Bama wants to develop depth
By Marq Burnett
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama's offensive line is out to do more than just replace the three starters it lost from last year's team.
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The Crimson Tide is focused on building a two-deep where the backups are as talented as the five starters.
"The emphasis is that we have 10 guys on the line, so when you draw that line you have 10 guys that can go in there no matter who gets hurt," Tide center Ryan Kelly said. "Obviously, it's unrealistic to not skip a beat, but those guys are going to do a great job if something happens like that."
Arie Kouandjio, Austin Shepherd and Leon Brown have all moved on, creating open spots next to Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson.
For most of spring practice, the players lining up with Kelly and Robinson have been Ross Pierschbacher at left guard, Bradley Bozeman at right guard and Dominick Jackson at right tackle.
"We have four or five players we feel like are probably ready to play winning football on the offensive line," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "Then we have probably four or five more players who certainly need to continue to improve to be able to make the kind of progress that they can play winning football on the offensive line. I think we've got work to do there and we've got to make progress in that area. A lot of it comes to guys not having a lot of experience as young players."
On Bozeman --who started two games at center last season -- Kelly said "he's so strong" and added that Bozeman has taken "that next step" toward solidifying himself more into a starter's role coming from center to guard.
Saban has praised Pierschbacher at every turn, stating that the team is excited about the rising red
shirt freshman's future.
Jackson has always been a bit of a wildcard among the group. For much of last season, Saban said Jackson would have likely been a starter if not for some injuries during preseason practice. Jackson, who came from a run-heavy offense in junior college, still needed to refine his pass protection skills. When he first arrived, Kelly said Jackson "put a lot on his toes" because of his run-blocking background. That hasn't been an issue this spring.
"I think the emphasis for him this year was to sit back more and learn how to play in a more balanced stance in the run and pass game," Kelly said of Jackson. "And I think he's done a great job of that so far. He still can blow most people off the ball in the run game, but he can also protect in the passing game, so he's done a great job."
Kelly, one of only three seniors on the offensive line, said the next wave of linemen are young, but not afraid to really get after whomever they have to block.
"Pretty much every guy, especially on the offensive line, has just been doing a great job and making a lot of strides, especially in that second scrimmage," Kelly said. "In the first scrimmage (they) were really getting after guys and pretty much holding their own against the ones. So those guys are doing a great job."
One of the young players, in terms of offensive line experience, who has surprised has been Korren Kirven. Kirven made the switch to offensive line after three years of playing defensive line. Now, he's serving as one of the reserve left tackles. Kelly said it is a "testament to his athletic ability" in how Kirven has made the transition.
"He can open up his gates, his legs, really well, and he's really quick and agile," Kirven said. "He's got really long arms as well, so he can punch and bend really well. I think he knows leverage from playing defensive line for so long, I think it's helping him out a lot."
Overall, Saban has been pleased with the growth and development of the offensive line, adding that the group is "making progress." But Saban wants the unit to change its mindset.
"I think we have to get our offensive line to think that they're the reason that our offensive team is going to be successful and be able to do the things we're going to be capable of doing with the players that we have. I don't think that they've taken ownership of that part of it yet."
-- Contact Anniston Star Sports Writer Marq Burnett at mburnett @Marq_Burnett.