Alabama football: Beyond quarterback battle, Crimson Tide's offensive line unsettled

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerAugust 7, 2011 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Barrett Jones was busy graduating when Alabama’s second football practice of the preseason began Saturday afternoon.

An hour later, cap and gown were swapped for helmets and shoulder pads. There’s no time to celebrate for the Crimson Tide’s interchangeable all-conference offensive lineman.

Jones, along with fifth-year senior center William Vlachos, is tasked with leading a front line protecting one or two first-year quarterbacks. Looking in the offensive line room, Jones sees more depth than in his previous three Alabama seasons and an energetic new position coach, Jeff Stoutland

For Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban, that means competition. Starting jobs are far from secure.

“Obviously, the OL is not settled,” he said. “There’s an opportunity there for somebody, whether they play guard and the guard plays tackle, or whether we have a left tackle that comes through and Barrett Jones goes back and plays guard.”

Thus, the importance of Jones.

A right guard who earned third-team All-America as a sophomore last season, Jones started working at left tackle at the end of spring practice. Since the experiment netted positive results, it picked back up this week. Jones worked exclusively Thursday at the position made famous for protecting the blind side of a right-handed quarterback.

So does he have a preference? Stay at right guard or transition to left tackle where he played in high school?

“I see my role as playing wherever coach Saban and coach Stoutland tell me to play,” Jones said. “I’m not trying to be sarcastic. I don’t know, and I don’t care either way.”

If the move to left tackle becomes permanent, his former understudy is ready.

Anthony Steen briefly took over for Jones late last year after a high-ankle sprain kept him out of the final two regular-season games.

The sophomore from Lambert, Miss., is progressing well, his neighbor on the line said.

“When he’s 100 percent sure who he’s blocking, he blocks him as good as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Vlachos said. “He’s really come along. I’m always in his ear about what to look at. What’s coming here. What’s coming there. The sky’s the limit for that guy. He’s a really talented player, and I look forward to playing with him.”

Starters D.J. Fluker (right tackle) and Chance Warmack (left guard) also return, giving the unit six combined years of first-team experience. Should someone go down, utility lineman Alfred McCullough is waiting. The Athens, Ala., product, who received his diploma at the Saturday morning commencement, played nearly every position on the line a year ago, when injuries necessitated a change.

That separates this group from last year’s, when only Jones and Vlachos returned to the starting lineup.

“I think experience is huge -- especially on the offensive line,” Vlachos said. “That’s why it’s very hard for a true freshman to come in and play. One, the physical nature of it, and two, the experience is very beneficial.”

Jones and Vlachos still are impressed with the foundation the three incoming freshmen brought to the unit. Former top recruit Cyrus Kouandjio, Ryan Kelly and Issac Luatua are raw after just two practices, but they are eager to learn.

“I’ve been really impressed with how much they want to learn, how much they have been up here, how much they have asked me questions, which I love,” Jones said. “Asking me about the offense and all sorts of things. That’s really what you want to see from the young guys: How much does he want to learn and how important is it to him.”

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