TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As the confetti fell in Miami in January, Alabama had just crushed Notre Dame 42-14 and had won its second consecutive national title. But as they celebrated, Nick Saban’s gears were presumably turning in his mind that only knows football, Miss Terry and Little Debbie snack cakes. His team had to replace its most cohesive unit, the unit that had been together for two years—two consecutive national title-winning years: the offensive line.
Saban’s teams at Alabama have always had the ability to rebuild and reload—the proverbial “next man up” mentality—filling the slot of a graduated or NFL-bound former teammate. But the offensive line of the 2011-2012 team wasn’t just any offensive line.
Barrett Jones was Saban’s favorite, played three different positions (right guard, left tackle and center), was an All-American in 2011 and 2012, and won the top award at his last two positions, the Outland Trophy for best interior lineman in 2011 and the Rimington Trophy for best center in 2012. Jones was picked in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft. Chance Warmack was a unanimous All-American and was chosen 10th overall in the 2013 NFL draft. D.J. Fluker was a first-team All-American and was picked 11th overall in the 2013 NFL draft. The trio all won three national championships at Alabama.
An offensive line that could be considered one of the best in the history of college football—possibly the most decorated—isn’t easily replaced, but if any program could, it’s Saban’s Alabama.
When the recruiting classes at Alabama are top ranked every year, there is clearly talent on the roster. The players filling the shoes of those leaving town with rings on their fingers were talented—are talented—but they didn’t have the mentality of a national title-winning offensive line yet. How could they? They had never played together without the 2011-2012 starters.
The first test of the 2013 Alabama offensive line, the unveiling of this year’s team of destiny, was in a 35-10 win over Virginia Tech. While the score does look convincingly positive, in reality, the offense sputtered. The line couldn’t keep quarterback AJ McCarron away from the Hokies’ experienced defensive front, and failed in the run game—the aspect of Alabama that never failed.
“They just kind of outplayed us up front,” said Saban after the win.
Those words are rarely spoken by the coach whose ring collection is edging towards Little Richard.
Lofty expectations are said to be unspoken in a Saban locker room, but everyone knows that this Alabama team was supposed to win, just as the teams before it had done. This time the expectations weren’t too overly ambitious, they were just mistimed. The offensive line and the offense in general, had a fantastic afternoon in College Station, Texas, beating Johnny Manziel and the Aggies in Week 3, but again failed to show real signs of symmetry against Colorado State and Ole Miss in the following weeks.
“It made us mad up front,” guard Anthony Steen said. “We know if we don’t do our job up front then we’re not going to have a good game. We know it starts with us. If we have a good game, the quarterback and running backs have a good game and our receivers have a good game.”
Through these struggles, “communication” became a buzzword, and not in the good sense. It was normally used in a phrase concerning a “lack of communication” or “getting better at communicating.” Every press conference should have been a “communication” drinking game. While communication was an issue during the early parts of the season, the offensive line has been able to become a unit of not only five, but easily eight players who could step in at times.
Other than the Kouandjio brothers (Cyrus and Arie), the offensive line couldn’t stay healthy: Steen left the Texas A&M game with a concussion and missed the Colorado State game, but his position was well-filled by Kellen Williams. Starting center, and Barrett Jones imitator, Ryan Kelly went down against Ole Miss but was replaced by a very competent Chad Lindsay. Freshman Grant Hill has been basically competing for Austin Shepherd’s job throughout the season, whether due to injury or form.
After weeks of going in and out of sync, Alabama’s offense got to play Georgia State. And when the Crimson Tide matched up against Georgia State, something clicked. From that point on, they finally hit their stride. They have scored at least 45 points per game since Week 6, McCarron hasn’t been sacked in four-straight games, the passing game is back to where it should be, and the rushing offense is now averaging 210 rushing yards per game.
“I just try to focus on doing my job, and I think the other guys are the same way,” Steen said. “The past three or four games, we were clicking on all levels. And right now we’re just trying not to lose the beat and stay on top of things.”
Saban attributes their new success to various things, but what really worked the best was just being on the field together.
“I think some guys are playing with a little better technique,” said Saban. “I think the chemistry’s better. I think the communication’s better. I think the trust in the communication is better. I think the confidence in each other is better. I think that just comes from guys playing together.”
This bonding and run of quality play could not have come at a better time. LSU, with its grass-eating head coach and its talented roster, visit Tuscaloosa on Saturday. If this game was being played at an earlier point in the season, the offense’s foibles would be worrisome, but not now. Alabama is not just No. 1 in the country, it has full confidence that its most integral unit is ready for the challenge.
“I’m glad our offensive line has really gelled together and finally is doing the things I know we’re capable of,” left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said.
Those words spoken by Saban after the Virginia Tech game haven’t been said again, and starting center Ryan Kelly knows that–other than defense—the key to beating LSU is to win the battle in the trenches.
“It’s a big game, but you know it’s one that as an offensive line you take full responsibility to put on your shoulders,” Kelly said.