- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
Editor's note: TideNation will use this week to look at the four major positions on the football field and how their outlook has changed after spring practice. Today we examine the offensive line:
Remember when there wasn't a conversation about Alabama's championship prospects without mention of the soon-to-be rebuilt offensive line? It shouldn't be too difficult to recall as it was only a few months ago. But my oh my, how time changed that. Like the new $9 million weight room that was built in an astonishing five months, a new offensive line was arranged almost overnight. A superb spring seems to have quelled the concerns on the line of head coach Nick Saban, and the entire fan base can breathe easily.
Replacing three of five starters didn't end up as quite the undesirable task it was made out to be, never mind that two were All-Americans and the other was an All-SEC performer. New position coach Mario Cristobal had the best building blocks he could ask for in franchise left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and a future pro in right tackle Anthony Steen. Cristobal then plucked his new starters from the pile: Arie Kouandjio to play left guard, Ryan Kelly to play center and Austin Shepherd to play right tackle. And while none of the three has started a game in their careers, they all have upside as Arie has the familiarity and chemistry of playing alongside his brother, Kelly has the polish of running with the first-team for all of bowl practice last season and Shepherd should be comfortable after already appearing in 17 career games.
It remains to be seen just how quickly Leon Brown's stock can rise. He showed promise and some of the expected growing pains in a solid spring, and Brown could wind up in a dogfight with Shepherd for the starting job at right tackle. After all, Alabama doesn't sign junior college transfers like Brown unless they believe the player can contribute right away. With a full offseason in the weight and film rooms, Brown could really make his move in the fall.
Brandon Hill, conversely, is at least a year away. Coming to campus at 400-plus pounds is the reason why. When he sheds the weight and gets to a manageable place -- say 350 or so pounds -- he could become a factor. Those around the program love the former prep school lineman's raw strength and power, but until he trims down and can handle more athletic defensive ends on the edge, it's a moot point.
Because of Brown and Hill's early arrivals and Bradley Bozeman's acceptance of a grayshirt, there will be only one newcomer to the offensive line in the fall, and it's Grant Hill. The No. 1-ranked guard in the country, Hill has the skill to play right away but likely will not because of the depth ahead of him. But when Steen graduates after this season, the door will be open for Hill to begin a long career at guard.
They won't be as dominant as last year's offensive line. There's simply no way to replicate that kind of historic success. But as pointed out previously, there's reason to believe this year's line will be able to stand on its own. Even before A-Day, it seemed as if Saban was content with what was developing on the first and second units.
"That part of it, I feel like, is taking shape," Saban said. "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."
Whether or not the first-team projection holds, Saban can feel good about the depth of the line. With guys such as Brown, Hill, Kellen Williams and Isaac Luatua waiting in the wings, Saban and Cristobal have what every coach desires at this time of year: options.
5hDerek Tyson and Tom VanHaaren
2dMark Schlabach and Sharon Katz