It doesn’t matter how many skill players a team has, a winning mindset starts with the men in the trenches. Offensive and defensive lines have the daunting task of dominating at the point of attack. Though their goals differ, both aspects must achieve production in order for a team to succeed.
In recent seasons, Alabama’s offensive line overpowered its competition. With players like Barrett Jones, DJ Fluker and Chance Warmack, people witnessed how Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy became successful. Last season, the offensive line fell under the jurisdiction of the Kouandjio brothers (Cyrus and Arie), Anthony Steen, Austin Shepherd and Ryan Kelly.
Regardless of its potential, the Tide’s offensive line didn’t work well together. The chemistry just wasn’t there in some games. Alabama played up to small competition, but when the time came to prove its worth as an elite offensive line, the Crimson Tide fell short. In 2013, Alabama’s offensive line totaled 71 penalties for 560 yards and gave up 17 sacks.
The quest to improve begins now for Mario Cristobal and the offensive line. The Tide returns Arie Kouandijo, Austin Shepherd and Ryan Kelly in 2014. Their experience will come in handy as they work with Grant Hill, Leon Brown, Cameron Robinson and others.
It will be pivotal for Arie Kouandijo to take a step forward and become a leader on the line. Now that Cyrus is pursuing the NFL, it will be Arie’s job to be an effective run and pass blocker. Despite his ability to explode off the ball, Kouandjio struggles with shifting his feet. He has to not only come off the line strong, but also be able to shield defenders away from the quarterback.
For Austin Shepherd, 2014 may present itself as his fourth season at right tackle. Like Kouandjio, Shepherd has to come off the ball strong and block at the point of attack. As a four-year starter, Shepherd must be fundamentally sound on every assignment.
Before Barrett Jones left, he said Ryan Kelly’s production at Alabama would surpass his. Kelly will need to put those words into use next season. Operating from center, Kelly has to direct the pass and run blocking schemes to his teammates. At 6’5” 290 pounds, Kelly is light on his feet. He blocks well initially and then is able to take on a linebacker at the second level.
Grant Hill and Leon Brown are both physical specimens. They have been in the system for a year and both players know what Saban expects from them. Hill and Brown understand blocking schemes and both are performing well in spring practice. The question is which one will emerge?
Cameron Robinson may be the only 2014 recruit that will start on the offensive line. Weighing in at 6’6” 325 pounds, Robinson is a load. At left tackle, it will be Robinson’s job to protect the quarterback’s blind side. He is very athletic for his size. Robinson has great footwork and recognizes how to provide lanes in the running game.
Before going to USC, Bo Davis served under Saban as the defensive line coach. This offseason, Davis returned to Tuscaloosa and has inherited a goldmine in the Tide’s defensive line. In the past, Alabama depended on its linebackers to generate pressure. 2014 may unveil the pass rush coming from the defensive line.
When people think of sack leaders, true freshman don’t come to mind. Don’t try explaining that to A’Shawn Robinson, though. In 13 games, he totaled 38 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a blocked field goal. Despite his size, Robinson is quick and can generate pressure.
Jonathan Allen came on strong toward the end of last season. He recorded 16 tackles and half a sack. Though he’s quick, Allen is more of a bull rusher. He has exceptional pass rush skills and create leverage to get to the quarterback.
Brandon Ivory can be an elite pass rusher, but his focus leans more on stopping the run. Ivory put in 24 tackles in 2013. He does a nice job of shedding blockers and getting to the ball carrier. He can recognize where the play is going and make a sure tackle.
After undergoing surgery on a pectoral muscle, Darren Lake will miss the rest of spring practice. However, he will be back in time for summer conditioning. Before the surgery, Lake was performing exceptionally well in spring practice. In 2013, Lake recorded 15 tackles in 13 games.
Alabama always finds a way to bring in junior college talent. Next season, the Tide will have D.J. Pettway and Jarran Reed on the line.
Since he’s been given a second chance, it will be up to Pettway to prove that he deserves to be on the team. Talent wise, you can’t deny him. Pettway is very athletic at 6’2” 255 pounds. He can play at jack linebacker or on the line. On one hand, he’s quick; however, he’s physical and has the strength to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
Jarran Reed hasn’t even played a down yet for Alabama and he’s started to get compared to Marcell Dareus. As far as size is concerned, Reed has the potential to play anywhere on the defensive line. He can stuff the run as well as create pressure on the quarterback. Like Allen, Reed has the ability to create leverage against an offensive lineman and go after the quarterback.
For Cristobal and Davis, both coaches have a lot to work on. They have to these players into the mindset of leaving everything on the field. In order for Alabama’s offense and defense to be successful, the men in the trenches have to be productive. The Crimson Tide has the depth to be a dominant team. Cristobal and Davis have to get these players well-conditioned in spring ball and summer camp. If they can, Alabama will strike a lot of fear in the opposition in 2014.