Austin Shepherd (left) and Ryan Kelly (right) will be starters in 2014 on the UA OL
Alabama is now one week into Nick Saban’s eighth season at the Capstone with three weeks of practice remaining before concluding with A-Day on April 19th. With 4 practices under their belts, Alabamaintel is going to give some general thoughts on what we have seen and heard thus far and break down each position on offense and defense. Special teams (kicking and punting) will have to wait to be evaluated in the live scrimmages. The next position to be evaluated will be the offensive line, major area of concern thus far.
All five are now gone. Earning paychecks in the NFL. The 2012 offensive line was arguably the best in Alabama’s storied history. Left guard: Chance Warmack, first round (1oth overall). Right tackle: D.J. Fluker, first round (11th overall). Center: Barrett Jones, 4th round (most versatile OL in Tide history). Those three left the program after 2012, then 2013 saw left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen conclude their Crimson Tide careers. Both will play in the NFL and all five have the ability, barring injury, to have lengthy careers in professional football.
Three starters return: Right tackle Austin Shepherd (5th-year senior), center Ryan Kelly (redshirt junior), and left guard Arie Kouandjio (5th-year senior). By the end of the 2013 season, Shepherd was the Tide’s most consistent offensive lineman and dominated Dee Ford in the Iron Bowl, making the defensive end largely a non-factor. Ryan Kelly missed roughly 4.5 games due to spraining his knee on two separate occasions. The Ohio native missed half of the Ole Miss contest in addition to the Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Auburn games in their entirety. The 6’5 296-pounder struggled early at the point of attack but seemed to perform better after returning for the Tide’s 7th straight win over the rival Tennessee Volunteers. Left guard Arie Kouandjio’s first season as a starter was a roller coaster ride with peaks and valleys. The lows out-numbered the highs, as the eldest Kouandjio was the weak link of the OL in 2013 and should be on the clock and face FIERCE competition for his starting job.
Through four practices, second-year OL coach Mario Cristobal is really going to face a challenge and truly earn his money at Alabama. The first five has been the same through four practices as Shepherd is an anchor at right tackle, and Ryan Kelly is entrenched at center. Arie Kouandjio has thus far been at left guard with redshirt sophomore Alphonse “Shank” Taylor at right guard and former junior college transfer Leon Brown at left tackle. This has raised some eyebrows because most had pegged sophomore Grant Hill to be moved inside to guard. The Huntsville native has continued to play right tackle with the twos and inside word is that the 6’6 308-pounder has struggled thus far. The senior Brown started at right guard for the injured Anthony Steen in the Sugar Bowl and performed pretty well. But his move to left tackle, where he practiced and played for parts of his first season in 2013, was necessary because true freshman early enrollee Cameron Robinson has had a rough transition from High School to SEC football. The Monroe, Louisiana, native was signed as the consensus top-ranked offensive tackle in the country, with the thought process that he could have an Andre Smith-type impact as a freshman and start from day one at left tackle. He has run third-team thus far through four practices and faces an uphill climb this spring to push into the two-deep. Former tight end Brandon Greene (redshirt sophomore) has moved back to left tackle and is running with the twos, while the back-up left guard is redshirt junior Isaac Luatua. Redshirt freshman Brandon Hill has seen time with the twos at right guard but redshirt freshman Bradley Bozeman has seen reps there in the last couple of practices as Hill has been a little banged up. Bozeman and Grant Hill have also spent time at center with junior walk-on Paul Waldrop (twos) also getting reps with the centers behind Kelly.
Jackson is being counted on heavily in 2014
Positives thus far: The game seems to have slowed down for right tackle Austin Shepherd and he seems to be poised to have an All-American senior season. The coaching staff is also very high on Ryan Kelly, who seems to finally be getting his weight to near the 300-pound threshold. Both, should they remain healthy, will be among the best players at their positions in the SEC and nationally. Without a doubt, the two cornerstones will be heavily counted on to be the leaders of the unit in 2014.
Negatives thus far: It will be crucial for Shepherd and Kelly to stay healthy this season as the depth situation on the OL is not good due to misevaluations and inexperience (youth). A big loss for the Crimson Tide was fifth-year senior Chad Lindsay choosing not to return to the team for his final season of eligibility. He subbed for the injured Kelly and many thought the offensive line played better when he was in the lineup. The running game, especially between-the-tackles, seemed to execute at a higher level with the Texas native in the pivot. But Lindsay (rightly) wants to start and the feeling has been that Kelly is entrenched at center. The former Woodlands High School star could have been in the mix at guard but seemed to be a natural center. He was a tremendous insurance policy and a big loss. Since he graduated, he can transfer and be eligible immediately. The latest intel is that Michigan or Nebraska could be the favorites to land him. The best offensive line class in the country will report this summer, sans early enrollee Cameron Robinson. Ross Pierschbacher, J.C. Hassenauer, Joshua Casher, Montel McBride and junior college All-American Dominick Jackson will provide a much-needed talent infusion. Hassenauer and Casher both may have a chance to back-up Kelly at center, but, more likely, the impact of the 2014 OL class will likely not truly be felt until the 2015 & ’16 seasons. Left and right guard may remain unsettled until fall camp, in addition to left tackle. The hope is that Shank Taylor and Arie will step forward, but Grant Hill’s athleticism and football intellect make him seem like a natural guard. He has struggled thus far at tackle, much like Mike Johnson did early in his career. But Johnson became an All-American left guard in 2009 and Hill may ultimately settle in at guard. Leon Brown could also move back to right guard if Cam Robinson improves ten-fold by the fall, or, more likely, if a certain California native is the real deal.
Wildcard: Dominick Jackson likely holds the key to the entire offensive line and could be the biggest piece of the puzzle to fall in place for the Crimson Tide’s 2014 season. He played right tackle as a freshman at San Mateo Junior College and right guard last season. Jackson was the consensus top JC offensive lineman in the country and Alabamaintel’s own William “Redfish” Barger believes the rising junior is among the best offensive lineman he has ever evaluated on film. The 6’5 305-pounder plays with an uncommon nastiness on film and literally destroys his opponents in the running game. He showcases excellent knee bend and mobility (to pull) as a guard, but the question is can he pass protect at tackle? The Alabama coaching staff believes he can, and if that is the case, Jackson could very well have the skill-set to play left tackle. It has even been said the elite prospect could be a one-and-done type talent. If that comes to fruition: TRULY ELITE. And expect the Crimson Tide to contend for a national title in 2014. But even if he is very good to great, it would be huge for Cristobal and Alabama. Without much doubt, the minute Jackson enrolls in early June, he will be among the best five and have a spot in the starting lineup at LT or LG/RG in Atlanta on August 30th.
Kelly must stay healthy this season
Dominick Jackson signing day speech:
Offensive line drills 2014 Spring Practice: