Alabama Crimson Tide: Kellen Williams
Depth in the secondary is a major issue: Going into the game, Alabama fans could have hoped to see something, anything, from the youngsters in the secondary. Any glimmer of hope from the likes of Bradley Sylve, Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson would have been OK. At least then they would have gained some experience and been able to take a step forward in their development, possibly working their way into a rotation that's lacked quality depth. Instead, no one fared well, starters or otherwise. Getting Deion Belue back will help, but there are still major questions about who will start opposite him. Will it be John Fulton, who didn't play until late in the first half? Or will it be Cyrus Jones, who rarely had his name called against the Rams? It most likely won't be Sylve or Smith or Jackson, who showed all the tell-tale signs of youth.
The offensive line hasn't solved every problem: Whatever progress Alabama's offensive line made against Texas A&M seemed to not hold much momentum when the Tide took the field for its home opener Saturday. With Anthony Steen sidelined with a head injury, the line struggled to get much in the way of push up front. Kellen Williams played well in Steen's absence, but something was still off. McCarron was knocked down a number of times and the running game never got going. Sixty-six rushing yards was not what you'd expect against a Colorado State defense that struggled to stop Tulsa or Colorado from moving the chains in its first two games of the season.
Beside himself, McCarron fumed as he waited for the touchdown celebration to end.
On the way back to the sideline, McCarron saddled up to Drake and let him have it. Face mask to face mask, he shouted and wagged his finger like a disappointed father. Alabama had taken the lead, but by mistake. Against a better team, a defender might have broken into the backfield and jarred the ball loose. Who knows? The execution wasn't perfect and that's all that mattered to McCarron, who is a perfectionist to the core.
"We want to be able to go dictate with our intensity, sense of urgency, preparation, everything that we have to do so we can be more dominant and more consistent in the game," Saban said. "And I don't think we did that tonight."
Saban was measured in his postgame comments, clearly frustrated by his team's performance but resolved to correct any and all mistakes. McCarron, by comparison, was mute. Every one-word answer or curt response revealed a deeper and deeper sense of irritation. He said the poor execution came down to poor communication, simple as that. When he was asked to elaborate, he wouldn't budge.
"We just didn't communicate," he said, repeating the same answer regardless of the question. "Communication, we didn't do it."
McCarron said more in his 30-second tirade to Drake in the first quarter than he did in five minutes with the media after the game. When asked what he said on their walk back to the sideline, he again declined to comment, saying, "Nothing. That's between me and him."
Alabama didn't have much in the way of answers Saturday night, either during or after the game. The Crimson Tide struggled against a CSU team it normally would have put away by halftime. The defense missed assignments left and right, allowing prolonged drives to pass the 50-yard line into Alabama territory. McCarron and the offense, meanwhile, couldn't finish them off either, failing to convert on a third-down attempt until the fourth quarter.
The same team that went blow-for-blow with Texas A&M in an instant classic a week ago looked out of breath and hung over against an opponent Alabama had to pay more $1 million just to show up.
"Any time you play in a big game and you come out, you want to respect your opponent and I don't think we did that tonight," right guard Kellen Williams said. "It was just a difficult thing to come off an emotional win and play again. We're kind of young and we have a lot of fundamentals and emotional things to work on."
Williams, who started his first career game Saturday, described the mood of the huddle during the game as "somber."
"I guess toward the end of the game we felt like we left a lot out on the field. Even though it's a win, in our minds we just didn't perform the way we're capable of performing."
"It was a win and you have to give the other team a lot of credit," Saban said. "Their players played with a lot of heart. But I'm not satisfied with where we are as a team. We need to focus on improving and we're going to need to do a lot better job as a football team if we're going to be the kind of team we're capable of being.
C.J. Mosley, Alabama's leader on defense at middle linebacker, echoed his coach's statement, emphasizing the quick turnaround needed to prepare for a tough Ole Miss team that gave UA all it could handle a season ago. The same quick screens and short passes that gave the defense trouble against Colorado State could prove doubly fatal next weekend against an Ole Miss offense that entered Saturday averaging 490 yards per game.
"We knew what they were doing, we game-planned the right way and made all the right adjustments. We just had to execute," Mosley said. "A lot of their plays came from us not getting in the right gaps or not fitting the pulls the right way. It's little things that get you beat."
Mosley added later: "Some of those little things will get us beat next week."
Mosley, Williams and nearly every other player who spoke with the media expressed some optimism about the team's ability to regroup and improve. Everybody but McCarron, who left the room quickly after a tense turn in front of the cameras.
It was a concerning sight for an Alabama team expected to compete for a national championship: Its unquestioned leader showing poor body language while saying next to nothing about an obviously poor performance -- no talk of hope, no talk of working to get better, no nothing. Just the same line about communication.
If communication really is the answer, then he didn't do a good job of communicating that fact. It was, after all, a conflicting statement when put into context. If McCarron was willing to shout at his own teammates during the game, then why couldn't he bear to do the same afterward?
And that, no matter how you slice it, isn't what you want to hear.
Here's what we'll be watching when the Crimson Tide kick off on campus.
Secondary seeking answers: They've heard the criticism all week after getting their doors blown off by Texas A&M this past weekend. The Aggies cut through the UA secondary like hot butter as Johnny Manziel bought time in and out of the pocket before inevitably finding a receiver downfield for a big gain. Mike Evans, by himself, amassed more than 250 yards receiving against a carousel of cornerbacks. In response, Alabama coach Nick Saban called for something of an open competition at defensive back with youngsters like Bradley Sylve, Cyrus Jones, Maurice Smith and possibly Eddie Jackson getting looks against CSU. The Rams aren't near the passing threat of Texas A&M, but they're nonetheless the next challenge and the next opportunity to right the ship.
Running back rotation: We might have to wait until the second quarter to see UA starting tailback T.J. Yeldon, who will reportedly be suspended for a quarter for the unsportsmanlike penalty he received last week against Texas A&M. But even so, the timing couldn't be better as Alabama looks to sort out its running back rotation. Saban said in the offseason that he wanted a five- or six-deep group of backs, and so far we've seen plenty of Yeldon and lead backup Jalston Fowler, but the rest of the backfield hasn't been showcased much. Dee Hart should get some carries, and we'll likely see true freshmen Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry get their chances against CSU as well. But how the carries are distributed and whether fellow rookie tailback Tyren Jones sees the field remains to be seen.
Is Amari Cooper in a slump? He's dealt with a number of nagging injuries this year, but he hasn't missed any games because of it. And, according to Saban, defenses aren't do anything different to keep him in check. So why exactly is Alabama's top receiver suddenly not himself? The former Freshman All-SEC selection hasn't had the impact on the game we became accustomed to last year and he hasn't been as sure-handed either, dropping a number of passes against Virginia Tech and Texas A&M. He's tied for the team lead with six receptions, but he's only racked up 72 yards and no touchdowns in the process. Getting Cooper back on track in time for the meat of the SEC schedule will be vital for Alabama's offense.
Continuing progress on the O-line: Alabama's offensive line responded in a big way this past weekend after being abused by Virginia Tech in the season opener. Cyrus Kouandjio and Co. helped open big holes in the running game and protected AJ McCarron beautifully against Texas A&M, enforcing its will much in the same way we saw from Alabama's line a year ago. But will it continue? We'll see against the Rams, who admittedly don't offer much in the way of All-American defenders. Keeping last week's momentum going might be difficult, though, if starting right guard Anthony Steen is unable to play after injuring himself against the Aggies. Kellen Williams, who filled in admirably in his absence, could be called on to give Steen a rest early if the pain he experienced last weekend returns.
Championship fatigue: It's been written about a good deal -- Alabama fans getting tired of winning. After three championships in four season, would anyone blame them? Alabama winning football games has become something of a ho-hum affair of late. Setting aside the time and money to see the Tide play in Bryant-Denny Stadium isn't quite as appealing when you know the outcome of the game ahead of time. Heck, some students would rather stay home and watch the game on TV with the luxury of being able to channel surf when the score inevitably gets out of hand. If fans truly are getting tired of going to games, we'll see the effect in the bleachers against nonconference cupcakes like Colorado State.
- Kellen Williams has embraced the role of Alabama's sixth man on the offensive line.
- They've taken the long road, but Two former Georgia players, Auburn’s Nick Marshall and LSU's Zach Mettenberger are leaders of undefeated football teams.
- Arkansas' big-play defensive line hasn't had any trouble living up to expectations thus far.
- The day the Earth trembled in Tiger Stadium: A look back at the famous Auburn-LSU Earthquake Game.
- Texas A&M standout freshman receiver Ricky Seals-Jones will have surgery on his knee today.
- South Carolina wideout Bruce Ellington wants to build off the best game of his career.
- Marquez North has quietly topped the charts for Tennessee with eight receptions this season. It's a good start for the freshman, but coaches want to see more impact plays.
- The SECret to Texas A&M's fundraising success? Did Mack Brown blow it?
- A strong Florida defense is looking to get even better against Tennessee.
- Robert Nkemdiche has been a disruptive force on the Ole Miss defense. Hugh Freeze says the talented freshman is getting better every week.
- Georgia's Ray Drew is at peace with his career whether he never lives up to his recruiting hype or not.
You'll recall AJ McCarron being ticked off by all of the talk of his line performing poorly Week 1 against Virginia Tech. It was a sore spot for the senior quarterback, and understandably so. These were the guys charged with protecting him that were being thrown under the bus. So McCarron stepped up, told everyone that would listen that the offensive line wasn't as bad as it was being made out to be and that it would play better against Texas A&M when the time came.
"They did a great job of communicating," McCarron told reporters on Monday. "That's what we needed. Kept me clean most of the game, I was proud of those big guys. Did a really good job. I felt like communication was going to be the biggest thing for us in this last game, especially with that crowd they have there, so I felt like everybody did a great job of communicating and helped our offense a ton."
Saban, for his part, applauded the line's improvement at the point of attack. Their ability to control the tempo opened up the offense as a whole. The Tide, two weeks after going three-and-out seven times and failing to score on a drive that began inside its own territory, had seven drives of 60 or more yards and went three-and-out just three times. Alabama racked up 49 points and 568 total yards -- 334 yards passing, 234 yards on the ground.
"Obviously [we] played a lot better offensively, communicated better, controlled the line of scrimmage, didn't have a lot of negative plays," Saban said. "Had a lot of balance running the ball as well as being able to throw it effectively and not have a lot of pressure in the pocket and really control the time of possession in the game, which is really, really important. Especially when you're playing against an offense like they have."
Kouandjio said the communication that failed them in the season opener was 10 times better, and he noted that their ability to run the ball helped wear down Texas A&M's defense. Mostly, though, he was pleased to hear how much the tone had changed after the game.
"Yeah, it felt really good," he said of quieting the critics. "People misunderstood the first game. We came out there and did what we were supposed to do."
Alabama's line didn't miss a beat, even when starting right guard Anthony Steen had to leave the field with an injury. Kellen Williams came in and the offense went right down the field yet again.
"K-dub deserves a lot of credit," McCarron said. "I mean for a guy to sit there the whole game and have to stay into the game mentally and then be called on for the last drive to help lead us down the field, unbelievable job. It really says a lot about him as a player, as a teammate, but as a person too. Excellent job by him, and he really did make some good blocks on that drive to help him put points on the board."
Said Saban: "We think Kellen is kind of a jack-of-all trades for us. He can play left tackle, left guard, right guard, can probably play right tackle. He was the most experienced guy to put in the game at that time. Did a really good job and we didn't really miss a beat with him in there. He's a fifth-year senior and he's played a lot, has a lot of experience. We really look at him as a starter on our team."
Brian Vogler, Alabama's starting tight end, said Williams gives "a lot of peoples' morale in the huddle" with his energy.
But Vogler had to credit himself and his fellow tight ends for some of the Alabama's success both in the running and the passing game. Brandon Greene essentially served as a third offensive tackle and true freshman O.J. Howard made plenty of plays in the passing game.
For the first time in a while, the tight end position felt relevant for the Crimson Tide.
"Any way we can contribute is great," Vogler said. "Sometimes you get disappointed when they call Big Play, but they call it to the other tight end. But I know O.J.’s abilities. There were a couple of times where if they called my number anc it was a deep ball, I just wanted to be like, ‘Put O.J. in now,’ because I know like I’m kind of tired right now and I want to see what he can do out there. Having him gain more confidence really helps. A game like this can really help with his confidence and hopefully he can improve in some areas."
Vogler said Greene, who began his career on the offensive line, has made "unbelievable progress" at tight end. He might be known as a blocker in short-yardage and goal-line situations now, but Vogler thinks it's only a matter of time before he expands his role on offense.
"He’s working on his route technique every single day," Vogler said. "As an offensive lineman, he knows how to block. He’s making improvement every day. We’re trying to throw him in there on more routes in practice so he’ll feel a little more comfortable out there. For a guy his size [6-5, 307], he moves well. I can’t wait for the opportunity for him running a route out there and you guys being shocked at how he can move."
Straddling a podium in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Saban explained.
"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.
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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No. 63 Kellen Williams
Redshirt senior offensive lineman
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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."
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.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was never a secret that D.J. Fluker would forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. Alabama's hulking right tackle put his four years in and decided it was time to go. Coach Nick Saban even said way back in November on his weekly radio show that Fluker was a "a guy who is probably going to go out for the draft."
But Fluker is just one loss on an offensive line many considered the best in all of college football. Center Barrett Jones is leaving the Capstone as one the most decorated football players in the school's history. His three national championships playing three different positions on the offensive line is unprecedented. Winning the Outland Trophy as a junior and then switching to center and winning the Rimington Trophy is mind boggling.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- 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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