A year ago, it was arguably Alabama’s biggest question.
The offensive line carried the burden of replacing three dominating players and protecting a first-year quarterback.
Now, 14 games and a national title later, that group did its share of answering critics. Much bigger issues face other Crimson Tide units, most notably on the other side of the ball, but the offensive line still has a few considerable holes to patch.
None is bigger than the one left by Mike Johnson, and not just because of his blocking ability.
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Each of the new starters last year praised Johnson for his fatherly influence in practice, in the film room and everywhere else help was needed.
Who fills the leadership role is still up in the air, but quarterback Greg McElroy recognizes the strides made by the younger offensive linemen.
“They are really starting to pick it up mentally which is the biggest thing for the offensive line,” he said. “Physically, all these guys are big and strong and athletic. It’s just the mental aspect of keeping your head in the right position and the communication. That’s what’s difficult for the younger guys.”
There will be three fresh faces on the first-team line in Saturday’s 3 p.m. A-Day Game, but only two will remain by the fall. Returning starting center William Vlachos is still recovering from offseason foot surgery, so right guard Barrett Jones and left tackle James Carpenter will be the only starters playing Saturday. David Ross has been Vlachos’ stand-in at center this spring.
Who permanently fills the jobs that belonged to Drew Davis at right tackle and Johnson at left guard remains up in the air.
At left guard, Chance Warmack and John Michael Boswell have emerged as replacements for Johnson.
On the other side, right tackle candidates include D.J. Fluker and Tyler Love.
But as is Nick Saban’s spring philosophy, players rotate and try different combinations so naming starting jobs is a long way off.
“I guess we’re trying to find that gel like we had last year,” Jones said. “We had the five guys who worked really well together. So we are trying a lot of different combinations to get that fit.”
Though it’s hard to read too much into the statistics released from the two closed scrimmages held this spring, the line appeared to struggle in last Saturday’s run-through. The defense sacked the quarterback 11 times including five by Marcell Dareus.
Still, there is no rush to solidify a starting five.
“At some point in time, it’s important to get continuity,” Saban said. “But I don’t think we’re at that point yet. So we want to continue to develop as many players as we can and give them an opportunity to play in different places that lends itself to creating more flexibility in the future.”