Alabama Crimson Tide: Austin Shepherd

How important is offensive line play?

Go back and find the last time a team with an average offensive line won the SEC championship. The translation: If you’re going to win a title in this league, you better be good and deep up front offensively.

That said, we take a look today at our offensive line rankings in the SEC for the 2014 season.

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are losing some key pieces from last season’s 11-win team, but their offensive line stacks up as the best of the Steve Spurrier era. The left side with senior tackle Corey Robinson and senior guard A.J. Cann is outstanding, and junior Brandon Shell returns at right tackle. All three have NFL potential, while sophomore Cody Waldrop is healthy again and on the preseason Rimington list as the top center in the country.

2. Texas A&M: Talent has flowed through the Texas A&M offensive line the last few seasons, and even with top-10 picks in the NFL draft departing each of the last two years, the Aggies should again be as strong as anybody. Cedric Ogbuehi, moving from right tackle to left tackle, will be the next first-rounder to come out of College Station. It looks like sophomore Germain Ifedi will move from guard to right tackle, and junior center Mike Matthews is the latest gem to come out of that family.

3. LSU: Four starters are back for the Tigers, and they also like their young talent. La’el Collins passed on the NFL draft and returns for his senior season. He’s a franchise left tackle. The left side of the line, period, should be strong with 6-6, 342-pound junior guard Vadal Alexander returning, and sophomore Ethan Pocic is good enough and versatile enough that he could be a factor at a couple of different positions.

4. Auburn: A year ago, Greg Robinson came out of nowhere to be the best offensive lineman in the league and go No. 2 overall in the NFL draft. Avery Young and Shon Coleman are in line to replace Robinson at left tackle, and the other four starters are back. Senior center Reese Dismukes leads a unit that ended last season as the best offensive line in the league and should be right there at the top again in 2014.

5. Missouri: The Tigers are big, experienced and deep. They also have some versatility with a couple of guys who’ve played different positions. Junior Evan Boehm is one of the top centers in the country, and senior Mitch Morse is moving over from right tackle to left tackle to replace Justin Britt. Gary Pinkel’s track record for putting together a strong offensive line speaks for itself.

6. Alabama: For a change, Alabama doesn’t enter the season with one of the top two or three offensive lines in the league, but that doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide won’t get there. Junior Ryan Kelly is All-SEC material at center, and as talented as Cam Robinson is, it’s never ideal to start a true freshman at left tackle. Senior right tackle Austin Shepherd is one of the more underrated players in the league.

7. Mississippi State: The heart and soul of Mississippi State’s line a year ago, mammoth guard Gabe Jackson, is gone, but look for senior center Dillon Day to fill that role in 2014. The Bulldogs also return junior Blaine Clausell at left tackle and senior Ben Beckwith at right guard. One of the keys will be junior Justin Malone staying healthy after missing most of last season with a foot injury. He brings experience, size and talent to the interior of that line.

8. Florida: The Gators should be just fine if they’re able to play most of the season with their starting five. The problem comes if somebody gets hurt, and that’s been a recurring theme. The tackle tandem could be one of the best in the league with junior D.J. Humphries on the left side and fifth-year senior Chaz Green on the right side. Again, though, Green has struggled to stay healthy.

9. Ole Miss: The Rebels have some impressive young talent in their offensive line, including sophomore Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, but they’re precariously thin. Losing right tackle Austin Golson was a blow, and they need returning senior Aaron Morris to stay healthy. He was the Rebels’ best lineman before he got hurt last season. True freshman Rod Taylor also has what it takes physically to come in and play right away.

10. Georgia: Senior center David Andrews is the anchor of the group, but three starters from a year ago are gone. Junior John Theus started eight games at right tackle last season and could move to the left side, but senior Mark Beard started at left tackle in the spring game. Fifth-year senior Kolton Houston is also back and could wind up at right tackle or left guard.

11. Vanderbilt: The deepest position on Vanderbilt’s roster is the offensive line, which has rarely been the case in Nashville. Four-year starter Wesley Johnson will be difficult to replace at left tackle, but talented sophomore Andrew Jelks is poised to move from right to left tackle. The interior of the Commodores’ line is especially stout, led by senior center Joe Townsend.

12. Arkansas: After having no choice but to play a pair of true freshmen last season, the Hogs should see that pay dividends in 2014. Bret Bielema knows what a menacing offensive line looks like, and he has some talented building blocks in sophomore left tackle Dan Skipper and sophomore guard Denver Kirkland. Replacing All-SEC center Travis Swanson will be dicey.

13. Tennessee: The Vols are faced with having to replace all five starters. Fortunately for them, junior Marcus Jackson redshirted last season and provides some experience at guard. They need junior college transfer Dontavius Blair to make an immediate impact at left tackle, and true freshman Coleman Thomas may end up being the starter at right tackle.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats’ struggles in the offensive line last season were well chronicled. They gave up a league-worst 37 sacks, but return four starters. They’re hopeful that a season together will lead to more continuity. The veteran of the group is senior Darrian Miller at left tackle, and sophomore Jordan Swindle has a nice future at right tackle.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like a lot of position battles going on during spring practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala., -- hello, quarterbacks -- the starting five up front for the Crimson Tide likely won’t be decided anytime soon.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCenter Ryan Kelly is one of three returning starters for Alabama. The Tide is auditioning several youngsters at left tackle and right guard.
Sure, Ryan Kelly returns at center, Austin Shepherd is back at right tackle and Arie Kouandjio remains at left guard, but that’s only slightly more than half the equation. The second half of the Kouandjio Bros., left tackle Cyrus, is off to a carer in the NFL, as is veteran right guard Anthony Steen, who racked up more than 35 starts in his career. Replacing those two stalwarts won’t be an easy, much less quick, task.

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.”

Room to improve: Offensive line

February, 19, 2014
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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. -- Because he’s a signed prospect, Nick Saban will have to address the addition of Jacob Coker during spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims will be one of five QBs who will be competing in Alabama's spring practice.
He’ll have to, at some point, answer questions about the quarterback transferring from Florida State, the strong-armed former backup to a Heisman Trophy winner whom Alabama fans hope will develop into something of an award-winning quarterback himself in Tuscaloosa.

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.

The Forgotten
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. -- T.J. Yeldon doesn't have to raise his voice. There's a perpetually serious look about him during games, a rage that smolders from behind his face mask. His is a silent sense of purpose, a will that rarely bubbles into words. The throat-slashing gesture he used against Texas A&M earlier in the season underscores his quiet intensity.

Alabama's starting running back didn't make a sound after stomping on the throat of LSU on Saturday night. He didn't speak with the media after running for 133 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-17 victory that kept the top-ranked Crimson Tide undefeated and on track for a berth in the BCS title game. And why should he? His play did all the talking -- his ability to read blocks, stop on a dime and change direction. He took the offense on his back when it mattered most.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsT.J. Yeldon ran through the LSU defense with ease, enabling Alabama to control the ball and the game.
"He doesn't say a word," said UA right tackle Austin Shepherd of Yeldon. "I try to talk to him, and he won't."

It's not meant to be callous or self-centered, Shepherd explained, it's just Yeldon's way.

"He's just focused on the game," Shepherd said. "I think that he's just focused on what he needs to do.

"That dude's awesome. I love blocking for him. He sees and makes cuts that are unbelievable. He makes us look good and makes our job easy."

When Yeldon got locked in against LSU, everything came together for Alabama. The Tide offense had been up and down in the first half, troubled by inconsistent execution up front and a passing game that left something to be desired. But when Alabama made a concerted effort to feed Yeldon the ball and dominate the line of scrimmage, the entire tenor of the game changed. Alabama got back to smash-mouth football, and all hope of an LSU upset vanished. Yeldon, who ran for 104 yards in the second half alone, carried the ball six times during a 10-play, 71-yard drive that took 4 minutes, 44 seconds off the clock and put Alabama up by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

"That's the best thing about him: We can just keep smashing the ball," Shepherd said.

AJ McCarron, Alabama's veteran quarterback, said Yeldon's ability to move the chains was instrumental in keeping LSU's defense off balance. The safeties crept toward the line of scrimmage to stop the run, and McCarron made them pay with the pass, completing 5 of 7 attempts in the second half.

Alabama scored 21 second-half points to LSU's 3.

"Any time you have balance it dictates what we want to do and puts the defense in a bind," McCarron explained.

"It seemed they went around the end, and they seemed to go inside, too," LSU coach Les Miles said. "T.J. had guys that were unblocked right at the point of attack and made them miss and would go get yards. The drive on some of those runs were pretty special."

In a game that was characterized by its physicality, Alabama came out the victor. LSU, try as it might, didn't have enough bullets to stay in the fight.

Alabama's defense manned up, and the offense was as bruising as ever. Yeldon benefited from a line that shared his same will to dominate. Its performance was eerily reminiscent of the play of last year's group that took control against Georgia in the SEC championship game and later sent three players to the NFL in April.

Shepherd said the goal was to punish LSU up front, and he felt that goal was accomplished.

"It's the line of scrimmage," he said. "It's who controls that that it's going to come down to."

Alabama's offensive line pushed the pile, and Yeldon took full advantage. Together they demoralized LSU, though it was Shepherd who had to speak up for a noticeably absent Yeldon after the game.

He might not say much, but Yeldon's actions were powerful Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. He proved to be the perfect battering ram to accomplish Alabama's goal: Silent, yet brutally effective.
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."

Five things: Alabama-Arkansas

October, 19, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch when No. 1-ranked Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) hosts Arkansas (3-4, 0-3 SEC) on Saturday night.

Stopping the run: It hasn't mattered the score or the situation or even the defensive alignment, Arkansas is going to run the football. And with the tandem of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, why not? They're the only two teammates to rank in the top 10 of the SEC in rushing. Collins, just a freshman, is the star. He started the season by becoming the first player in NCAA history to rush for 100 yards or more in his first three career games, and he hasn't looked back since. He leads the SEC in broken tackles (10) and he's in the top 15 nationally in rushing yards (720).

Who starts at corner: Will it be Bradley Sylve or Eddie Jackson starting at cornerback this week for Alabama? Or will it be yet another player to enter the carousel at the position? So far it looks like Sylve -- who started his first game last week against Kentucky and didn't allow any big plays to come his way -- has the advantage. "I think Eddie's struggling with an injury," UA linebacker Trey DePriest said. "Bradley's been filling in [and] handling it well. He's been consistent at it and had a good game last week."

Protecting the quarterback: Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith is one of the best in the SEC. He leads the conference and is seventh in the NCAA with six sacks this season. If he wants to get to AJ McCarron, he'll have to go through either Cyrus Kouandjio or Austin Shepherd to do it, depending on where he lines up. It will likely be Kouandjio, which would provide a great look to NFL scouts who will have their eye on both players for next year's draft. Alabama, for its part, ranks fourth in the league in sacks allowed (7).

A one-two punch: It took a few weeks longer than many expected, but Kenyan Drake has emerged as Alabama's clear No. 2 tailback behind T.J. Yeldon. "I think they compliment each other and both guys have a little different running style," UA coach Nick Saban said. "I think it's a real change of pace that they both present to the defensive players." Drake, a speedy sophomore who tends to go outside the tackle more than Yeldon, has run for 245 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.

Play action pass: Every time Saban has talked about Arkansas' ability to run the football, he's added that his team must be on the lookout for the play-action pass. "Like Coach Saban says: from guard, to fullback, to opposite guard," safety Vinnie Sunseri explained. "Whichever side of the field you're on, you have to read the triangle." As young as Alabama's secondary is this season, pay attention to the triangle and whether any of the Tide's defensive backs bite on the run fake. If they do, they could make things easy on quarterback Brandon Allen, who does have the arm strength to burn Alabama with the deep pass.

What we learned: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
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Here's what we learned from No. 1 Alabama's thrilling win over No. 6 Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon in College Station, Texas.

Alabama is still the class of the SEC: It wasn't all pretty, and we'll get into some of that below, but the overall picture for Alabama has to be a rosy one. The Crimson Tide overcame a furious start from Texas A&M to not only win the game but dominate it for the better part of three quarters. The offensive line returned to form, AJ McCarron had his own Heisman Trophy-like performance, and the defense did just enough to stagger Johnny Manziel and the Aggies offense. The good news for Alabama is it won't face an offense like Texas A&M's again this season. The secondary will have time to improve, and the front seven can create an identity. The biggest takeaway is the fact that Alabama got away from College Station with a win. Now the only major hurdle between Nick Saban and an unprecedented third straight trip to the national championship game is a dull nonconference schedule, a tiptoe around the SEC East elite and a showdown with annual rival LSU.

The secondary has its issues, but Vinnie Sunseri can make plays: When I wrote "It wasn't all pretty," you didn't have to read ahead to figure out what I was referring to. Alabama's secondary was exposed by Texas A&M. Mike Evans abused every defensive back who tried to cover him -- Deion Belue, John Fulton and Cyrus Jones to name a few -- and he wasn't the only one hitting up the secondary for big plays. Manziel bought time with his feet and got the ball downfield time and time again. Take away his two turnovers and the outcome might have been wildly different. But take heart, Alabama fans, Sunseri was there to play hero. The often-embattled safety continued to make big plays, this time nabbing a tipped pass and returning it all the way to the end zone for a score -- his second pick-six of the season. What looked like a weak spot is suddenly a point of strength as Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix form a formidable back end of the secondary. Now if only the cornerbacks can get sorted out.

The offensive line is much, much better than we thought: McCarron said it best when he told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi after the game, "The O-line did an unbelievable job. I don't think I touched the grass all day." In fact, he didn't get his jersey dirty at Kyle Field. Two weeks after looking downright shaky against Virginia Tech, giving up 12 tackles for loss and four sacks, Alabama's offensive line responded in a big way. Ryan Kelly, Austin Shepherd and Arie Kouandjio didn't look like first-time starters against Texas A&M, as they helped hold the Aggies to just one tackle for loss and no sacks. Alabama rolled up the Aggies for 234 yards on the ground, opening up the passing game as a result. McCarron, the beneficiary of a sturdy pocket, threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns. Maybe the line was playing possum in Week 1 or maybe it really did take some time to fix the communication issues and establish the necessary chemistry. Whatever it was, it worked and new offensive line coach Mario Cristobal should get a tip of the cap for what his unit was able to do on Saturday.

ATLANTA -- Ryan Kelly and a few of his fellow offensive linemen huddled near the makeshift stage at the 50-yard line, outside a yellow rope that separated players from the media on the field of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Alabama was being presented a leather helmet for beating Virginia Tech 35-10 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, but this group of disgruntled players weren't interested in watching the celebration.

AJ McCarron, Christion Jones and the rest of the stars of the game smiled for the cameras while Kelly and Steen had their backs to the action. Turning toward one another, they did their best to figure out what just went wrong. A year after having the best offensive line in college football, the Crimson Tide's front five looked underwhelming. It was a foreign site for the mass of Alabama fans that packed the domed stadium hoping to see what three new starters could do against a Virginia Tech defense decimated by injuries and attrition. In an unusual sight, the line of scrimmage wasn't awkwardly disjointed.

Anthony Steen, a third-year starter at right guard, wasn't expecting the amount of movement Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster threw at them. The defensive line went east and west where the Tide expected it to go north and south. Alabama wants to go straight at you on offense, and against Virginia Tech it couldn't get the correct angles to do that. The result: 12 tackles for loss, four sacks and a running game that could never really get going. Even AJ McCarron struggled to set his feet and deliver the ball downfield. Alabama's 96 rushing yards and 110 passing yards would have both been the worst production of any game last season.

"We celebrated a little bit, but it was just a little quiet," he said. "We expected to go out there and win by 50."

NFL scouts on hand for the game put it in more striking terms.

"The O-line got their a-- kicked," one scout said.

Cyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsLeft tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said "all the little things" stacked up against the Alabama offensive line against Virginia Tech.
The general consensus among professional evaluators was that if Alabama doesn't get better up front and runs the ball effectively, it won't be able to win a third national championship.

It wasn't the newcomers on the line that stood out the most, though. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, the anchor of the group and a presumptive early first-round pick in the coming draft, was a turnstile at times, slow of foot as Virginia Tech's defensive ends cut around him to reach the quarterback. Alabama tried running behind Steen to start the game, having T.J. Yeldon carry the ball in his direction for the first three carries, but the results were gains of 2, 4 and 4 yards.

"We had good plays and we had bad plays," Kouandjio said. "It's a good thing this is the first game and we have a bye week to iron out the kinks and go back at it.

"They moved around a lot. It's all the little things that kind of got to us tonight."

Alabama coach Nick Saban put it more succinctly: "They outplayed us up front, if you want to know the truth."

"We were soft," he added. "Didn't have a solid pocket. Quarterback didn't feel comfortable. Timing in the passing game wasn't what it needed to be in terms of how much time we had to throw it, how much time we had to get open. Those are the kind of things I think we really need to improve on."

Saban replaced left guard Arie Kouandjio, a first-time starter after back-to-back knee injuries early in his career, for backup Kellen Williams, who performed ably but not spectacularly in the second half. The other new addition to the line, right tackle Austin Shepherd, couldn't do much to get the running game going on his side.

The result was obvious: This is not the Alabama offensive line that dominated offenses with the likes of Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. This line had trouble with an unranked Virginia Tech team that, while enthusiastic, doesn't have the depth of many SEC defenses Alabama will face this season.

The good news is Alabama gets the benefit of the bye week and will have a full two weeks to prepare for No. 7 Texas A&M, which had nine tackles for loss in a season-opening win over Rice. The matchup in College Station, Texas, is arguably the biggest game of the season for the Tide, who lost to Johnny Manziel and the Aggies last season.

"We had a lot of guys out there that were ready to get out there and play," Steen said. "Some of us were nervous. Heck, I was nervous a little bit in the beginning -- first game of the season, who's not? As the season goes on, we'll be able to tell how good we'll be."

Greetings from the Georgia Dome

August, 31, 2013
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ATLANTA -- Alabama's championship defense begins today in the Georgia Dome against perennial ACC power Virginia Tech.

Frank Beamer's Hokies have been hit hard by injuries and attrition leading up to the start of the season, prompting their heavy underdog status. Logan Thomas, Beamer's senior quarterback with NFL potential, gives Virginia Tech a fighting chance, though. If he can buy some time in the pocket for his young receivers and gain a few yards on the ground, he could make things interesting.

Meanwhile, Nick Saban's No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide is operating at full strength, with no significant injuries to report. Quarterback AJ McCarron was a major point of discussion Friday night when a photo circulated of his arrival at the team hotel with a protective boot on his right foot. But the controversy was cleared up in short order when it was learned the boot was simply a precautionary step to alleviate pain from an ingrown toenail.

McCarron jogged briskly onto the turf here for warmups, sans boot, and moved around without any apparent pain, much to the pleasure of the Tide fans who made the short trip from Tuscaloosa, Ala. McCarron has arguably his most explosive group of receivers since joining the program in 2009, and with Virginia Tech using two freshmen in the secondary, we could see him put the ball in the air early and often to start the game.

That could be predicated on the success of Alabama's rebuilt offensive line, though. UA incorporated three new starters over the offseason, replacing All-SEC players Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. Reports have been mostly good about their replacements -- center Ryan Kelly, right tackle Austin Shepherd and left guard Cyrus Kouandjio -- but until they see live action it will be hard to tell where they stand, as their chemistry and compatibility is in question.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban didn't like the idea of doing it, but he did his duties and released a depth chart.

"If I were you, I wouldn't make to much of the depth chart we released," Alabama's head coach warned during Monday's news conference. "It's a chore for me to do that, it really is. I know it's important to you so we wanted to provide you with something. But don't ask me questions cause I'm telling you now, it's for you. The depth chart isn't for our team, it's for you so you can have it, write about it and talk about it. You made me do a depth chart when I didn't want to do one. So that's how I'm going to answer you."

[+] EnlargeKenyan Drake
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireKenyan Drake, Alabama's third-leading rusher in 2012, wasn't included in the 2013 depth chart released on Monday.
Try all he like, Alabama's depth chart did mean something.

Kenyan Drake, the team's third-leading rusher and a top candidate to back up starting tailback T.J. Yeldon this fall, wasn't even on it. Instead, Jalston Fowler was listed as the No. 2 back with Dee Hart, Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny listed as co-No. 3 at the position. Why Drake was missing is anyone's guess. Saban hasn't said a word on the subject and because the depth chart was handed out after his regular Monday press conference, no one could ask.

"T.J. certainly is a guy that has played a lot and has experience," Saban said. "I think Jalston Fowler is another guy who's played a lot and had experience. He's going to play a dual role in this game. He'll play some running back, some H-back. Dee Hart is a guy that's played some who will have some situational playing opportunities in this game as well.

"I think that there's probably two of the freshmen that have sort of -- I think they're all good. Kamara had an injury, so he missed a while. He'll be back practicing today, but it's hard to get him ready to play this game right now. Tyren Jones did a good job in the last scrimmage, but really Altee and Derrick Henry have gotten the most reps and are probably the most prepared to be able to play right now."

The offensive line came in as expected with Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle, Arie Kouandjio alongside him at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center and Anthony Steen and Austin Shepherd at right guard and right tackle, respectively.

AJ McCarron was the obvious first-team quarterback and Blake Sims his assumed second in line, but it was curious that Alec Morris was not listed as the third option off the bench.

Former starter Xzavier Dickson will share his starting duties with true sophomore Denzel Devall at Jack linebacker, but that move was expected with Dickson spending some time at defensive end this fall.

The rest of the starting linebackers remained the same with C.J. Mosley at Will, Trey DePriest at Mike and Adrian Hubbard at Sam.

Vinnie Sunseri ultimately won the starting job at strong safety opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on paper, but the move was mostly superficial as both Landon Collins and Jarrick Williams will spend time there as well. Nick Perry, one of two seniors in the secondary, is slated to back up Clinton-Dix at free safety.

All told, 11 true freshmen made the two-deep, though none are projected to start: nose guard A'Shawn Robinson, defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, cornerback Maurice Smith, offensive tackle Grant Hill, tight end O.J. Howard, receivers Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster, long snapper Cole Mazza and tailbacks Henry and Tenpenny.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 23, 2013
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Just think, the next time you click on the SEC lunchtime links post it will be Monday of the first game week of the college football season. Ready or not, it's that time again.
  • Tennessee lost two defensive ends over the course of the preseason and spent much of the past week or so looking for their replacements. In 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jordan Williams, the Vols may have found their man to start.
  • Damiere Byrd is already the fastest player on the South Carolina roster. Now the speedy wide receiver wants to make the biggest plays in the biggest situations.
  • Matt Elam was a playmaker and an All-American at safety for the Gators last year. Marcus Maye, his replacement, worked with Elam this offseason and has impressed coaches with his work ethic so far. With the season nearly underway, Maye hopes to be the same type of presence on defense as his predecessor.
  • Vanderbilt's seniors Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall have so much familiarity with one another that they rarely need to speak. The Commodores are hoping that experience and comfort level pays off as the two form what could be a stellar safety net for the secondary.
  • It won't be easy, but Missouri's defensive linemen must replace Sheldon Richardson's disruptive presence on the Tigers' defense.
  • Arkansas struggled to defend the pass last year, finishing dead last in the SEC in passing yards allowed. Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines are hoping to change that. The two safeties expect big years.
  • Keihl Frazier surprised many when he dropped out of the quarterback race to start over in the Auburn secondary at safety. That move happened less than two weeks ago. And ready or not, he'll need to be ready to play just over a week from now when the Tigers host Washington State in their season opener.
  • Arie Kouandjio was starting at guard for all spring and most of preseason camp before an abrupt move to tackle last week. Austin Shepherd experienced the same thing, switched from tackle to guard in a position experiment by the Alabama coaching staff. Now, it appears that those experiments are over and the Tide can get to the job of establishing chemistry.
  • The Egg Bowl is months away, but Mississippi State went ahead and released its new snazzy uniform combination for the rivalry game against Ole Miss.
  • D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis are expected to start, but how do the rest of LSU's inside linebackers stack up?

Alabama Intel: Wrapping up camp 

August, 23, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Camp formally ended for the Crimson Tide on Monday when the fall semester began on the University of Alabama campus. And while studies have gotten in the way of the early morning practices and two-a-days players had become accustomed to, the mood of preseason camp lingered for much of the week, as players fought to climb the depth chart and position changes remained in effect.

Preparation for Virginia Tech didn't begin until Thursday afternoon, when the second half of the brief media viewing portion of practice came with the condition that cameras not film the proceedings. For the first time, there was something coaches weren't willing to show the outside world.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsComing out of preseason practice, Blake Sims is the clear cut No. 2 quarterback for the Crimson Tide.
But even so, there was plenty to report, and in the final edition of Alabama Intel we'll try to do just that.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If there's been one big takeaway from Alabama's first two scrimmages of the preseason, it's this: The offensive line hasn't developed as quickly or as well as Nick Saban would have wanted. The Crimson Tide's notoriously critical head coach has seen his starting five work for the better part of three weeks this preseason and while he's not been entirely disappointed with the group as whole, he'd like to see some improvement for the offense to get to where it needs to be in time for the season opener against Virginia Tech on Aug. 31.

Straddling a podium in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Saban explained.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesRyan Kelly seems set as Alabama's new starting center, but the other two open Crimson Tide OL spots are still unsettled.
"Well, I wasn’t real pleased with the way they played today, to be honest with you," he told reporters. "I’ve always been really pleased with the way our offensive line has played and progressed, but I thought today we didn’t get a lot of movement. Too many times we had a soft pocket, we got pressure in the pocket, made some mental errors up front, had a couple false starts -- things that our offensive line typically has not done.

"So hopefully this will be something they can learn from and improve on and we’ll get better and continue to progress."

To be fair, a learning curve should have been expected. The process of replacing three All-SEC starters, not to mention the position coach, is never easy and rarely swift. Frankly, it's surprising that similar comments from Saban haven't been made before now. It was all sunshine and lollipops in April, but clouds have gathered of late.

Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen continue to be anchors at left tackle and right guard, respectively, and Ryan Kelly has been a stalwart at center, essentially beginning his transition to the starting lineup during bowl practices last December when Barrett Jones was sidelined with a foot injury.

But if and where Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd will start is still up for debate. Arie, who worked with the first team at left guard throughout spring, spent time at right tackle last week, and Shepherd, who played primarily at right tackle through the spring and early fall, split time with Kellen Williams at left guard.

"We feel like he's one of our best offensive linemen now," Saban said of Arie a week ago, sounding all-in on his move to tackle. "He's really done a good job. He's played tackle all of his life. We actually moved him to guard because we thought maybe because of his knees that it would affect his mobility, but as he improved we said, 'Why aren't we playing this guy at tackle?' He has all of his mobility back and he's really playing well."

Tuesdays practice looked different, though, as Kouandjio went back to left guard and Shepherd back to right tackle.

So where are things with less than two weeks remaining before the start of the season?

Steen said the line isn't necessarily behind, but he hoped the chemistry was further along than it is now. He said it's disappointing but, "We obviously aren't where we need to be."

“It’s been a little difficult," he said. "Shepherd has a little different footwork than Arie (Kouandjio), but it’s nothing I can’t adjust to. Arie was a little different at power blocking than Shepherd was and he was a little different than Shepherd was at pass protection, but it wasn’t anything too difficult.

"The season starts you get to know each other a little better, get the feel of everyone around you, and everything starts to click and we all get along with each other.”

Establishing chemistry, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier explained, will be vital to the offensive line's success. So many of last season's starters had played together before and knew how to work with one another. Getting that kind of camaraderie with this group will only come with time.

"I don’t think people talk enough about the chemistry and the communication -- both verbal and non-verbal -- that happens up front," he said. "You see most good football teams have the ability to consistently play with the same group up front. That’s what we’re trying to do, is get as many reps with those guys as we can.

"We’ve got great competition up front. The guys are competing extremely hard. And then it’s about getting guys in different groups so that they’re working with different guys next to them, because there is so much communication that happens so fast that you’ve got to get repetition."

With less than two weeks remaining before the start of the season, there aren't many reps left. For Alabama to be a championship contender, the offensive line needs to find itself in a hurry.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Two-a-days are over and camp is nearly at a close for the University of Alabama.

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."


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