Offensive line may be one of the more intriguing units to watch this spring, and not for the usual reason. Most teams tend to lose two or three starters along the line and simply need to replace them. Alabama is fortunate enough to have four starters returning. However, add into that quotient two fast-rising sophomores and you have six linemen who could probably be starting at any school across the country.
If that is not enough intrigue, the one position opening for the Crimson Tide is at center. This position is not a plug-and-play spot. Not only must the innermost lineman have the ability to deliver accurate snaps to his quarterback while finding his blocking assignment, but he is also in charge of identifying defenses and changing assignments for the other linemen if needed in a matter of seconds. It is not a position for just any 300-pounder with long arms.
Two springs ago, the Tide staff was held to the task of replacing All-American center Ryan Kelly. For much of camp, it looked like the replacement would be Ross Pierschbacher. However when fall camp broke, it was Bradley Bozeman. He dutifully held that spot for the last two seasons but now prepares for the NFL Draft. Also graduating is J.C. Hassenauer who was the number one guard off the bench in 2017 and started the National Championship Game.
Ross Pierschbacher, Jonah Williams, Lester Cotton, Matt Womack are all returning starters but there is no guarantee their names are inked into the 2018 starting line-up. Junior tackle Williams is probably a lock for somewhere along the line but the other four better be working their tails off because there are some hungry wolves at their heels. Womack might be the most at risk at losing his spot with news that broke this morning that he is expected to miss spring camp with a foot injury.
TOP RETURNING RESERVES
As true freshmen, Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills saw a good deal of spot duty during this past campaign and were quite impressive.
In most of the one-sided games of 2017, Leatherwood was subbed in for Womack to get playing experience with the other four starters before other reserves were later sprinkled in. More importantly, he entered the National Championship Game early in the third quarter to replace the injured Jonah Williams at left tackle. He played 44 snaps (including 2nd and 26) and graded out at 88 percent during his time on the field.
Wills also saw plenty of significant snaps as a true freshman. He was often employed in short yardage situations as a third tackle.
Redshirt senior Joshua Casher.
Redshirt juniors Dallas Warmack, Richie Petitbon, Elliot Baker.
Redshirt sophomores Brandon Kennedy, Deonte Brown, Scott Lashley and Chris Owens.
Redshirt freshman Kendall Randolph and Hunter Brannon.
No newbies for spring practice but 4-star center Emil Ekiyor (Indianapolis, IN) and 4-star guard Tommy Brown (Santa Ana, CA) will join the team this summer.
The idea of building a cohesive offensive line is to get the best five linemen on the field with the best chemistry. Despite all the talented left tackles on the team, it is unlikely that many of them can convert to center. Playing experience is an asset, but performance will always win out.
CENTER - It could be an assumption to think that Pierschbacher may get another shot at the center position, but that is exactly what might happen. However, Williams could get a look there as well. Until suffering a season-ending broken leg early in the year, Kennedy was entrenched as the number two center. By all reports, he should be available to fully participate in spring drills, but the extent of lingering aftereffects of the surgery are unknown. Casher has some experience at center as well. Deonte Brown and Chris Owens are potential candidates.
TACKLE - Williams will man one tackle spot if he is not the center. To be honest, Williams could probably excel at any of the five positions. The other bookend will likely be a war between Womack, Leatherwood, and Wills. Lashley was raising some eyebrows last spring but he has yet to take that next step. Two Aprils ago, Petitbon was looking like a strong contender but then he tore an ACL.
GUARD - If Cotton can stay healthy, he should be one of the starting guards. At 6’7” and 327 pounds, Womack is probably too big and tall to play anywhere other than tackle. If Pierschbacher sticks at center, Wills (6’5” 312) could get a look at guard. Brown, Casher, Owens, and Warmack will have their chances to shine.
Offensive line coach Brent Key will have some serious mad scientist experiments going on this spring.