our team that we really have to be concerned about, trying to get some depth created, but I kind of like the way the offensive line is coming along."