Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Probably no other position grouping is as dependent on experience, including experience working together, as the offensive line--and Alabama's offensive line will be much less experienced in 2013 than it was in 2012. The Tide is loaded almost everywhere else, but whether the big handsomes in the trenches can actually spearhead another national championship run is a serious question.
Perhaps my favorite single metric for predicting a team's season--possibly even ranking ahead of starters returning--is how many combined games starting experience is returning on the offensive line. About the best you can say about that for Alabama in 2013 is thank God for other metrics.
Alabama has only 39 games of starting experience returning for the 2013 OL--Anthony Steen's 25 and Cyrus Kouandjio's 14--the lowest total since at least before the current run of excellence began in 2008. By comparison, the Tide returned a stellar 94 games of starting experience in 2012 and the result was an offensive line that was compared to the all-time greats. The championship teams of 2011 and 2009 returned 74 and 69 games of starting experience respectively, and the 2008 SEC runner-up team returned 72 games of starting experience. The second-lowest total was 2010's 42 games of starting experience returning: perhaps not coincidentally, that was the only 3-loss team in the period examined.
Nevertheless, while it would not be logical to expect the 2013 unit to achieve the excellence of the 2012 OL, you don't have to spelunk too deep to find some reasons for relative optimism. One big reason for optimism--a 311-pound reason, to be exact--is that Alabama returns a likely pre-season All-American at left tackle, which is generally considered the most important position on the OL because it protects a right-handed quarterback's blind side. NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock may not know Cyrus Kouandjio's name, but that hasn't stopped him from declaring that "on tape, he's a first-round pick."
Steen is also a solid returnee who looked to be coming into his own by the latter part of the 2012 season. The 303-pounder will be a senior in 2013, and currently projects as a first-day pick in the 2014 draft. Steen's experience is at right guard, but the possibility exists he could move to the other side to give the Tide a staunch Kouandjio-Steen wall to run behind.
There's another reason for optimism. Alabama, like many other teams, does not generally rotate the offensive line to keep fresh legs on the field as it does at many other positions. Instead, absent injury or equipment malfunction, the Tide may well leave the same guys on the field for every snap in a close game.
Given that, Alabama's returning backup offensive linemen are unusually experienced. Over the last two years, Alabama has won 17 "blowout" games by 25 points or more--by comparison, the Tide averaged 2.2 such wins per season over the 14-year period from 1997-2010. Veteran backups like 303-pound LT Kellen Williams, LG Chad Lindsay, 290, RG Arie Kouandjio, 310, and 312-pound RT Austin Shepard benefited both years from at least some of the increased playing time that is available to backups in such games, while freshman center Ryan Kelly benefited from the 10 2012 blowouts.
At any rate, there are enough bodies in the running for the three vacant jobs that it is not easy to predict exactly who goes where--except for the center position, where Kelly is said to be a clear front-runner. Alabama's centers in recent years have mostly been high school guards or tackles who turned out to be able to snap, but Kelly was the #4 center prospect in the nation, per Rivals, when he came out of Lakota High School in West Chester, Ohio. The knock on Kelly is his size, as he weighed in at 288 in 2012, a bit smaller than Bama's typical offensive line starters in the Saban era. Kelly could probably use some weightroom (and dining room) time to help keep him from being driven into the backfield by opposing nose tackles. Lindsay is his likely backup.
Assuming Steen does not move to left guard, the leading candidate for that position is likely Cyrus' older brother Arie Kouandjio. Arie has consistently garnered praise from the coaching staff since his 2010 arrival in Tuscaloosa, but injuries to both knees, including ACL surgery in 2011, have frustrated his career at Bama. He bounced back well enough, however, to back up Steen in 2012, and if his health holds up this could finally be his season to shine.
The stiffest competition at guard is likely to come from 292-pound Brandon Greene, a blue-chipper who redshirted last year as a true freshman. As a high-schooler, Greene was rated as the #2 player in Georgia and the #30 overall prospect nationally by ESPN, and with a year in the weight room under his belt, he will have a chance to live up to those lofty rankings. Returnees Lindsay and 313-pound Isaac Luatua will also take their shot at the job this spring, and another blue-chipper, Grant Hill, will arrive in the summer. 5-star incomer A'Shawn Robinson may fetch up almost anywhere along the offensive or defensive line.
The most interesting spring battle figures to be at right tackle. Last year's backup Austin Shephard, who has seen action in 16 games at the Capstone, will return, but the fact that the Tide inked no less than two juco offensive linemen could be taken as a sign that the staff does not have full confidence in the 312-pound Shephard.
To be fair, the commitment of one of those juco tackles, 6'6" Brandon Hill, may have little to do with whether a need exists at tackle. Hll was a blue-chipper who originally committed to Bama in 2012 as a high-schooler from Collierville, Tennessee, and stuck with the Tide (despite a flirtation with Ole Miss) after a year at Hargrave Military Academy helped him qualify academically. Hill reportedly arrived in Tuscaloosa this spring weighing 400 pounds or more, but his conditioning regime is said to be on track, and he is surprisingly light on his feet for a man of such immense size. Even if his condition keeps him from competing for the right tackle position in 2012, he may well have the inside track on the left tackle job in 2013 after the expected exodus to the NFL of the guy with the long name who plays there now. Hill will have four to play three at Alabama.
No such prior connection exists with 310-pound incomer Leon Brown, and given Saban's history with juco signees, it's hard to interpret his commitment as anything but a sign that an immediate contribution is sought. The Maryland native ran the traditional juco route at ASA College in Brooklyn, and will have three to play two. Brown saw action at both tackles at ASA, and like Hill should be considered as a possible 2014 LT prospect.
Finally, 280-pound Caleb Gulledge and 340+-pound Alphonse Taylor each redshirted last year and will have chances to get in the mix somewhere. The 6'5" Taylor would figure to be a tackle prospect based on his size, while Gulledge's ultimate destination may be a little tougher to call. 295-pound Dakota Ball, who also redshirted last year, is listed as a defensive lineman, but could well eventually fetch up on the offensive side of the ball.