Offensive line remains Alabama's biggest question mark

1:34 PM, Aug 19, 2013   |    comments
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by Cliff Kirkpatrick, Special for USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA - Nearly all the pieces are in place for another productive offensive season.

What's missing could be a problem.

The Alabama football team needs a rebuilt offensive line to give strong-arm quarterback AJ McCarron time to find speedy receivers and open enough holes for quick running backs.

A poor line means no deep passes or long runs, and a bad offense.

After two weeks of evaluation during training camp and some position changes, coach Nick Saban hopes he found the right combination blockers to make the offense go.

However, after Saturday's scrimmage, he still has some concerns.

"It's true we lost a couple guys, but I have confidence in my teammates, especially my brother (Arie Kouandjio). And Kellen (Williams) is pretty good, too," starting left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said. "We have all the tools we need. I think we'll be all right."

Three starting linemen - Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack - moved on to the NFL after last season. They were important parts of an offense that gained 445.5 yards a game.

Attempts to develop the line during the spring yielded only some success. There was individual progress, but a first string unit wasn't found.

"They have three guys gone to the NFL so this year, a lot of the guys have to step up and take on new roles," defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said. "It's within them to find that bond and come together as a unit."

Cyrus Kouandjio, a junior, and senior right guard Anthony Steen are the players the Crimson Tide rebuilt around. Kouandjio started 22 career games and Steen started 25.

They have been the most consistent blockers and leaders of a deep group of players. They have pushed teammates through offseason training and camp.

Ryan Kelly was the heir apparent at center. The sophomore prepared for the season and hasn't disappointed from his offseason and training camp.

"His work ethic has been great," Steen said. "He's always in the weight room, working out, always trying to do something. He's never relaxing. I like that about him."

The other two positions are the concern. Tension built up after the first scrimmage. Saban felt there wasn't enough movement and push from the offensive line.

So he made some changes.

Austin Shepherd moved from right tackle to left guard, and Arie Kouandjio moved from right guard to right tackle.

The change happened because of Arie Kouandjio's return from a knee injury. He came to Alabama as a tackle, but moved to guard because he lacked mobility after surgery.

"Arie's done a really good job," Saban said. "I don't think I've seen anybody more dedicated or determined, work harder and he had a very difficult rehab. He has all of his mobility back, and he's really playing well."

Saturday's scrimmage showed the inconsistencies of a newly formed first string. There were false starts and general mental mistakes.

The defensive line is also being rebuilt, so there was some give and take on both sides. A true judge of the development of the lines will come at the Aug. 31 season opener against Virginia Tech.

"They are pretty good," defensive lineman Ed Stinson said. "They come out busting their butts trying to give us good looks every time. Austin Shepherd, Anthony Steen have been looking good."

With a potential starting lineup in place, it's a matter of building a cohesive unit before the opener.

The linemen must work together to block. Schematic breakdowns mean blown plays.

"I don't think people talk enough about the chemistry or communication up front," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "Most good football teams have the ability to play with the same guys up front. That's what we want, to have good communication."

Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal keeps the group moving during practice, going over technique and the playbook until they are ready. He feels the urgency.

"They've been great working," McCarron said. "They are getting better. We have guys playing different positions. We're just going to have to keep jelling, and keep progressing."

The immediate goal is put the linemen through as many repetitions as possible.

Position changes at this late of date means the development of the first string is behind schedule.

"Just spending time together," Kelly said of what needs to be done with less than two weeks before the opener. "The more you play with each other the more comfortable you feel next to someone. Every rep is crucial. We start to learn each other's habits. We'll be fine."

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Cliff Kirkpatrick also writes for The Montgomery Advertiser, a Gannett property

 

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