For LSU O-line, an unusual position flip

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander moved to left guard last week following what may be a career-threatening injury to projected starter Josh Williford, Alexander was left with the possibility of starting at a second position on the offensive line in as many seasons.

"As long I've been here, I've always known there's a chance I'd play [guard]," said Alexander, who spent the better part of last season starting at right tackle as a true freshman." It just worked out at tackle last year."

What's comforting for Alexander is, as he slides into his new spot, he can lean on the knowledge of left tackle La'el Collins, who spent 2012 as the starter at left guard.

"La'el knows the position well," Alexander said.

It is sharing Alexander can reciprocate because of the quirk to this season's LSU offensive line that Williford's injury precipitates.

Collins was last fall's starter at left guard, and Alexander was at right tackle. Now Collins is at tackle and Alexander at guard.

"We try to help each," Alexander said. "So, I'll be like, La'el, 'remember to do this' and La'el will be like, 'Hey, watch for this.'"

Together, Collins and Alexander combine to form a potentially outstanding left side of the line. Moving Alexander gives the Tigers "some real power at that left side with he and La'el Collins," head coach Les Miles said.

"I think we can dominate," Alexander said. "In my opinion, we have the potential to be one of the best sides [of an offensive line] in the country."

Even if the side didn't come together in a conventional way.

Ever since Chris Faulk, then a returning starter at left tackle, was lost for the season to a knee injury after 2012's season opener, folks have been waiting for Collins, the No. 8 player in the 2011 ESPN 300, to make the move. Left tackle is made for elite talents like him.

But Miles balked at making the move at that time, choosing to keep Collins at left guard, where he was still learning the ropes, rather than force him to learn a second position. It was better, Miles decided, to move jack-of-all-trades senior Josh Dworaczyk to the edge.

Once the season ended and with both Dworaczyk and Faulk departed, the Collins move happened, and he feels like a better player for it.

"I feel like a complete offensive lineman," Collins said. "I can still move inside and play guard. It's still in me and it's easy to me. Being able to play tackle, that's become easy to me, so it's a great transition."

Williford, who started a year and a half at right guard before being lost for the season to a concussion suffered in the 2012 Florida game, seemed like a natural to slide over to the left side to Collins former spot. Trai Turner, who started at right guard after Williford's injury, returns to that spot.

But there was always an eye on Alexander for the guard position. Like Turner, Alexander became a starter last season because of attrition (first, the injury to Faulk, then the departure of tackle Alex Hurst). But after a bad outing against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, many wondered if he wasn't better suited for guard.

There's no doubting Alexander's enormous size (he's listed at 6-foot-6, 342 pounds) and strength, but some questioned his footwork to compete pass rushers off the edge. While that criticism might not be fair -- Alexander was coming off minor knee surgery in the bowl game -- the possibility of moving inside was always on the table.

"I can play both," Alexander said. "I listen to my coach. They think it's best for the offensive line as a whole, but I can play both."

What made the move possible was a great offseason for redshirt freshman tackle Jerald Hawkins, which has continued at camp.

"We really think that Hawkins has had as quality a camp to this point as anybody," Miles said.

So when Williford suffered his second concussion in a year last week, the move was easy. Hawkins slid in at right tackle and Alexander bumped over to right guard. It left the Tigers with a remarkable new look. While Collins, Alexander and Turner give the Tigers three returning starters, only Turner is back at the position he started last year.

But there is no questioning the talent. Hawkins was just waiting to find a place.

"Having Jerald at right tackle is kind of putting your best five out there," Alexander said.

But will they be five that play with chemistry and savvy? To Collins, being able to draw off each others experience will lead to just that.

"That's what the O-line is about," he said. "Guys who know what's going on at every position of the line and just be able to help the guy onside you.

"That's chemistry."