O-line progressed through spring

TUSCALOOSA, Ala -- For the final time this spring, Nick Saban addressed the media Thursday in the Mal Moore Athletic Center following practice, just one scrimmage removed from the start of the offseason.

But with five weeks and 14 practices now complete, the tone and tenor of the Crimson Tide’s head coach hasn’t changed much.

When Alabama entered the spring, Saban was in a half-glass-full kind of mood. Even the offensive line -- arguably the Tide’s greatest strength heading into the fall -- had a harsh dose of reality to temper any compliments. After the first scrimmage of the spring, he harped on the need for more depth to back up the first line that features four returning starters and all five with significant playing experience.

“When I say we need more guys to learn what it takes to play winning football, that would be one of the positions that I’m talking about,” Saban said two weeks ago of the line.

Fast-forward to Thursday and the sixth-year head coach couldn’t help himself again.

“I think the offensive line really had a good spring and played very well,” Saban said. “We've got a lot of experience. We've got a lot of games started by those guys, a lot of competitive character in that group, a lot of physical. We don't have a lot of depth but I think that that's going to be the real focus as we continue to try to create depth at that position.”

Anthony Steen, the projected starter at guard, said the unit could be “the best in the country,” but it wasn’t an easy conclusion to come to considering where the group started the spring. Steen said that even Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones struggled early, trying to learn how to play center.

“It wasn’t pleasant in the beginning but it’s going to be like that,” Steen said of the spring. “Right now we’re getting along as a team, as a unit, a lot better than when we first started off.

“(Jones) has done good. Certain plays he was fuzzy in the beginning but I believe right now he’ll know anything you want to ask him.”

After weeks of gelling as a unit under offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, Steen feels they could be one of the best lines in the nation.

“We have the confidence to be,” Steen said. “Our chemistry was kind of struggling a little bit in the beginning of the spring and we’re coming together as a unit now. If we keep our heads straight and stay focused, we can be the best.”

Beyond the front five of Jones, Steen, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandjio, Saban has been looking for more. In backup tackle Austin Shepherd, Steen believes the Tide have found just that.

“Shepherd is pushing to be the top of the line,” Steen said. “He’s trying to be a left tackle and if Cyrus can’t get it done he wants to be there for us. He’s accomplished a lot this spring.”

But don’t expect Kouandjio to give up his spot anytime soon. Warmack said he’s been amazed with how quickly Kouandjio has grasped the offense this spring after missing the final five games of the year.

“Cyrus is a very, very interesting player in terms of increasing his level of play in short periods of time,” Warmack said. “Like he’ll have something that he needs to learn one game, one practice, and he’ll get it so fast that you’ll forget you even taught him something. So he’s picking it up so quick it’s amazing. For him to be so young and play to the level he’s playing is incredible. He’s playing better than I did when I was a sophomore.”

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