Monday, April 9, 2012

Profilin' the Tide: Offensive Line

Previously: General Offensive Preview 

The first position group I'll take a look at will be, naturally, the Alabama offensive line. In a game between two schools like Alabama and Michigan, known for their Brobdingnagian lines and power running--minus the failed RR Interlude--could it be any other way? Of course not. While this game might not exactly mirror the 2000 Orange Bowl (i.e. Alexander vs. A-Train), in that the Michigan offense is decidedly not yet synced with the Tao of Power, we will see an offense/OL that Michigan hopes to become by 2014 or so.

Power off tackle: a preview

In this way, this matchup is somewhat of a double-edged sword, for Michigan fans. Although the Bama OL is about as terrifyingly huge a line anywhere outside of Madison, and will consequently pose problems for a Michigan DL lacking in depth and beef, it's hard not to watch that line play and not imagine a line featuring Kalis, Bryant, Bars, LTT, Dawson, etc. doing similar things down the line. With respect to the line play, the Alabama OL will be somewhat of a sneak peek into the future for Michigan fans and/or Darrell Funk enthusiasts.

The Starters 
Although it is only spring, Bama's starting five is as close to set in stone as it could possibly be. From left to right, it looks as such:
Cyrus Kouandjio-Chance Warmack-Barrett Jones-Anthony Steen-DJ Fluker
 As mentioned previously, the lone departure is C William Vlachos, a Rimington finalist last season. Every starter save Kouandjio has multiple seasons worth in starting experience; these guys have seen it all, of course winning two of the last three national championships while facing some of the most ornery front sevens in the country. The lone newbie is Cyrus Kouandjio, a rising true sophomore who appeared in all eight games until getting knocked out for the season in the Tennessee game with a knee injury. Kouandjio was a big time recruit, most known for committing to Auburn, not faxing in his LOI and then signing with Alabama a few days after NSD. He is the lone green starter, but, unfortunately, he does have a little experience to his name. Overall, however, the returning guys have 95 starts between them. 

Let me reiterate: these guys are enormous. From left to right, this is what our front 7 will be looking at: 6'6'' 311, 6'3'' 320, 6'5'' 302, 6'3'' 303, 6'6'' 335. Forget about the defense, this is going to be the most dominant unit of the 2012 Alabama football team. This line is so mammoth that it can inspire headlines as ridiculous as "Is that big offensive line too big?" This sort of reminds me of NFL types wondering if a quarterback can be "too athletic" (re: RGIII), which, what are you talking about Merill Hoge. Fix your your tie knot and stop headbutting random people in the hallways of ESPN's Bristol HQ. It's uncouth.

Of course, the article linked above led some commenters to have flashbacks to the bowl loss against Utah. I don't think Alabama's line is the big but slow type, but if Michigan's front does have any advantage, it's with quick, somewhat undersized guys on the outside (Beyer, Clark, Roh, Ryan in passing situations) and on the inside with Jibreel Clark, who will hopefully have gained some weight by September but not lost his quickness.

These guys are big, experienced, and have won at the highest level while also paving the way for a Heisman finalist in the process. If these the aforementioned measureables don't shoot a little spark of concern up your spine, especially considering Michigan less than ideal situation on the interior of the defensive line, well, it should. That's not to say that we should run to the hills, but you can bet that Alabama won't waste a lot of time early in the game probing the edges; they're going right up the middle. Yes, this sort of line and this sort of stage lends itself to every football cliche in the book--pad level, point of attack, power football, etc.--but in this case it is actually warranted.

The Replacements 
On the bright side, like us, Alabama's situation past the starting five doesn't seem exceedingly rosy, although it's always hard to tell in the spring. Sophomores Arie Kouandjio (yes, another one) and Chad Lindsay are both out of commission this spring due to injury, leaving redshirt sophomore RT Austin Shepherd and Kellen Williams, a redshirt junior guard/tackle type. Shepherd appeared in 7 games last year and Williams appeared in 5; however, none of said games were against marquee teams or not blowouts (you tell me under which category Tennessee falls).

Kouandjio was the first right tackle off the bench early in the season against Penn State before going down with a season-ending injury, and also was a 4-star prospect out of high school. If he can get healthy by the fall, he would make a solid reserve lineman. Likewise, Lindsay was a VHT guy on the interior. He enrolled early in 2010 but went on to redshirt, and his profile on the athletics website doesn't list any activity for 2011, so, who knows. Either way, he's out with a "head injury" right now, which I would assume would be cleared up in time for the season.

General Spring Minutiae/Encomium That Results in a "Bristling" Saban 
As expected, Barrett Jones's move to center from left tackle (and previously starting at right guard in 2009 and 2010) won't progress without some sort of learning curve. He is by all accounts a smart guy, however, and most expect him to transition quite nicely. As of now, quoth Saban:
"Pleased with the progress he's made."
 Translated to the parlance of normal human beings: He's getting better every day, and there's nothing better than seeing someone improve before your very eyes. It's not about the wins and losses or the number of trophies in the trophy case, it's about getting better, being able to end each day with the understanding that you did a little bit better than you did the day before. This is all very fun and enjoyable. 

In the same article, Saban refers to Warmack--who should be at least Honorable Mention on the annual All-Last Name Team--as Alabama's "most consistent player" last year, which I'm not sure is in reference to just the OL or the team as a whole. Either way, it is strong praise, although it may be taken with a sizable grain of salt or two. Kouandjio is understandably described as a sort of work-in-progress, although being 6'6'' 311 probably helps to assuage any concerns that Alabama fans might have about him manning McCarron's blind side. Remember, Saban felt good enough to move Barrett Jones, a would-be surefire top 10 pick at LT, to center to make room for Mount Kouandjio (I'm going to assume this nickname has already been thought of but whatever).

Things To Think About/Watch Out For/ARE WE GOING TO DIE?

  • With Saban's comment about Warmack in mind, I would imagine that Alabama will probably be a left-handed team in the running game. I'd need to revisit the 2011 season to confirm this, but I would imagine that with Jones at LT in 2011, Alabama was inclined to run Richardson left more often than not. Despite Kouandjio being somewhat of a question mark due to his relative inexperience, run blocking is much easier to pick up for a young linemen, and allowing him to get out and attack would be a good way to get him some confidence when Alabama does choose to drop back. Thankfully, we have the defensive minds of Mattison and Hoke to figure out what tendencies may or may not exist, as one would imagine the offense will not change too much despite the Nussmeier taking over for McElwain. 
  • Similarly, can Alabama's reserves get enough reps in the fall to be anywhere near ready to fill in in case an injury to one of the starters does occur? The backup situation seems as dicey as ours from an outsider's perspective, but I could be overstating it. 
  • This is an obvious one, but Jones's transition to center is a position switch to watch. It's all relative, but Bama is stronger on the interior than the outside. Warmack and Steen are both very good and Barrett Jones is, well, Barrett Jones. If he makes the transition as seamlessly as many might be expecting, then Campbell, Ash, Washington, Pipkins, and the recently moved Jibreel Black will need to eat all the Wheaties and drink all the chocolate milk this summer. Football cliche forthcoming, but Saban knows that our interior isn't the strongest, and they will try to hit us in the mouth via the most efficient path: right up the middle.
Meaningless Grade That I Will End This With Anyway 
This group is without a doubt an A as arguably Alabama's strongest position group. Depth concerns and Kouandjio's inexperience are the only things preventing this from getting the coveted Holdin' The Rope A+*. Alabama had the #1 rushing offense in the SEC last year, with the OL paving the way for 2,788 yards at 5.5 ypc. I see no reason why they shouldn't be #1 in the conference in 2012. Whether the backs can combine to be as productive as Richardson was in 2011 is another story entirely.

*Not coveted at all. Also, doesn't exist. 

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