TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like a lot of position battles going on during spring practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala., -- hello, quarterbacks -- the starting five up front for the Crimson Tide likely won’t be decided anytime soon.
Sure, Ryan Kelly returns at center, Austin Shepherd is back at right tackle and Arie Kouandjio remains at left guard, but that’s only slightly more than half the equation. The second half of the Kouandjio Bros., left tackle Cyrus, is off to a carer in the NFL, as is veteran right guard Anthony Steen, who racked up more than 35 starts in his career. Replacing those two stalwarts won’t be an easy, much less quick, task.
The good news for Alabama is that this isn’t the first time coach Nick Saban and his staff have been through this. Just last season offensive line coach Mario Cristobal had the unenviable job of replacing three All-SEC caliber linemen: Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. And do you remember what happened? The 2013 line actually one-upped the previous season's line in some respects. The line allowed six fewer sacks and also saw its rushes for zero or negative yards -- a good indicator of the push a line generates -- fall from 91 to 79, vaulting the Tide to fourth nationally in that category.
But, of course, there’s room to improve. Just ask Kelly.
“Communication is the most important thing,” he explained. “All 11 guys have to be on the same page. ... It starts with the offensive line. One of the things we’re trying to emphasize is get up to the ball, get down, get set. Last year, look at it, we were running the clock down to five, four seconds every time. The faster that we can get to the line, get set, let the quarterback look at what he’s got to look at, the more time we can have and we’re not rushing to make calls last-minute.”
Does that mean Alabama is turning to a more up-tempo offense under new coordinator Lane Kiffin? It depends whom you ask.
Brian Vogler, a senior tight end, said that he thought the offense would stay similar to years past, relying on the “mauler” style it was founded on. Kelly, however, asked the question: “Anytime we can run more plays it’s good for an offense, right?” He said he anticipates “a lot” of change this season, including new plays and new formations.
“Obviously, we want to practice faster every day,” Kelly continued. “As as the spread offense, stuff like that, it’s still the same. We’ve just been wanting to get more reps in practice. Obviously, reps make us better.”
More repetitions will be key for the newcomers on the offensive line, not to mention the communication among all five potential starters.
Through the first four practices, the first-team line features Kelly, Shepherd and Kouandjio at their usual positions, with Alphonse Taylor added at right guard and Leon Brown at left tackle. The two combined for 17 appearances and one start last season, the lone start coming from Brown when Shepherd was lost for the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
Though he can play inside, Brown might be better suited at tackle given his length (6-foot-6, 313 pounds).
Taylor, however, has all the earmarks of a punishing guard. At 6-5, 335 pounds and a low center of gravity, he looks vaguely like Warmack when he shuffles upfield in running situations.
“If you look at how big he is, he’s actually really athletic, can bend really well and he’s got a lot of power,” Kelly said. “Another young guy, doesn’t have a whole lot of experience, obviously, playing games. But I think this spring’s going to be really big for him.”
But the most intriguing prospect of all has to be Cameron Robinson, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 2014 class. He has everything you look for in an offensive tackle: size, strength, athleticism. The 6-6, 325-pound freshman from Louisiana has shown some growing pains since enrolling in January, but he has also shown flashes of the talent that made him such a coveted recruit.
With a spring to learn, an offseason to prepare and an open position at left tackle to compete for come fall, don’t sleep on Robinson.
“He’s got a lot of ability,” Kelly said of Robinson. “He’s a big guy, can bend really well, long arms. Obviously he came into an offense where we kind of transitioning into a new style or new plays, stuff like that. So he never really learned the old one. Anytime you’re coming from high school to college it’s going to take a while to kind of get acclimated to it. Older guys have been helping him along the way, kind of showing him the ropes, because it can be eye-opening at times, coming from high school to college.”
Saban called Robinson “a young guy that’s learning and getting better every day.” But along the same line, Saban said of the entire line that he wasn’t “satisfied with where they are, but pleased with the progress they’re making.”
In other words, the line is very much an ongoing process.
“The depth chart means nothing right now,” Shepherd said. “The depth chart won't mean anything until we play West Virginia.”