Welcome to the 2014 Alabama Spring Practice Unit Previews. Our coverage this week kicks off with an SEC staple -and Alabama hallmark, line play, in particular, the offensive line. Today we'll look at losses on the OL and returning starters and look back at what the offense accomplished under these guys. Tomorrow, we'll look at the incoming players, and try to read tea leaves for the upcoming season. Thursday and Friday is another unit with some deep questions, but long on talent, Defensive Line.
Let's start with the bad news first. Entering the Spring, Alabama finds itself down two starters, with the loss of decorated veterans Cyrus Kouandjio (LT) and Anthony Steen (RG), and absent a critical utility man/backup tackle (Kellen Williams). Of these losses, people will pay the most lip service to replacing CK at LT. However, the most consistent performer last season was Steen -he was the heart of an offensive line that developed its identity as the season progressed: a truly nasty player that improved every season on campus, his absence will be felt. We wish all of these guys well as they pursue their goals -be it in the pros or otherwise.
But, it's time to look forward, not backwards -and we begin with the returning starters. Three things immediately jump out at you: 1. the combination of youth and veterans on the line; 2. the number of guys that saw snaps last season; and, 3. how very productive the line actually was.
Going into camp, your 2-3 deep of returning players shakes out like so:
Brandon Green (R.SO)
Brandon Hill (R.SO)
Arie Kouandjio (SR)
Grant Hill (SO)
Ryan Kelly (JR)
Chad Lindsay (SR)
Isaac Luatua (R.JR)
Alphonse Taylor (R.SO)
Bradley Bozeman (R.SO)
Austin Shepherd (R.SR)
Leon Brown (SR)
Cole Mazza (SO)
Of the twelve linemen on scholarship, nine returners saw playing time last season. Three other well-regarded players took a redshirt -including both guys who will presumably compete for playing time at LT. Additionally, we should mention the returning guys on the practice squad who never hear their names called, but are an integral part of the team: Paul Waldrop, Austin Peavler and Brandon Moore.
There were two major reasons for so many guys seeing time last season. First among them was the losses that Alabama took going into the season. Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones and DJ Fluker were all tremendously large shoes to fill -literally and figuratively. But, as we see later, the line actually did a fine job in moving the ball.
The another major reason so many guys saw snaps also serves as an exoneration of sorts for Mario Cristobal. With so many new starters trying to adjust to the new offensive line scheme, and so many gaps to fill, the early season rotation was very much an ad hoc mating of different guys at different slots and different rotations. Coach Cristobal took a beating on this site for early poor returns, particularly in the running game and pass protection down the stretch (I was no less guilty than you.) However, the numbers simply don't bear out that Cristobal's unit fared any more poorly than you'd expect under the circumstances.
First, Alabama's pass protection was, by and large, outstanding. Alabama only surrendered 17 sacks in 14 contests -compared to the 23 given up in 2012, which was middling by recent standards; the 30 sacks surrendered in 2010; and the 20 sacks surrendered in 2009. In fact, during the great run of the past five seasons, only one other year (2011, with 17 sacks surrendered) has featured an offensive line that kept the quarterback's jersey this clean. Going into the Iron Bowl, the line had an adjusted sack rate that placed them 19th overall...and we won't talk about the Oklahoma game. Woof.
Nor was the offense any less dynamic than in years past. Alabama overall had the 9th best raw offensive drive success (3rd when adjusted for opponent); it was ranked 1st in explosive drives (15.5% of plays went for 10+ yards); and 15th in number of drives that moved the chains or resulted in a score (75%). In short, offenses don't move the ball without a decent line.
The second major complaint seemed to be in the running game, where TJ Yeldon "had a down year." Again, this is demonstrably incorrect. Yeldon finished as the nation's 24th-ranked rusher, with 1235 yards, 14 TDs (T-19th) and a healthy 6.0 YPC on the season. Everyone loves the backup, and Kenyan Drake fared pretty decently as well: 7.5 YPC (5th), 8 TDs and nearly 700 yards on the season. (Don't google Derrick Henry's rushing stats; you will be tempted to drive to Ann Arbor and personally curse Nussmeier). For the year, Alabama finished at a more-than-respectable 5.8 YPC and 205.8 YPG. Is that anywhere near the run-only squads of 2008 and 2009? No. But, when you have the Heisman runner-up and Maxwell-winning QB throwing for 3000+ yards and 30+ TDs, it's a nice problem to have, and does not point to any particular OL deficiency. There are only so many snaps in a game.
While Alabama's OL may have failed the mythical Stoutland-Pendry, seven-yards-downfield, eyeball test, it more than made up for in productivity behind an offensive line that opened holes for backs and gave AJ McCarron plenty of time to make plays. It was a balanced line for a balanced but explosive offense.
The better news? Three starters are returning, and the depth behind them is excellent -particularly with the entering class.
Tomorrow: Incoming players and projections.