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Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Offseason storylines: Rebuilding the line

By Alex Scarborough

Editor's note: The season is over and the Alabama Crimson Tide are national champions yet again. But what happens next? TideNation examines the most pressing storylines of the offseason as the Tide gear up for another title defense.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There was no more dominant an offensive line in college football than Alabama's. In fact, it's hard to recall a line in recent memory that performed as well. But what made the Crimson Tide's front five so solid -- its talent and experience -- will take a serious hit next season as center Barrett Jones and left guard Chance Warmack graduate to lives in the NFL and junior right tackle D.J. Fluker likely follows their lead and strikes while the iron is hot.

With three-fifths of the offensive line gone, where does coach Nick Saban turn? Who will offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland prepare as their replacements? Will it be an incumbent or a rookie who wins the jobs of tackle, center and guard?

Let's get one thing out of the way first: There's no way to replicate the chemistry of a line that had played together for the better part of two seasons. That's first and foremost. It's not something you can easily put a finger on, but chemistry is the No. 1 ingredient of a successful offensive line. One can't simply find a Jones on the street, nor can you take away someone scouts agree is the best offensive lineman in college football, Warmack, and say you'll get better. That is simply not going to happen.

But Alabama is not left without options. Losing Jones' versatility and leadership hurts, but his replacement, sophomore Ryan Kelly, might actually be more talented a center than his predecessor. So says the man himself.

"He just has great feet and body quickness," Jones said of Kelly. "He's a whole heck of a lot more talented than I am."

Kelly told reporters in South Florida he's been "running with the twos all year and they're awesome."

"I try to move forward every day and I really don’t pay much attention to the media," Kelly said of being the backup center. "I guess I think that might get to you, give you a big head and not practice as hard. I try to work hard every day. I know they support me, have my back, and that’s really nice."

Cyrus Kouandjio
Cyrus Kouandjio is one of two returning starters from Alabama's overpowering offensive line.
Who fills in alongside Kelly will be the major question of the offseason. Sophomore Arie Kouandjio, who has earned the nickname of Freddy from the movie "Freddy vs. Jason" figures to be the frontrunner at guard, whether that's on the left side where Warmack once was, or the right side should Alabama slide Anthony Steen over to pair up with left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.

"You know he’s out there, he’s playing and he’s doing good, and he’s getting pancakes and big blocks," Cyrus said of his brother Arie. "I love his attitude because he can’t be stopped."

Arie could receive his biggest challenge from freshman Alphonse Taylor, who redshirted this season while learning the ropes on offense. The former nose guard prospect is a load at 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, the largest player on the roster.

The battle for Fluker's spot will have a number of contestants. Austin Shepherd was the backup right tackle for most of the season and performed well in mop-up duty. The former three-star prospect has the right frame at 6-foot-5 and 312 pounds. He and Kellen Williams were the second-string tackles, with Williams showing up on the left side.

A pair of likely early enrollees could have their say in spring practice, though. Leon Brown, a 6-foot-6, 308-pound tackle prospect, was the second-highest ranked junior college offensive lineman according to ESPN. He was a second team All-Northeast Football selection at ASA College. Former class of 2012 commitment Brandon Hill had to take the preparatory school route to Tuscaloosa, but the time away could pay off. He could supplant Taylor as the largest player on the roster at 6-foot-6 and 350 pounds, yet he still possesses the quickness coaches like to see from bookend tackles.

One to keep an eye on as signing day approaches is Florida prospect Laremy Tunsil. The five-star offensive tackle favors Alabama and Georgia and has yet to tip his hand one way or another with only a few weeks before national signing day. The No. 4 player in the ESPN 150 possesses the type of talent to challenge for playing time right away.