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Monday, June 24, 2013
Question of the Week: First-year starters

By Alex Scarborough & Greg Ostendorf

Editor's note: Each week the TideNation staff will address an issue surrounding the Alabama football program. Today's question: Which first-time starter will be most vital to the Tide's success in 2013?

Alex Scarborough's take

It's never easy being the man in the middle. You take a beating, you rarely get the recognition you deserve and you never, ever, score a touchdown. The life of the center and nose guard at the University of Alabama is a lonely existence, but what projected first-year starters Ryan Kelly and Brandon Ivory do at their respective positions will be paramount to the outcome of the Tide's season. Without their dirty work, you can kiss goodbye to a repeat title performance.

Ryan Kelly
Bowl practice gave center Ryan Kelly a chance to develop chemistry with the returning linemen.
After all, the SEC is nothing if not a league built on winning the line of scrimmage. And if you're not strong up the middle, you're not going to last long.

Thankfully for coach Nick Saban, he's getting two new starters who aren't exactly rookies. Ivory played in 13 games in 2012, starting one contest in place of the departed Jesse Williams. He racked up an impressive 22 tackles and plugged running lanes well as a regular member of the defensive line rotation. Meanwhile, Kelly, who was backup to the departed Barrett Jones, got plenty of reps himself. The former No. 4 center in the 2011 class played in 10 games and did well enough to win Freshman All-SEC honors.

In a way, Kelly got the head start many first-time starters dream of when he was able to run with the first-team offensive line for nearly all of the bowl practice because of an injury to Jones. The reps he got with starting right guard Anthony Steen and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio went a long way in establishing chemistry heading into a spring when the offensive line was a huge question mark. By the time the Tide left camp, Saban said he felt good about the line and instead focused his attention elsewhere.

Greg Ostendorf’s take

Obviously every position is vital to a team’s success, but the three that might be most important and the most difficult to find are quarterback, left tackle and cornerback. That’s why the first 10-15 picks in the NFL draft are usually filled with players at those three positions.

Fortunately, Alabama has two of those spots filled already with AJ McCarron at quarterback and Kouandjio at left tackle. But there is still a hole at cornerback with Dee Milliner’s early departure to the NFL. Most of the responsibility will fall on Deion Belue, who started last year and should take over as the team’s No. 1 cornerback, but the other cover corner will play a major role in what the Tide want to do on defense.

No player has won the job yet, but it looked pretty clear after the spring that converted wide receiver Cyrus Jones has the inside track. As a freshman Jones played sparingly in the slot, catching four passes for 51 yards. However, with the lack of depth at cornerback, the staff moved him to defense. It was initially meant to be a temporary move, but he looked natural in the spring game and, with all the weapons already on offense, it might stick.

Veteran cornerback John Fulton missed the spring with an injury, but he’ll be back and ready to compete for the spot when camp starts in August.

Regardless of whether it’s Jones, Fulton or another first-year starter, the cornerback position is crucial if Alabama wants to win a third consecutive national championship. It was one of the reasons for the letdown in 2010, and on the flip side, the emergence of Belue last year was one of the reasons for the Tide's success.