Alabama Crimson Tide: Brandon HIll

Room to improve: Offensive line

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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Editor’s note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It wasn’t all bad. It’s sometimes important to remember that. Despite a very sour finish against Oklahoma, Alabama’s offensive line wasn’t a complete disaster. In fact, it was far from that. The Tide actually allowed six fewer sacks this past season than they did the season before when the line was hailed as the best in the country and one of the best of all-time.

But, yes, there’s room for the line to improve. The running game wasn’t as dominant as in years past, and the line is somewhat to blame for that. The pocket wasn’t as wide open as quarterback AJ McCarron would have like it, and that came from up front.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCenter Ryan Kelly will help anchor Alabama's offensive line in 2014.
With Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama’s franchise left tackle, and Anthony Steen, a three-year starter at left guard, off to the NFL, there’s plenty of work to do for offensive line coach Mario Cristobal. He wasn’t there to coach the 2012 offensive line, and now all that Steen and Kouandjio are gone, neither are any of its former five starters.

Battling for No. 1: The good news for Cristobal is that because of the injuries throughout last season, he already has a good idea of who his candidates are to start. Ryan Kelly should remain the starter at center, as should Arie Kouandjio at left guard. Austin Shepherd has done nothing to lost his job at right tackle. And thanks to opportunities throughout the season, we know that Leon Brown is good candidate to start in Steen’s place at guard. And Grant Hill could play either guard or tackle, if need be. Hill, the former No. 1-rated offensive guard coming out of high school, is a more natural fit inside at guard, though.

Strength in numbers: Brandon Hill might be the most intriguing returning player on the offensive line. The massive tackle/guard prospect came to campus last year hugely overweight and has since trimmed down to a more manageable 385 pounds. If he sheds a few more belt sizes, he could be push for time at either position. While you’re at it, don’t count out Alphonse Taylor, either. The rising sophomore is no slouch at 335 pounds and was listed as the backup to Steen throughout the regular season. Meanwhile, look for Chad Lindsay, who started four games, to provide quality depth behind Kelly at center.

New on the scene: The wildcard in the competition to replace Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle is Cameron Robinson. In fact, the two are very similar in that they were both the No. 1-ranked offensive tackle prospects coming out of high school, and they both had the look of an NFL All-Pro from the minute they stepped foot on campus. Robinson, the No. 3 overall prospect in the country, is a massive 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds already. Should he get a firm grasp on the playbook early on -- he’s already enrolled and will compete in the spring, which helps -- he could become a part of the equation by fall camp. Left tackle is one of the most difficult positions on the line to learn, but you’ll recall that Kouandjio played in eight games as a true freshman before suffering a season-ending injury. In addition to Robinson, Alabama will welcome in the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked centers in the country, Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer, as well as the No. 28-ranked offensive guard, Montel McBride.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They all look the part: long, lean, athletic. It's easy to see why they arrived in on campus with four or five stars assigned to their names.

On the practice field, Alabama's freshmen hardly look green. The country's No. 1-ranked class hasn't disappointed the eye test. Throughout fall camp, you could see their potential.

More importantly, though, you could begin to see where they might fit into the defending champion Crimson Tide's plans.

This year, not the next or the year after that, some Alabama's 25 scholarship freshmen will be called on to contribute, whether it's on special teams or in a more meaningful way on offense or defense.

Last season, 10 true freshmen played for Alabama. Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon headlined the group, but players such as Denzel Devall, Darren Lake and Geno Smith made a difference as well. Kenyan Drake carried the ball 42 times at tailback and Cyrus Jones totaled 364 all-purpose yards between playing wide receiver and returning punts.

Starting Saturday, we'll begin to see how many members of Alabama's 2013 signing class make a similar impact. After watching them develop over the past few months, here's our best guess.

Ready now

[+] EnlargeReuben Foster
Miller Safrit/ESPNFreshman linebacker Reuben Foster is getting more reps in practice.
WR Raheem Falkins: He's more than just the tallest wideout on the roster at 6-foot-4. The former three-star prospect from Louisiana has been a vacuum catching the football, impressing coaches and players alike. AJ McCarron said he's liked what he's seen. With his size, he could become a favorite target in short-yardage and red-zone situations.

ILB Reuben Foster: Saban has lauded the blue-chipper's progress throughout camp, noting a "tremendous amount of progress." He's been rewarded with increased reps to help cut down on the learning curve, and it looks as if he's made the most of it. Though he'll likely start out on special teams, don't be surprised if he makes his way into the rotation at inside linebacker early on.

TE/H O.J. Howard: He's shown signs of promise in the passing game, but the staff wants to see more. The 6-6, 237-pound Howard has all the gifts athletically to terrify defenses with his wide receiver speed and a power forward size. Even if he's a ways off in terms of his comfort level with the playbook, as Saban has indicated, it's hard to see the staff keeping him off the field.

OG Grant Hill: His name has consistently come up among those who have made an impression on his teammates. And he hasn't disappointed on the field, either. The former No. 1 offensive guard in the country has played some tackle, backing up Cyrus Kouandjio on the left side. Though he won't start, you have to expect injuries will happen in the SEC. Should Kouandjio or another lineman go down, the staff could be tempted to put Hill in.

LS Cole Mazza: With long-time snapper Carson Tinker gone, the specialist role is all Mazza's. On field goal attempts and punts, he'll be the one delivering the football.

Freshmen tailbacks: Not one or two, but all four of Alabama's coveted freshmen tailbacks are expected to play as rookies. Derrick Henry is likely the group's ringleader and is the most ready to contribute, but Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones have impressed as well. When Alvin Kamara returns from injury, he could be an added dimension to the offense, a scat-back type who can catch the ball out of the backfield or split out at wide receiver.

Coming soon

WR Robert Foster: He could be the best player to not see the field for Alabama this season. The former top-five wide receiver prospect came to camp at the last moment but never looked like he missed a beat, showing off tremendous athleticism and good hands. Because of the Tide's depth at the position, he shouldn't be needed this season. But if injuries occur, he could be called on.

OL Brandon Hill: No player made better progress physically from the spring to the fall than Hill, who is listed at 6-6 and 385 pounds and shed somewhere around 50 pounds during the course of the offseason. Though he's still not the ideal weight for a tackle, you can see now why the staff was so high on him. He's big, obviously, but he's got good quickness and strength, too. Like so many of this year's starters, he could come off the bench late in games as part of the second-team offensive line.

S Jai Miller: He's no rookie at nearly 30 years old, not to mention he's 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds. Miller, who spent a decade playing professional baseball, has experienced something of a learning curve since walking on at Alabama and only recently have we started to see where he might establish a role for himself. He's shadowed Landon Collins at money (dime) defensive back of late and could be a real spark for the Tide on special teams.

DLs Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and A'Shawn Robinson: Senior defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan called the Tide's group of rookies the smartest he'd ever seen. Saban followed up that comment by saying all three have the ability to contribute this coming season. In need of pass-rushers, Allen and Liner could come off the bench to provide that spark. And Robinson, a mammoth of a freshman at 320 pounds, could give depth at nose guard, where Brandon Ivory is coming off an injury.

CBs Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson: The battle for a rookie to play cornerback at Alabama is so steep, most don't make it. Geno Smith's late ascent to the starting lineup last season was rare. Though Smith and Jackson fit the bill physically as 6-footers with good size, the learning curve will be difficult with Saban handling the position himself. With the Tide thin at corner, they could make an impact late in the season if they play their cards right.

A ways off

CBs Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett: There's time left to jockey for position, but it looks like Smith and Jackson have passed fellow rookies Cook and Averett on the fast track to playing time.

LBs Tim Williams and Walker Jones: It's hard to see either Williams or Jones playing much as rookies. Jones has too much ahead of him and Williams, who has made strides during camp and looks like a young Adrian Hubbard, isn't there physically yet.

WR ArDarius Stewart: He came in as an athlete who could have played on either offense or defense. Ultimately the staff put him at wide receiver, where he's looked good, but he'll need time to adjust to playing there full time.

QBs Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio: Ideally, all three will redshirt the season and retain full eligibility heading into next season, when the Tide will figure out who AJ McCarron's successor will be. With Blake Sims and Alec Morris dueling it out for No. 2 now, expect the rookies to ride the bench and learn the ropes in 2013.
Landon CollinsMarvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsFreshman O.J. Howard is already a load for Alabama, as the four-star tight end will most certainly see quite a bit of playing time for the Crimson Tide this season.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They haven't taken their first college class, but Alabama's freshmen have begun their education in Tuscaloosa. Fall camp, with all the difficulties and challenges it presents, is in full swing for the defending champion Crimson Tide and rookies such as Reuben Foster and Grant Hill are getting their first taste of what it means to compete in the SEC.

With a full week of practice already in the books, Alabama's No. 1-ranked signing class has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Veteran defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said there are some potential impact players in the class, saying of the group: "They're really smart, they're fast, they're big."

Ed Stinson, another established player on the defensive line, said the newcomers don't even look like freshmen.

"They're some big boys," he said. "They're strong."

Nick Saban, meanwhile, wasn't nearly as complimentary. That's to be expected, as the seventh-year head coach has had impressive looking players before. What he cares about is how they put those talents to use.

"You can look at that glass as half empty or half full," Saban said earlier in the week. "You see some players who can do it and you see some players who struggle to do it. I'm not disappointed. You make players aware of it. You point it out to them. 'Are you giving the kind of effort that you need? Are you having the kind of focus to execute the technique we need to have you execute?' I don't think there's any player who doesn't want to do it. It's just building the maturity and mental toughness to sustain it. That's part of the development of every player. The older players can do it because they've been through it before and can understand it. It's a process that the younger players have to go through so that they can develop those qualities and characteristics."

Saban wouldn't say who has disappointed and who has impressed. That's not his way. But this reporter has no such qualms. In this week's edition of Alabama Intel, we look at which freshmen have stood out so far.


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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Louisiana, Minnesota, California. The University of Alabama has been willing to go wherever it needs to find its offensive linemen of the future.

On Tuesday, Nick Saban and the UA coaching staff got a bit of good news from the West Coast where junior college offensive tackle Dominick Jackson (San Mateo, Calif./College of San Mateo) flipped his verbal commitment from the UCLA Bruins to the Crimson Tide. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound prospect has the potential to be an instant-impact player for the Tide, which will likely have to replace two starting offensive linemen in 2014.

The potential for turnover no doubt aided in Jackson's decision. The Northern California native doesn't have to be an NFL general manager to look at Cyrus Kouandjio and see a top-10 pick in next year's draft, regardless of his underclassmen status. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. already has the Tide's athletic starting left tackle for UA as his fourth-best prospect overall. Barring a surprise decision, the anchor position on the line will be wide open for Jackson to come in and compete at either in the spring or fall of next year when he enrolls.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The University of Alabama must have felt like a home away from home for defensive tackle Charles Mosley (Brighton, Tenn./Brighton) this week as the big man spent four days on the Crimson Tide’s campus.

“It was a good trip,” he said. “I always have a good time when I go to Alabama. I just got to talk to all the coaches down there, meet a couple new people, some recruits.

“I just like when I talk to Coach [Nick] Saban, I get the feeling that I know they’ll take care of me if I go there. I have some friends down there -- Blake Sims, Brandon Hill, and Brandon Ivory. I just know that if I go there, that I like it there.”


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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In a lot of ways, summer camp is the great equalizer. For college football programs like Alabama, it's a time where there are so many prospects in one place that the names on the back of the jerseys begin to mean nothing and all that matters is the performance. Who they are and what they're ranked as goes out the window. Sometimes there aren't names on the players jerseys at all, just numbers by which to objectively evaluate and grade on a sheet of paper.

Alec Morris was a name no one knew before he came to Alabama's camp two years ago. Plenty of college coaches had seen the strong-armed Texas quarterback throw but very few had offered him a scholarship. Because of that, he was viewed as a marginal prospect. Why? Well, that was a mystery even to those intimately involved in the process.

Alec Morris
Jeff Andrews/ESPNDallas.com Alec Morris might be the favorite to take over for AJ McCarron as Alabama's quarterback in 2014.
"They'd all said they liked what they saw, that he had a live arm and good zip on his passes," said Jeff Fleener, Morris' former offensive coordinator at Allen High just outside of Dallas. "We'd ask the guys that why they didn't offer and what it came down to every time was because the head coach doesn't understand why he doesn't have more offers in the first place."

He explained the phenomena as such: "Once a player gets one or two offers, he'll get one hundred."

Alabama, Fleener said, didn't bother with whether other schools thought enough of Morris to offer a scholarship.

"Luckily for Alabama they trust their evaluation process," he said. "They don't get caught up in stars or offers."

What made the difference for Morris was camp and a throwing session the Allen High staff called to request of Alabama. Morris, who was already committed to Wake Forrest and whose only other offer was from North Texas, was in the state visiting family and wanted the chance to have at least one day to show UA head coach Nick Saban and then-offensive coordinator Jim McElwain what he could do.

By the time he left a session with McElwain and Saban, Morris had made an indelible impression, earning a scholarship offer that would become committable if neither of the two previously offered quarterbacks -- Jameis Winston and Gunner Kiel -- chose to come to Alabama.

Soon after camp, Winston committed to Florida State, Kiel went with Indiana and Morris flipped his commitment from Wake Forest to Alabama. Today, Morris is in the running to back up AJ McCarron under center and could very well wind up the starting quarterback in 2014.

But Morris' story isn't the only one of a no-name player making waves at camp. Offensive lineman Brandon Hill came out of nowhere to land an offer two years ago. Wide receiver Raheem Falkins' performance at camp sewed up his position with Alabama a year ago. Amari Cooper, who would go on to set nearly every rookie receiving record at Alabama this past season, was on no one's radar before he camped in Tuscaloosa.

Camp, with its one-on-one sessions and top competition, separates the wheat from the chaff for college coaches. With a player on campus, they get to answer the most important question of all: Can this kid play for me?

Fleener said that it's a running joke that as a staff they can make nearly any player look good on tape. What they do when they get to camp and actually have to perform is something different altogether.

"If you cut it down to 10-11 clips, we can make them look like an All American," Fleener said. "They want to know, is this kid a highlight video?

"Camp is definitely an opportunity for them to see what kind of football player they're recruiting."
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:

Who's leading?

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.

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Forty-eight hours offered enough time to digest Saturday's A-Day scrimmage. TideNation's film review returns with a second look at the finale of spring practice.


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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If you want to see the results of Alabama's new $9 million, 37,000 square-foot weight room, look no further than the updated roster numbers. The sheer tonnage of pounds lost and gained in the span of one year is overwhelming.


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Brown, Hill ready to compete at RT

February, 12, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The practice fields on the University of Alabama campus will be a much quieter place in a few months when spring practice begins.

[+] EnlargeLeon Brown
Courtesy of Lamar CarterLeon Brown will have a chance to battle for the right tackle spot in 2013.
Former right tackle D.J. Fluker has left for NFL riches, leaving a crater where he once stood tall on the offensive line. The jovial big man from South Alabama was the vocal leader of the Crimson Tide offense, a constant source of motivation as he hooted and hollered in practice and during games. If Fluker was jumping up and down, that meant the Tide were rolling.

Now, the voice and the jersey are gone, and two rookies are poised to compete for the spot he vacated when the redshirt junior decided to leave school early and enter the NFL draft. In his place are two newcomers, Leon Brown and Brandon Hill. Neither are your typical rookies. Brown came to Alabama after spending two years at a junior college in New York and Hill arrived by way of Hargrave Military Academy, a well known preparatory school.

Both offensive tackle prospects called their experience prior to signing with Alabama necessary.

"Brooklyn was very, you know, needed," Brown said last week. "I needed to get the experience of getting a higher level of college football in. It prepared me very well to be here right now."

Said Hill, who wasn't cleared by the NCAA to enroll last year: "The military part was tough, but the football part was the same. You just worked out, and I had set things planned in and we were practicing every day. We made it each other better, but going up north, it was kind of hard to adjust to people, and it prepares you for college and being around a different culture.

"Now I’m back south where I’m home again."

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s now official. Alabama offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland will take the same job with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was considered one of the best in college football at his position, but what does his departure mean for the Crimson Tide on the recruiting trail?


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Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday between now and national signing day, TideNation will review each position and look at who figures to start, who could rise up the depth chart and who might be on the way. Today we’ll look at the offensive line.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was never a secret that D.J. Fluker would forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. Alabama's hulking right tackle put his four years in and decided it was time to go. Coach Nick Saban even said way back in November on his weekly radio show that Fluker was a "a guy who is probably going to go out for the draft."

But Fluker is just one loss on an offensive line many considered the best in all of college football. Center Barrett Jones is leaving the Capstone as one the most decorated football players in the school's history. His three national championships playing three different positions on the offensive line is unprecedented. Winning the Outland Trophy as a junior and then switching to center and winning the Rimington Trophy is mind boggling.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The University of Alabama has utilized more and more true freshmen each year, and it should be no different with the 2013 class. The Crimson Tide already have 21 commitments, including 10 ranked in the ESPN 150. It also doesn’t hurt that nine of them have already enrolled and will compete in spring practice.

Instant-impact recruits

RB Derrick Henry: With Eddie Lacy leaving a year early for the NFL, T.J. Yeldon expects to carry the load at running back next year for Alabama. But who will spell him? Both Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart are coming off major knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake will be just a sophomore. After the season Yeldon put together, don’t count out another true freshman making an impact in the backfield next year.

The Tide expect to sign at least three, possibly four ESPN 150 running backs, but the most physical and ready to play is Henry -- who broke the high school career rushing record. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound could see some time at H-back as well, but expect him to start out as a running back.

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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?


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OT Brandon Hill recommits to Bama 

December, 26, 2012
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Less than a week after ESPN 150 wide receiver Robert Foster committed to Alabama, the Crimson Tide received more good news on Christmas night when offensive tackle Brandon Hill (Collierville, Tenn./Hargrave) recommitted to UA.

Hill originally signed with Alabama out of high school last year but failed to qualify. After playing a year at Hargrave Military Academy, he’s back with the Tide.

“Since I didn’t qualify, I had to make my mind up that once I got to Hargrave, I was going to some college,” Hill said. “At Hargrave, I had mixed feelings and emotions. I knew in my heart all along, I wanted to play in front of people, and I knew that going to Alabama would get me closer to my family.

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