Alabama Crimson Tide: Leon Brown
The good news for Alabama is that this isn’t the first time coach Nick Saban and his staff have been through this. Just last season offensive line coach Mario Cristobal had the unenviable job of replacing three All-SEC caliber linemen: Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. And do you remember what happened? The 2013 line actually one-upped the previous season's line in some respects. The line allowed six fewer sacks and also saw its rushes for zero or negative yards -- a good indicator of the push a line generates -- fall from 91 to 79, vaulting the Tide to fourth nationally in that category.
But, of course, there’s room to improve. Just ask Kelly.
“Communication is the most important thing,” he explained. “All 11 guys have to be on the same page. ... It starts with the offensive line. One of the things we’re trying to emphasize is get up to the ball, get down, get set. Last year, look at it, we were running the clock down to five, four seconds every time. The faster that we can get to the line, get set, let the quarterback look at what he’s got to look at, the more time we can have and we’re not rushing to make calls last-minute.”
Does that mean Alabama is turning to a more up-tempo offense under new coordinator Lane Kiffin? It depends whom you ask.
Brian Vogler, a senior tight end, said that he thought the offense would stay similar to years past, relying on the “mauler” style it was founded on. Kelly, however, asked the question: “Anytime we can run more plays it’s good for an offense, right?” He said he anticipates “a lot” of change this season, including new plays and new formations.
“Obviously, we want to practice faster every day,” Kelly continued. “As as the spread offense, stuff like that, it’s still the same. We’ve just been wanting to get more reps in practice. Obviously, reps make us better.”
More repetitions will be key for the newcomers on the offensive line, not to mention the communication among all five potential starters.
Through the first four practices, the first-team line features Kelly, Shepherd and Kouandjio at their usual positions, with Alphonse Taylor added at right guard and Leon Brown at left tackle. The two combined for 17 appearances and one start last season, the lone start coming from Brown when Shepherd was lost for the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
Though he can play inside, Brown might be better suited at tackle given his length (6-foot-6, 313 pounds).
Taylor, however, has all the earmarks of a punishing guard. At 6-5, 335 pounds and a low center of gravity, he looks vaguely like Warmack when he shuffles upfield in running situations.
“If you look at how big he is, he’s actually really athletic, can bend really well and he’s got a lot of power,” Kelly said. “Another young guy, doesn’t have a whole lot of experience, obviously, playing games. But I think this spring’s going to be really big for him.”
But the most intriguing prospect of all has to be Cameron Robinson, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 2014 class. He has everything you look for in an offensive tackle: size, strength, athleticism. The 6-6, 325-pound freshman from Louisiana has shown some growing pains since enrolling in January, but he has also shown flashes of the talent that made him such a coveted recruit.
With a spring to learn, an offseason to prepare and an open position at left tackle to compete for come fall, don’t sleep on Robinson.
“He’s got a lot of ability,” Kelly said of Robinson. “He’s a big guy, can bend really well, long arms. Obviously he came into an offense where we kind of transitioning into a new style or new plays, stuff like that. So he never really learned the old one. Anytime you’re coming from high school to college it’s going to take a while to kind of get acclimated to it. Older guys have been helping him along the way, kind of showing him the ropes, because it can be eye-opening at times, coming from high school to college.”
Saban called Robinson “a young guy that’s learning and getting better every day.” But along the same line, Saban said of the entire line that he wasn’t “satisfied with where they are, but pleased with the progress they’re making.”
In other words, the line is very much an ongoing process.
“The depth chart means nothing right now,” Shepherd said. “The depth chart won't mean anything until we play West Virginia.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s not going to be easy, but Cam Robinson is going to do it. The five-star prospect from Louisiana is still wet behind the ears, but that won’t stop him from claiming the left tackle position at Alabama. He'll be replacing another former highly-regarded recruit who played in his first eight games as a freshman before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Cyrus Kouandjio would recover and start 27 consecutive games as a sophomore and junior and is on pace to be taken in the first round of May’s NFL draft.
Whether Robinson develops into that successful an offensive tackle remains to be seen. Rather, today is reserved for the slightly less ambitious question of whether a true freshman can enroll early, beat out some stiff competition and start from Day 1 at a position that is widely considered the most pivotal on the offensive line. Robinson, who cuts an imposing figure at 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, is the best equipped of Alabama’s eight early enrollees to answer with a resounding, “Yes.” And that’s saying something, if you take Nick Saban at his word.
“I’ve been really impressed with the eight freshmen that we have here,” the 62-year-old head coach of the Tide said last week. “I think that it's a huge advantage for them to be here. But they've all sort of done a nice job in the offseason program, are all guys that look like might be guys that can compete to help the team in some kind of way which I think is a real positive for us.”
Robinson gave up his final semester of high school -- prom, graduation, etc. -- to come to Alabama early and compete. It wasn’t a tough decision, he said, because it would give him the leg up he was after.
“I had to think about the long run, how it would benefit me when I get to college,” he told reporters on signing day in early February. “So it wasn't a tough decision at all.”
Coaches have told him he’ll play left tackle, he said, which is obvious when you look at his tape. He might be big, but he’s more than athletic enough to play on the outside. As his ESPN scouting report notes, he has “good initial quicks off the ball, ankle flexibility and the strength to deliver a jarring initial pop.” There are plenty of colorful adjectives one could use to describe the way he hits the second level of the defense.
“Of course I wouldn't mind starting,” Robinson said, “but that's something you have to ask coach about.”
For now, Saban isn’t saying. He wouldn’t put the pressure on a player like that. And Mario Cristobal, who is in charge of the offensive line, isn’t allowed to speak to the media.
That said, Robinson seems like he has humbled himself to the challenge of competing at Alabama. When asked what he needs to work on, his answer was very much to the point.
“Everything,” he said. “I need to work on everything. SEC man, with these defensive linemen, it's crazy. These guys are freak athletes. I'm working on everything I can to just get better overall.”
He’ll have challengers, but none with the upside he possesses. Leon Brown should figure into the competition, along with Brandon Greene and Brandon Hill. Dominick Jackson, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle in junior college last year according to ESPN, wasn’t signed by Alabama to sit and watch. He’ll push Robinson as much as anyone.
But there are already rumblings coming out of Alabama that Robinson will play as a true freshman, and spring practice hasn’t even begun. If his work ethic matches his physical tools, then the job very well could be his.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Kouandjio was talked about much in the same vein prior to his arrival in 2011. Had he enrolled early, he might have done more than play in eight games as a true freshman -- he might have started.
It’s going to be a tall task for Robinson to win the job and start from Day 1. That challenge will begin on Saturday when Alabama opens spring practice in Tuscaloosa. How Robinson fares over those 15 practices will either propel him to a starting role or set him on a course for later development. But given the landscape of things, bet on the more ambitious goal.
But there will be so much more to spring practice than Coker, mostly because he won’t even be there. If you think Alabama’s offense is simply waiting on his arrival, you’re wrong. While Coker finishes his degree in Tallahassee, new Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have more than enough work to do.
So while spring practice may still be several weeks away, here’s a look at three things Kiffin must accomplish during camp. You’ll notice Coker’s name is nowhere to be found.
Oh, the other guys? Yeah, Alabama has quite a few quarterbacks already on the roster. Blake Sims, AJ McCarron’s backup, is still around. So is Alec Morris, who traveled with the team as a redshirt freshman last season. Luke Del Rio’s transfer makes last year's trio of true freshmen one less, but Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod are both back. And David Cornwell, No. 4 in the ESPN 300, enrolled early and will compete during spring practice as well.
Kiffin, who is also the quarterbacks coach, has five guys who want to win the starting job now. They're not going to wait around until someone else -- we won’t say his name again, remember? -- arrives in the summer.
Getting Sims more comfortable taking snaps under center and throwing from the pocket will be a big challenge for Kiffin, as will developing confidence in the younger quarterbacks. Having them all in tune with the new playbook will be a big goal of the spring, giving them the leg up they'll need to enter fall camp ready to compete from Day 1.
Developing young weapons
Former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has been blamed by some for limiting the explosiveness of Alabama’s offense in 2013. Further analysis disputes that fact, though, as Alabama had the fifth-highest percentage of plays of 10 or more yards in the country last season. The more appropriate critique might have been who was making big plays rather than how many as Nussmeier struggled to incorporate new offensive weapons like O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry.
Howard, despite being the most athletic tight end on the roster and one of the best playmakers on offense, caught just 14 passes. In nine games he caught one or no passes. Meanwhile, Brian Vogler, the starter, had all of eight receptions in 2013 and caught no passes in the final three games.
How Henry, the clear winner of the Allstate Sugar Bowl with 161 total yards and two touchdowns, took so long to develop is anyone’s guess. He didn’t carry the ball a single time in Alabama’s four closest regular-season games: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. His big body might have helped when Alabama faced a number of short-yardage situations in the Iron Bowl.
Kiffin, though, won’t have the excuse of youth with Howard or Henry this fall. Getting them more involved in the offense and developing underused weapons like Chris Black and Raheem Falkins will be paramount to Alabama's success in 2014.
Reestablishing the offensive line
Here’s a bit of not-so breaking news: Alabama's 2012 offensive line that so many called the best in the history of college football is gone. All of it. With Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen off to the NFL, every piece of that five-man puzzle has left campus.
Now Kiffin and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal must find new faces to build around. Three starters will return -- center Ryan Kelly, guard Arie Kouandjio and tackle Austin Shepherd -- and one or more of them will have to assume a greater leadership role with so many veterans gone. Leon Brown, who filled in admirably for Steen in the Sugar Bowl, looks ready to start, and the left tackle competition will be heated with a number of returning players and incoming freshman Cam Robinson eager to earn the spot.
Philosophically, a return to a more physical style on the line could be in order. With more inexperience up front than usual and a new quarterback under center, Kiffin might lean toward a run-heavy offense, especially early in the season. Establishing that proper mindset on the line early might be more important than finding who the starting five will be during spring practice.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It happens every year now, so don't act surprised. If you're an Alabama fan, deal with it. If you're not, don't weep for the Crimson Tide, either. Coach Nick Saban has lost multiple underclassmen to the NFL before, so Thursday's news that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan will all leave school early is no insurmountable thing. This is just the reason why Saban and his staff recruit so hard.
"Our twos and threes could do what I did out there," Clinton-Dix said of the team moving forward. "I'm not worried about any of those guys stepping up."
Alabama will be fine without Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix. Many of their replacements are already on board: Landon Collins at safety, Leon Brown at tackle, Dillon Lee at strongside linebacker, Jonathan Allen at defensive end. Those who will challenge them for playing time are either just now arriving or just now finishing their first seasons in Tuscaloosa: defensive backs ArDarius Stewart and Laurence 'Hootie' Jones, tackles Grant Hill and Cam Robinson, linebackers Tim Williams and Da'Shawn Hand, and defensive ends Dee Liner and D.J. Pettway -- all excellent prospects.
It's easy to look at the loss of stars and say, "Oh no!" but that's not how it works at Alabama. It wasn't that long ago that safety Mark Barron left school and Clinton-Dix entered the fold. D.J. Fluker went to the NFL a year early and Austin Shepherd had little trouble at right tackle in his absence. Eddie Lacy torched Notre Dame in last year's BCS title game, announced he was turning pro and Alabama never missed a beat. Not only is T.J. Yeldon back for his junior season, a fella by the name of Derrick Henry appears ready to be his new sidekick.
This is the program that Saban has built. This is what his "Process" has borne. And it's embraced around campus. Just look at this, this and this from Alabama's director of player personnel Tyler Siskey. As Saban told reporters, "We've had 13 guys go out early for the NFL draft, 11 of those guys have been first-round draft picks."
Often when other schools lose key players to the NFL, there's a mad scramble to find their replacements. At Alabama, coaches turn to a stocked cupboard. Take the safety position, for instance: Cinton-Dix goes out with off-field drama and Collins enters the fold at free safety, followed by Vinnie Sunseri blowing out his knee and Collins then shifting over to strong safety. Collins, a former five-star prospect in his own right, immediately found success. A year after playing primarily on special teams, he finished second on the team in tackles, tied for first in interceptions and tops in passes defended.
Sure, Saban would love to see Pagan, Hubbard, Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix back for another year. Just don't expect him to openly weep about it. He's probably more than thrilled that Trey DePriest and DeAndrew White should be sticking around for their senior seasons.
You know, two out of six isn't bad. Three championships in five years seems to be going over quite well in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama will survive and new stars will emerge next season. Sometimes you hate to see athletes like Clinton-Dix leave early, but their departure only clears the way for who's next.
Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?
Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.
Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.
The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.
This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.
The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.
The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.
What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.
But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.
Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.
It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.
The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.
Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.
In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.
Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.
And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.
But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.
From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.
Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.
At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.
Well, technically speaking. Nick Saban isn't ready to stop teaching.
"Now, even though the players are moving out of the dorm, camp doesn’t really end, to me, until camp ends," the Tide's demanding head coach told reporters on Thursday. "And camp really doesn’t end to me until school starts. And school doesn’t really start to where they’ve got school stuff until next week. So we’ll continue with our meetings and all the things that we do and kind of go from there."
Alabama players report today and begin practicing under the direction of coach Nick Saban and the staff tomorrow. To get you ready for all the action, here's a piece-by-piece look at some areas and players to watch.
Making their move
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No. 79 Austin Shepherd
Redshirt junior offensive lineman
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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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Rookies with the best chance of making an impact
2. RB Derrick Henry: He'll play running back. Let's get that out of the way right now. At 6-foot-3 and some 240 pounds, Henry doesn't look like your prototypical ball-carrier, but that's what he'll be as a freshman. And watch out. Teammates marveled at his strength, saying he looked like a taller version of Trent Richardson on the practice fields. A broken leg caused him to miss A-Day, but he's expected to be back to 100 percent before the start of fall camp.
3. WR Raheem Falkins: As the No. 41-ranked receiver in a signing class that featured No. 2-ranked Robert Foster, it's understandable why Falkins wasn't on many people's radar coming into spring camp. But the tall, rangy wideout from Louisiana enrolled early and showed he's more than just a project. He was quick, smooth and graceful with the football, belying his size. But it's his size that gives him an edge. At 6-foot-4, he'll be the tallest receiver on the roster and thus a good option in the red zone.
4. OT Leon Brown: Don't count Brown out of the race at right tackle just yet. Veteran Austin Shepherd has the lead, but Brown isn't so far behind that he can't catch up. The former No. 2-ranked juco offensive tackle enrolled early this spring and transitioned well to the college game under new position coach Mario Cristobal. He could hit his stride this fall after a full offseason in the weight and film rooms.
5. LB Jonathan Allen: It's no secret that Alabama needs help rushing the passer, and Allen is a talent in that respect. The former No. 3-ranked defensive end in the country got after the quarterback well in high school, and the native Virginian will be asked to do the same in Tuscaloosa, albeit from a hybrid linebacker position. He already has the size at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, it's just a matter of taking to a new position.
6. DL Dee Liner: Nabbing Liner away from the Auburn Tigers late in the recruiting season was a home run for the Alabama staff. The No. 4-ranked defensive tackle in the ESPN 150 has the quickness Alabama is looking for in its defensive linemen, as well as the versatility to play multiple spots on the field.
7. RB Alvin Kamara: Like Falkins, Kamara will have an edge on his competition in that he'll have a niche role. Unlike all the other Alabama tailbacks that are generally one-cut power runners, Kamara is a guy with the shiftiness to get outside the tackles, make multiple cuts and run away from the defense. He's got good hands, too, meaning he could be a weapon on third down and in passing situations if he shows he can block effectively.
8. CB Maurice Smith: Alabama needs depth at cornerback, and Smith is the highest-rated defensive back in the Tide's 2013 signing class. More importantly he's a physical corner which Bama coach Nick Saban will like, and he's a guy who is used to competition having come up through the Texas high school football ranks. But be warned, his transition to college will take time. It's no easy task for a freshman to learn Saban's way of playing corner. It took Geno Smith until nearly the end of his first season to figure it out.
9. LB Reuben Foster: The tattoos and backstory now fully behind him, it will be interesting to see what Foster does with a fresh start. Say what you will about his personality, but his talent is undeniable. As the No. 1-rated inside linebacker in the ESPN 150, he has the strength, size and speed to be a force at the next level.
10. LS Cole Mazza: In all honesty, Mazza could be at the top of this list if it were "Who is the most likely to play as a freshman?" Instead it was a question of impact, and measuring the potential for impact is debatable given the position he'll play. We could see the long-snapper playing from Day 1 seeing as he's the only player Saban has ever awarded a scholarship at his position. He's the heir to Carson Tinker, who played in 38 career games.
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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And while coach Nick Saban argued that the turnovers were a result of poor offensive execution, one must also tip the cap to a secondary, which began the game as arguably the biggest source of discontent. In fact, before kickoff, Saban was asked by a television reporter what one area concerned him most. The defensive backfield was his answer.
But Nick Perry and a host of other defensive backs answered the bell Saturday afternoon. Perry had two interceptions, and together as a defense the Crimson Tide held its quarterbacks to a paltry 102.8 quarterback rating, compared to the 174.3 rating it posted last season.
On top of the interceptions, the defense had 10 pass breakups.
Sunseri said he and projected starting safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix looked at each other before the game and said they'd give it all they had.
"And that’s what we did," Sunseri said. "Try to make as many plays as we can against one of the best offenses in the nation in my opinion."
The big winner was Perry, who is fighting for the spot opposite Clinton-Dix at safety. Sunseri, Landon Collins, Jarrick Williams and others are in the fight for reps as well. Collins, a former five-star prospect, had an interception and a pass breakup as well. But Perry hoped what he did would push him through the offseason.
"I’m trying to get a little momentum going in the summer and fall camp," the rising senior said. "This is my last go-round so I’m trying to make the most of it.”
“We’re all just competing and having fun with it. Whatever happens happens. They’re going to play the best player but we’re still rooting each other on because either way, whoever’s on the field, they’re representing us as a team. We’re all competing and critiquing each other and making each other better.”
Playing both ways
Saban was emphatic that the Christion Jones experiment of playing defensive back would continue, but not in a way that he would be taken away from his duties as a wide receiver.
"I answered this question numerous times before and the answer is not going to change," he said. "Christion Jones has done a really good job on both sides of the ball. The object of what we did this spring is so that if we need the guy to play corner in the fall, he can play it. He'll know how to do it.
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Alabama had no trouble getting out to a big lead last season -- the Tide averaged a two-touchdown lead at the half and won games by an average of nearly 28 points -- which meant plenty of playing time for offensive linemen like Ryan Kelly, Austin Shepherd and Arie Kouandjio. The fourth-quarter reps they'd receive would add up to nearly two full games by the time the season was over.
"That was awesome," said Kelly, who is tasked with replacing Barrett Jones at center. "I remember the first game going in against Michigan. There’s five minutes left in the fourth quarter and I hadn’t played in a game since my senior year in high school. It was my second year and I was so nervous. I didn’t know what we were supposed to do, got in there, messed everything up. Arkansas (Week 3) came around and we’re beating them pretty good at halftime and come into the third quarter, they asked us to play the third, the rest of the fourth and from there you just feel more comfortable as the games go on.
"I give all the credit to the ones for making that happen. That’s only going to spark our careers and every rep you get in a college game is more valuable than you can imagine."
Kelly and Co. made the most of their opportunity, not just sustaining leads in the fourth quarter, but building upon them. After a few late scores, the Touchdown Twos were born.
"That was something we joked around about when we went in because that was our chance to shine because we couldn’t get the playing time," Shepherd, the projected starter at right tackle, said. "Touchdown Twos, try to score, have fun with it. It was just kind of a joke."
Looking back, though, Kelly said it was more than a joke. The twos were learning a lesson. They were learning how to be starters.
"Being a one is a little more serious," Kelly said. "Being a two you still need to be ready but at the same time mentally it’s kind of hard. You don’t know if you’re going to play so you get ready mentally, but at the same time you might not play. That’s the best you can ask for, to go out and have fun with it."
Kouandjio, who is battling for the starting job at left guard, said the fourth-quarter experience was just the beginning, he explained.
"We’re going to keep building," he said, "keep stacking those bricks.”
As Alabama hits the homestretch of spring practice, a picture of the offensive line is emerging. The area once viewed as the biggest question mark this offseason is suddenly one of the team's most promising units.
"I like the way the offensive line is progressing," UA coach Nick Saban said on Wednesday. "They obviously need to continue to improve, but Arie has really had a good spring and done a nice job at left guard. Kellen Williams continues to make improvement, and he's playing center and guard. Austin Shepherd and (Leon Brown) both are making good progress at right tackle. Some of the other younger players are making progress as well. Ryan Kelly has really done a good job at center.
"That part of it, I feel like is taking shape. 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."
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