Alabama Crimson Tide: Chance Warmack

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The recruiting classes have all been spectacular since Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007. Simply put, there hasn’t been a better program in college football at gathering, signing and developing blue-chip recruits over the past decade or so.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
AP Photo/Greg TrottFormer Alabama tailback Trent Richardson was ranked as the No. 6 prospect in the Class of 2009.
But all we’ve done the past few days has led us to answer this difficult question: Which class was the best and most impactful of Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa? The 2008 class started it all with guys like Julio Jones and Mark Ingram, and the 2011 class had upward of nine future NFL players with potential first-round picks Cyrus Kouandjio and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. And all that goes without mentioning the three consecutive No. 1-ranked classes from 2012-14 that are still in the process of maturing.

So determining the best class, in that context, was not easy. Our Nos. 2 and 3 classes both had arguments for the top spot. But ultimately the decision was simple: The Class of 2009 was too talented and too deep to keep from coming out No. 1 on our list. Too many current and future professional players dotted the 30-man signing class to ignore.

There was not only the drama of Trent Richardson’s announcement (Saban was uncharacteristically “elated, ecstatic, happy and really pleased," when he signed), but there was also the risk of taking just one quarterback in the class. Obviously, that maneuver paid off as AJ McCarron became arguably the most decorated quarterback in SEC history.

“We thought AJ McCarron was an outstanding prospect in our state,” Saban told reporters way back on Feb. 4, 2009. “Once he committed to us, we felt like someone had to be at least as good as him or better if we were going to take another player at that position. I think that is just kind of how it worked out.”

As it turned out there wasn’t anyone better. And it's just one reason why the 2009 class should go down as the most impactful of Saban’s tenure at Alabama.

The stars: McCarron has the chance to go down as the best quarterback in Alabama history, surpassing Goliath's like Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and Jay Barker. With two championships as a starter and a slew of passing records to his name, he’s clearly the headliner of the class. But he’s not alone, not by a long shot. Richardson was the No. 1 running back in the country and became the first back taken in the 2012 NFL Draft, going third overall. The second running back Alabama took -- the lesser known Eddie Lacy -- would get drafted a year later and become the Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Green Bay Packers in 2013. On the other side of the ball, Dre Kirkpatrick lived up to the hype as the No. 1 cornerback in the country, going in the first round of the draft to the Cincinnati Bengals. And Chance Warmack surpassed all expectations when he rose from a midlevel college prospect to the top offensive guard in the country to a first round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDre Kirkpatrick
AP Photo/David KohlAlabama signed three prospects ranked in the top 12 of the Class of 2009, including cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (No. 4).
The contributors: Anthony Steen was much more than a contributor, but considering how he came to Alabama as the No. 39 defensive tackle in the country it’s a wonder he developed into a three-year starter at guard and a hopeful NFL draft pick. His career was arguably more fruitful and definitely more consistent than that of D.J. Fluker, who went from being the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2009 class to a first round pick of the San Diego Charger’s in 2013. Along with Steen, signees like Nico Johnson, Ed Stinson, Quinton Dial and Kevin Norwood carved out nice careers at Alabama with the type of accomplishments that would land them on the radar of NFL executives.

The letdowns: Compared to other top classes, there were very few letdowns to come from 2009’s crop of signees. Really, all of Alabama’s top five prospects panned out. Had Johnson not had C.J. Mosley behind him, his career might have been looked upon with more favor, and still he was a solid SEC linebacker who would get drafted in the fourth round by the Kansas City Chiefs. But there were some misses as Kendall Kelly never really caught on, Tana Patrick never became more than a sub off the bench, and Petey Smith never stuck around, transferring to a community college in 2011. The biggest whiff of all had to be Darrington Sentimore, though, and not because he was a heralded prospect like the others. The No. 20-ranked defensive tackle wound up transferring to a junior college and then on to Tennessee where he developed into one of the more disruptive defensive linemen in the SEC.

The results: All told, 13 of Alabama’s 30 signees in 2009 are playing in the NFL currently or have futures in the league in 2014. As far as percentages go, that’s a success rate even the most accomplished programs can be proud of. Churning out NFL prospects is one thing, though. Taking five-stars and sending them to the league isn’t unheard of. No, the most impressive thing was the depth of the class as a whole. Not only did blue-chip prospects like Kirkpatrick, McCarron and Richardson pan out, so did developmental recruits like Warmack, Steen, Norwood and Lacy. To have that range of success is almost unheard of. Saban and his staff really did it all with the 2009 class, not only signing the top talent in the country, but also doing the more difficult thing by developing many of them into accomplished players.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban had plenty to be proud about with the signing class he assembled last Wednesday. It was talented, deep and met every need the Crimson Tide had heading into the 2014 season. It was, according to ESPN and every other major recruiting outlet, the No. 1 class in the country by a wide margin.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDE Da'Shawn Hand could make an immediate impact for Alabama in 2014.
But for Alabama, top recruiting classes are nothing new. It was the third consecutive year the Tide finished No. 1 in ESPN’s class rankings. In fact, no class assembled by Saban with the benefit of a full calendar year to recruit (since 2008) has finished lower than No. 3 overall.

There was something special about this class, apart from the record five five-star athletes and 19 ESPN 300 signees. This class of offensive linemen might be the most decorated in the program’s history. It is, at the very least, the best Saban has ever put together since arriving in Tuscaloosa.

According to Saban, solidifying the trenches was the goal.

“I think that was a point of emphasis early on when we started this, is that we needed to get quality people up front on both sides of the ball,” he told reporters at his annual signing day news conference. “We got six offensive linemen, and I think six defensive linemen. Even though three of those guys are junior college guys, we felt that it was important that we get some guys that had a little more maturity about them, a little more veteran experience.”

The defensive linemen could turn out to be just as special. Da’Shawn Hand, a dynamic athlete out of Virginia, was the second-best defensive end in the country, according to ESPN. Jarran Reed, a former Florida commitment, could make an instant impact after transferring from junior college, as could former freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway. Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier could develop into solid contributors as well.

But make no mistake, the most impressive group of the class was the O-line, led by No. 1-rated offensive tackle Cameron Robinson of Monroe, La. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound athlete brings back visions of Cyrus Kouandjio, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle recruit when he came to Alabama only a few years ago. With a similar build and similar attributes to Robinson, Kouandjio started eight games as a true freshman before a knee injury caused him to miss the rest of the season.

Robinson isn’t the only impressive tackle, though. Dominick Jackson, the No. 1 junior college offensive tackle in the country, is ready to make a good first impression. At 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, no one is going to miss the towering product from College of San Mateo in California.

[+] EnlargeCameron Robinson
Miller Safrit/ESPNCameron Robinson, the nation's No. 1 offensive tackle, leads an impressive group of offensive line recruits for Alabama.
Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer offer a similar two-deep at the center position. Casher, from nearby Mobile, Ala., and Hassenauer, of Minnesota, were ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 centers in the ESPN 300, respectively.

Throw in Montel McBride, the No. 28-ranked offensive guard in the country, and Ross Pierschbacher, the No. 3 offensive guard in 2014, and you’ve got an offensive line class with both quality and depth.

In fact, both areas are unmatched in Saban’s tenure with Alabama. The six prospects averaged a scout’s grade of 84.17. Compare that to the previous high of 81.67 in 2011 when Kouandjio and three other offensive linemen signed with Alabama. Four O-line classes (2007-10, 12) had an average scout’s grade of 80 or lower.

At this point it’s important to remember that rankings aren’t everything. As coaches were quick to point out throughout the last week, whatever stars a recruit “earned” in high school vanish upon enrollment. It’s no longer about who you are as much as what you can do.

Case in point: Alabama’s offensive line, circa 2012. That line, featuring All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, was hailed as the best in the country and arguably the best in the history of the program, clearing ground for an offense that took to Tide to the BCS National Championship.

But if you judged that line based on each player’s recruiting rankings, it would have been considered middle-of-the-road at best. Jones was a C+ tackle prospect out of Tennessee (scout’s grade: 78) and Warmack was thought of in much the same way (scout’s grade: 79). Right guard Anthony Steen was a three-star prospect who wound up starting three years at Alabama. Big D.J. Fluker (6-7, 325 pounds) was the most highly regarded recruit of the bunch, the No. 1 tackle prospect in the 2009 class and the No. 12 player overall, according to ESPN.

Saban, for his part, wouldn’t be sad to see recruiting rankings fall off a steep cliff. We can talk about how great Alabama’s O-line class is today, but he’d like to see it judged three years from now when players have developed and have an opportunity to move on to the NFL.

“The challenge for all these young men [who] got recruited [on Wednesday], wherever they're going, is to be able to stay focused on what they need to do to improve as players and do the things that they need to do to become very effective college football players,” Saban said. “Maybe the biggest challenge of all, maybe even more so going from college to the NFL, I think is having the maturity to be able to stay focused on the things they need to do to develop as players and keep a positive attitude toward the goal they have, understand what it takes to accomplish the goals they have and then have the discipline they have to execute it every day.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama's offensive line represents the ultimate failure to manage expectations, to live in the world as it is as opposed to the world as it might become.

This season's line wasn't the same as its predecessor, but it was expected to have the same type of production. Just look at Ryan Kelly. He was no Barrett Jones, yet he was hyped as a possible improvement over a player with more accolades than any in Alabama history. How crazy was that?

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line have gotten better with each game.
Looking back, it's easy to spot the lunacy. That's no knock on Kelly, who could very well end up being a more talented center than Jones by the time his career is over. But come on. You don't replace Jones' Outland and Rimington trophies overnight. You can't quantify what his experience and leadership meant over four years as a starter at guard, tackle and center for the Crimson Tide.

At the same time, you don't sneak Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker out the back door and expect no one to notice. Those were two first-round NFL draft picks. You could have run a rusty wheelchair behind them and picked up first downs. Granted, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd were talented replacements, but they hadn't started a game in their careers. We didn't even know if Kouandjio could stay healthy for an entire season, for goodness sake.

In other words, we should have seen Alabama's early-season struggles on the offensive line coming. We should have expected the performances vs. Virginia Tech and Colorado State when the line didn't get push, AJ McCarron was pressured, and the running game never materialized. We shouldn't have thought the success of 2012 would transition into 2013 without so much as a blip in the radar. It doesn't work that way.

All they really needed was time and more realistic expectations.

So it's no wonder we've seen such a dramatic improvement from Alabama's offensive line over the past few weeks. The line hasn't allowed a single sack since the third quarter of the Ole Miss game on Sept. 28 -- that's a streak of 17 quarters for those keeping score at home -- and the running game is suddenly potent again. The offense has begun to click on all cylinders, jumping up to No. 35 nationally with 462.8 yards per game.

Coach Nick Saban touted their improved chemistry and trust with one another, saying how important experience has been to their development.

"They have played well," he said. "They've run blocked well these last few weeks. The last four weeks we thought played well on the offensive line. I think that's important to us, especially with AJ. If he doesn't get pressured in the pocket and we get people open, he's pretty accurate throwing the ball and makes good choices and decisions.

"I think it's a key to us being successful that they continue to improve and play well up front. We'll play against some good defensive linemen and some good defensive teams down the road."

By "down the road" Saban meant this Saturday's game against LSU. Though the 13th-ranked Tigers' defense has been up-and-down this season, they still possess some of the country's best talent on the defensive line. Tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson are monsters at 309 and 294 pounds, respectively.

LSU currently ranks fifth in the league in scoring defense (24.8 ppg), sixth in passing efficiency defense (131.9) and have accounted for the fifth-most sacks (20) in the league.

Had Saturday's game come earlier in the season for Alabama, there might be a full-blown crisis among Tide fans over the state of the offensive line. We'd be hearing questions about whether they could handle the pass rush and if that would mean the offense as a whole wouldn't score enough points to win.

But instead, we're hearing next to nothing. Luckily for Alabama, the offensive line has found its stride in the nick of time. It's almost as if the early struggles never happened. The names of Jones, Warmack and Fluker aren't forgotten in Tuscaloosa, but they're not as agonized over as they were in the first few weeks of the season.

"The past three or four games we were clicking on all levels of the run game and pass game," said right guard Anthony Steen, "and right now we’re just trying not to lose the beat and stay on top of things.”

Steen, a veteran presence with more than 30 starts under his belt, didn't know about the line's streak without allowing a sack until a reporter told him. He wasn't focused on that, he said, and neither were his teammates. Rather than getting to up or too down, he's tried to keep everyone even-keeled.

What's been said and what's happened this season won't matter when LSU comes to town this weekend, and Steen knows that. He said the Tigers' defensive line "will be the most physical line we'll see all season" and that's the only challenge he's worried about.

"We know it’s going to be a tough game," he said. "We know it’s probably going to come down to two or three plays. If they have two good plays and an 80-yard pass and an 80-yard run, then we might lose. But if we have two or three good plays then we might win.

"It’s going to be that type of game. We know that, and we know it’s going to come down to the end."

2015 OL Warmack verges on decision 

July, 11, 2013

ATHENS, Ga. -- The recruitment for offensive lineman Dallas Warmack (Atlanta/Mays) might be over before it really begins. Last month he picked up an offer from the Bulldogs after working out with offensive line coach Will Friend. Alabama offered the following week, and Tennessee offered on Tuesday. Warmack may not give anyone else a chance.

Looking back at the top Alabama players in the last decade, not every one was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. Much of the Crimson Tide’s success can be traced to more under-the-radar prospects who emerged once they got to Tuscaloosa. Every recruiting class has a hidden gem or two that succeeds beyond expectations.

We look back at the top five players who might not have been household names in high school but who went on to make a significant impact during their careers at Alabama.

LB DeMeco Ryans (Class of 2002)
Bessemer, Ala./Jess Lanier
DeMeco Ryans
Kellen Micah/Icon SMILightly recruited out of high school, DeMeco Ryans starred at Alabama and is entering his eighth season in the NFL.
Ryans grew up a huge Alabama fan, so it wasn’t surprising when he committed to the Tide. The surprising part was that he had just two other offers, from Mississippi State and UAB. He was relatively undersized coming out of high school, but UA fans are happy that former coach Dennis Franchione took a chance on him. Ryans started out as a special teams contributor, but he went on to become an All-American linebacker and was named the SEC defensive player of the year in 2005. He was the first pick of the second round in the 2006 NFL draft.

DB Rashad Johnson (Class of 2004)
Sulligent, Ala./Sulligent
Forget stars coming out of high school. Johnson had none. He didn’t have a single Division I scholarship offer when he graduated from Sulligent High School. He walked on at Alabama as a running back. After making his mark on special teams as a freshman, Johnson moved to safety, where he started four games as a sophomore. By the time he was a junior, he was a captain for Alabama, and he finished among the SEC leaders in interceptions. After his senior year, the former walk-on was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the third round of the 2009 draft.

DB Javier Arenas (Class of 2006)
Arenas committed to Florida Atlantic early in the recruiting process. It was his only offer, and it remained his only offer until Alabama jumped in late and stole him away with the intention of making him a return specialist. The plan worked. Arenas set the SEC record for career punt return touchdowns. But he did much more than that during his time in Tuscaloosa. Under the direction of Nick Saban, Arenas became one of the stars of Alabama’s 2009 defense and helped lead the Tide a national championship. He was a second-round pick in 2010.

DL Marcell Dareus (Class of 2008)
Birmingham, Ala./Huffman
Looking back, it was Alabama’s 2008 recruiting class that served as the catalyst for the Tide’s recent success. The biggest gem in that class had to be Dareus, who was ranked No. 30 in the state of Alabama coming out of high school. The potential was there, but nobody expected him to have the success he had during his time at UA. As a true freshman, he suited up for the Tide’s opener against Clemson and never looked back. After just three years in Tuscaloosa, Dareus left early for the NFL and was taken No. 3 overall in the 2011 draft by the Buffalo Bills.

OL Chance Warmack (Class of 2009)
When Warmack was in high school, he never received an offer from Georgia, the in-state favorite. Had the Bulldogs offered, he might not be on this list. Instead, the three-star offensive guard ended up at Alabama, where he made 39 career starts and was a part of three national championship teams. Saban and his staff were the first to offer Warmack, which went a long way in securing his signature. They saw the potential in the 300-pound lineman, and it paid off. Warmack was taken No. 10 overall by the Tennessee Titans in April's draft.

Honorable mention: QB Greg McElroy, RB Glen Coffee, DT Terrence Cody.

ESPN 150 guard Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial) became Alabama's first pledge along the offensive line for 2014. Here's how our Scouts think he'll perform in Tuscaloosa:

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Cyrus KouandjioKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio might have a secure spot on the O-line, but not many others do.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At a certain point, there's too much work to be done on the football field. So much so that the idea of competition goes out the window. With three vacant starting positions on the Alabama offensive line this spring, the idea of actually battling for playing time is unthinkable, at least to left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.

The depth chart, he noted, is still open.

"Everybody is just working," Kouandjio said following Wednesday's practice. He and guard Anthony Steen are the only two returning starters on the line. "At this time, we're not even thinking about competition."

They might be the only ones, though.

If Alabama is going to have anywhere near the success it had last season, the offensive line must come together, and in a hurry. Kouandjio might have the luxury of feeling good about his position on the depth chart, but he's the exception to the rule, as Alabama must replace three NFL-caliber offensive linemen in Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. That's not to mention the other seven former starters now plying their trade elsewhere.

At least Kouandjio would admit that practice felt different without his former teammates around.

"It feels weird," he said. "I've been with those guys for a long time."

But he's been with his brother, Arie, longer. And with Warmack gone, Arie has a chance to start alongside his twin at left guard. He'll have to fend off Kellen Williams for the spot, but so far he's the favorite to win the starting nod.

Chemistry, the glue of any good offensive line, is already set on the left side. After playing together in high school, the Koundajios don't have to say a word to communicate to one another.

"It's my brother" Cyrus said, "of course we already have camaraderie. We already understand each other.

"I love playing with my brother. He's always pushing me, and I'm always pushing him."

The camaraderie of the line as a whole won't come from either Kouandjio, though. Ryan Kelly, the man charged with replacing Jones at center, is looking to make his stamp as the leader of the unit now. And as Cyrus put it, he brings a lot to the table, rivaling Jones in at least one respect.

"He's the most professional person I know," Cyrus said of Kelly. "He's really serious, and that's the perfect center right there. Most centers have to be really tough, and I trust him 100 percent. I trust him as much as I trusted Barrett Jones last year.

"I think things are looking good for him."

Cyrus also singled out rising sophomore Brandon Greene for his improvement this offseason. He, Williams, Isaac Luatua, Alphonse Taylor and newcomers Leon Brown and Brandon Hill have added depth to the offensive line.

"He's doing so much better from last year," Cyrus said of Greene. "He got so much better over the break. His hands are where they're supposed to be, his footwork is good, he is where he's supposed to be right now."

Head coach Nick Saban, for his part, downplayed the transition taking place on the offensive line. He said new position coach Mario Cristobal is doing a "really good job" at coaching and connecting with the players.

"He’s done a good job teaching them," he said. "He’s got good energy and enthusiasm. He brings some new ideas. That’s always welcome when you have new coaches join the staff. So everything about this so far from a transition standpoint has been positive."

And like everything with the offensive line, Saban's remarks came with a caveat.

"But that's a work in progress, too," he said.
Nick SabanStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama are going for a third consecutive crystal football this season.

They’re all chasing Alabama, and not just in the SEC.

Oregon, USC and Ohio State are. Ditto for Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Florida State.

The Crimson Tide have pocketed three of the past four national championships, including the past two, and are dead-set on winning a few more.

Remember offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio's proclamation after the 42-14 blistering of Notre Dame two months ago in the Discover BCS National Championship Game?

“We’re going for it next year again ... and again and again and again,” Kouandjio said.

It’s the way they roll at Alabama, particularly since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007.

But while everybody else is chasing the Crimson Tide, they’re involved in a chase of their own.

Some might say they’re chasing history. More precisely, they’re chasing a standard, one that is handed down year by year and cuts to the very core of what Saban’s “process” is all about.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron is 25-2 since taking over as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback.
“That’s why one of our famous sayings at Alabama is, 'We don’t play football. We live it,'" said quarterback AJ McCarron, who has a chance to win a fourth national championship ring.

“That says a lot about our program and the way Coach Saban handles the guys on our team. You’ve got to be able to handle success, and best way to do that is that every time you step out onto the field, you’re pushing for greatness.”

That pursuit started all over again about 48 hours after Alabama’s players and coaches returned home from South Florida back in January. It resumes in earnest on March 16 when Alabama opens spring practice.

The Crimson Tide will almost certainly start the 2013 season ranked No. 1. No school has won three consecutive outright national championships since Minnesota all the way back in 1934-36, according to the NCAA's official website.

And while the Alabama players have been well-trained to live (and play) in the moment, they’re well aware of what awaits them next season.

The expectations, not to mention the pressure to collect another crystal football, will be enormous.

But they seem to like it that way.

“It’s like Coach Saban always says, ‘We created this beast, so you don’t complain about it,’” said McCarron, who’s 25-2 as a starter. “We set the standard this high. I think it brings the best out of you as a player and as a person on and off the field. You have to carry yourself with that much more pride.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re on the field or off of it. Everybody’s gunning to beat us, and everybody’s watching us. All eyes are on us at all times. It’s one of the best things about playing here. Everybody expects greatness.”

Linebacker C.J. Mosley, like McCarron, decided to come back for his senior season after considering a jump to the NFL. In a lot of ways, he’s to Alabama’s defense what McCarron is to the offense.

“We go into every game expecting to get that team’s best,” Mosley said. “We look at it like the regular season is 13 national championship games for every opponent we play, so we know that we’re going to have to play our best every week.”

For the most part, the Crimson Tide have found a way to do that during their historic run.

Still, they’ve needed a little help along the way and have managed to make clutch plays at key times.

They rebounded from a November home loss to Texas A&M last season to reach the BCS National Championship Game after previously unbeaten Oregon and Kansas State both lost the next week. A week earlier, they pulled out a win over LSU on the road thanks to a last-minute touchdown drive.

Had Ohio State not been on NCAA probation last season and ineligible for postseason play, Alabama probably would have been left out of the BCS National Championship Game.

In 2011, the Crimson Tide got a rematch with LSU in the BCS National Championship Game despite not even winning the Western Division title and losing at home to LSU during the regular season.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images "We go into every game expecting to get that team's best," C.J. Mosley said. "... the regular season is 13 national championship games."
So the ball has bounced Alabama’s way each of the past two seasons. But once on the big stage, the Crimson Tide have proved emphatically that they were the best team in college football.

Getting there may again be the tricky part in 2013. There’s the showdown with Texas A&M in College Station the third week of the season, and there are some key holes to fill on both defense and offense.

Three starters on the offensive line are gone, including All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack. The Crimson Tide will also be looking for reinforcements in the defensive secondary. There’s very little depth at cornerback.

“We still have a lot of guys coming back who’ve been in those big games and have the right experience,” McCarron said. “But at the same time, we’re going to need some of these freshmen coming in and some of the sophomores and redshirt freshmen to step up and make some plays for us.

“We’re going to find out who’s ready to do that. You always need new guys to emerge, every year. We’ve got to have guys who can do it on a consistent basis and know that they’re going to be there week in and week out. Nothing’s going to be given to us, and nothing’s going to be easy. We know that.”

If Alabama can get past Texas A&M on Sept. 14, the schedule isn’t too daunting from there. In fact, the Crimson Tide have to leave the state to play only twice more after that -- at Kentucky on Oct. 12 and at Mississippi State on Nov. 16. What’s more, they avoid Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in the East next season.

Of course, good luck in getting anybody inside the Alabama locker room to admit that they’ve even thought about looking that far down the road.

But as the chase ensues in 2013 -- on both fronts -- the specter of a potential three-peat will loom large across the entire college football landscape.

“There’s a lot of work to do before anybody starts thinking about that,” Mosley said. “We’re still trying to get a feel for some of the younger guys. We working on putting the standard in their heads and making sure they know what Alabama football is all about.”

Judging by how crowded the trophy case at the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility is getting, they tend to learn quickly at the Capstone.

Editor's note: From now until the start of spring camp March 16, TideNation will count down the 12 most intriguing players to watch on the Alabama football roster. Today we look at center Ryan Kelly.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For the Alabama Crimson Tide to have the season they hope for, the offensive line must come together -- and in a hurry. With a season-opening date against Virginia Tech in Atlanta, followed by a trip to College Station, Texas, to visit the Texas A&M Aggies, time is of the essence. There are just two offensive linemen returning from last season, and without a strong front five it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Alabama to repeat as national champion.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesVeteran teammates frequently compliment Ryan Kelly's reliability and knowledge of Bama's schemes.
Chemistry will be vital. Without it, talent means nothing. It's what made last season's line so good. The players weren't just skilled, they worked well together. Rediscovering that delicate composition of guard, tackle and center will begin in a few weeks when spring practice starts and new offensive line coach Mario Cristobal takes over the reins from the departed Jeff Stoutland.

Cristobal will rely on aid from Ryan Kelly. The rising redshirt sophomore is a shoo-in to replace Barrett Jones at center. Kelly, who signed with Alabama in 2011 as the No. 4 center in the country, was with the second team for the last two springs and spent several weeks running with the first unit during bowl practice, while Jones sat out with an injury. During that time, Kelly gained the respect of many of his teammates.

Jones has called Kelly a more talented center than he'd ever hope to become. Chance Warmack chimed in later, adding that Kelly was an "exceptional young player" who catches on well to the schemes.

"He's keen on carrying me and taking control in terms of making the right calls," Warmack said of Kelly on Dec. 27. "Knowing the scheme, what it takes to be a starter at center on the offensive line. He's doing a really good job."

Though he has yet to start a game in his career, Kelly understands the responsibility of the playing center. While he enjoys the recognition his teammates have already given him, he said he's trying not to get a big head about it and continues to work hard to improve. As the one calling protections, he's the captain of the line, though Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen are senior to him in status. Ultimately, the success of the entire line rests with him.

"When I make a call, that’s what everyone else makes his call off of," Kelly told reporters before the BCS National Championship. "So if I’m wrong, everyone else is wrong."

And if everyone else on the line is wrong, nothing will work. The ball starts off in the center's hands, not the quarterback and not the running back. While other flashier positions might gather more attention when spring camp opens March 16, at the end of the day there might not be a more important person to the health of the offense as a whole than Kelly.
With two days of testing down and two more to go, many of Alabama's 10 representatives at the NFL combine in Indianapolis have already been put through the ringer. The early results for some are in, but check back throughout the day for the latest.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanEddie Lacy won't partake in drills at the NFL combine, but will perform at Alabama's pro day.
RB Eddie Lacy
Combine results: N/A
The latest: For the next week or so until Alabama holds its pro day, NFL general managers and scouts will have to rely on game film when breaking down the top-rated running back in the draft. A small tear of the hamstring kept Lacy from participating in drills in Indianapolis, but he made the trip all the same to weigh in and take part in team interviews. ESPN's John Clayton believes there wasn't a first-round running back on the field Sunday, which could be good news for Lacy. A strong pro day -- tentatively set for March 13 -- could be the final push Lacy needs to separate himself from the rest of the class and solidify his first-round status.

OT D.J. Fluker
Combine results: 5.31 second 40-yard dash, 21 bench press reps
The latest: Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago says Fluker could be a target for the Bears with the 20th overall pick. That's how far the former Alabama right tackle has come since concerns about his weight and athleticism. Coming in at a trim 6-foot-4 and 339 pounds in Indianapolis helped nearly as much as his performance during on-field workouts. While it's still not clear whether he ends up at tackle or guard, teams are clearly interested.

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OLs from SEC can thrive at combine

February, 20, 2013
Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites will look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins Friday in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Today: Offensive linemen.

Alabama Crimson Tide

It's only fitting that the best offensive line in college football would produce some of the most intriguing prospects in the NFL draft. Alabama will likely have three offensive linemen taken in the first few rounds in April, further proof of the talent that resided in Tuscaloosa this past season.

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Forecasting the Tide: Offensive line 

January, 24, 2013
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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Top Alabama sleepers 

January, 22, 2013
Recruiting is an imperfect science. Sometimes scouts can see a player's potential right away. With others it takes some seasoning. Alabama coach Nick Saban has hauled in more than his fair share of blue chip prospects, but he has also made hay with some lesser known quantities. With signing day only days away, we'll take a look back at some of the undervalued prospects that performed beyond their recruiting rankings at Alabama since 2006.

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Anthony SteenScott Kane/Icon SMIAnthony Steen (61) said he's anxious to return to Alabama's offensive line to help lead the group in 2013.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At least one key junior is returning to the University of Alabama next season. Right guard Anthony Steen announced he would come back for his senior season on Wednesday, citing a need to improve his draft stock, according to the university.

"Returning in 2013 will give me a chance to improve my draft status," he said in a news release, "while also providing the opportunity to enjoy another season with my teammates, coaches and our fans."

Steen was part of an offensive line that was arguably the best in the nation, producing two 1,000-yard tailbacks and accounting for more than 3,000 yards on the ground. The 6-foot-3 Mississippi native will be joined by sophomore tackle Cyrus Kouandjio on the line next season as it's likely junior right tackle D.J. Fluker will turn pro. Center Barrett Jones, the Rimington Award winner, and All-American guard Chance Warmack were both seniors this season and are likely NFL draft picks.

"We are glad that Anthony has decided to return and he'll be one of the senior leaders of our offense," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He's done an outstanding job for us as a starter at guard on the last two championship teams and I think he can become an even better player and improve his status for next year's draft with another season here."

Saban said that while most people spoke about Jones, Fluker and Warmack this season, he expects to hear a different tune in 2013.

"I think Anthony Steen and Cyrus are two guys that have played very, very well all year long, and their time is coming," he said. "They're going to be the guys who get featured next year as being the most experienced guys, who have the most starts, who have played with the most consistency, that people will be looking at as guys who probably will receive a lot of accolades. I don't think that just because you don't get media attention or make some team that it doesn't mean you haven't been very effective as a player. A lot of times, people do a numbers count on how many guys are from this this team -- you can only submit so many guys for these teams -- but Anthony's done as good a job as anyone on the offensive line."

Steen, who has started 25 games in his career, came to Alabama as the No. 39 prospect at defensive tackle, according to ESPN.

"I enjoy Tuscaloosa and our fans way too much to leave early," Steen said. "We are also losing two great seniors this year and this will give me the chance to help get players ready for their new roles in 2013."
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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Alabama Dismisses Jonathan Taylor
Alex Scarborough discusses the Crimson Tide's decision to dismiss defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor after he was arrested on domestic violence charges in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.