TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s a typical retooling by Alabama during the Nick Saban era.
The Crimson Tide arguably had the best offensive lineman in college football last season, along with another final finalist for the Rimington Award for the game’s best center. Both were taken in the NFL draft, bringing Alabama’s total of drafted offensive linemen selected since 2009 up to 15, including six first-round picks.
Yet, depending who wins the starting jobs, Alabama could come back with an even bigger offensive line in 2019.
The easiest offseason decision the Crimson Tide coaches may have had was to plug junior Alex Leatherwood in at left tackle during the spring. Jonah Williams had manned the position for two years after playing right tackle for a season as a freshman, but Leatherwood filled in admirably after Williams was sidelined by an injury during the national championship game at the end of the 2017 season.
Leatherwood played out of position last season, lining up at right guard in order to get on the field. Tackle is where he is most comfortable, and can really excel.
“Alex played left tackle before in the national championship game and played it his whole freshman year,” Nick Saban said. “We’re just trying to get our five best guys there and he made the sacrifice to go play guard for a year.”
Right tackle is also set as Jedrick Wills Jr. was one of the most underrated players on the team in 2018. He ended up yielding just one sack and one hit on the quarterback in 15 games.
Alabama plays a premium on the center position — like Barrett Jones switching from left tackle to center for his senior year even though he had just won the Outland Trophy in 2011 —which helps explain why Ross Pierschbacher switched after being a three-year starter at guard (two on the left side and one on the right).
Chris Owens, a 6-3, 310-pound redshirt junior stepped in during the spring and didn’t seem to falter.
“I think the issue is making sure that the center position is solidified,” Saban added. “Chris Owens has done a good job there so far, but that’s the thing that we have to make sure to develop, the depth and the consistency, because we’ve been very fortunate to have some very experienced good players play in that position in the past.”
That leaves the guard positions, which may not be settled by the end of fall camp.
Deonte Brown is a promising and impressive guard who won the left guard starting position midway through the 2018 schedule only to limp to the end of the season with a painful turf toe injury and then was suspended for the College Football Playoff for violating an NCAA rule.
The powerful Brown, listed as 6-4, 344 pounds, will miss the first month of the season. He spent the spring working with the second-team line at right guard, but started A-Day due to injuries.
Meanwhile, former starting right tackle Matt Womack, who had repetitive problems with a foot fracture last year, spent most of the spring at right guard. He’s listed at 6-7, 325 pounds.
Redshirt freshman Emil Ekiyor Jr. was a key reserve last season, both at center and guard, and is challenging to start at left guard.
However, there are two players to watch.
The first is early enrollee Evan Neal.
At 6-7, 360 pounds, he was considered one of the top prospects in the nation and a consensus 5-star talent. He took snaps with the first-team line at times during the spring, and may be the kind of player who is simply too good not to play.
Neal might not be quite as imposing as D.J. Fluker when he first arrived, but even if Neal doesn’t land a starting job right away he and some of the other new additions will add immediate depth to a unit that goes three-deep plus across the board.
The other player to keep an eye on is Landon Dickerson.
If you’re wondering who that is, and why he’s not on the roster, Dickerson has played his entire collegiate career at Florida State, but is reportedly poised to join the Crimson Tide as a graduate transfer.
Per NoleGameday.com., which cited a source close to the lineman, he chose Alabama over his former head coach Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M. Dickerson is listed as 6 foot 6, 320 pounds, and has had injury issues with the Seminoles.
Among the reserves, redshirt junior Scott Lashley, who is also 6-7, can be the primary backup for either tackle. Tommy Brown, also 6-7 and a top recruit last year, is still filling out, but spent the spring on the second-team.
Among the freshmen, early enrollee Darrian Dalcourt is already an option at center. Pierce Quick, a highly-touted prospect who anchored the line at Hewitt-Trussville High School, where Paul Tyson was the quarterback, is a strong long-term prospect. Amari Knight, listed as 6-7, 305 pounds, and played last year at Thompson High School along with quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, is another.
“Some of the young guys — Evan Neal, Dalcourt —I feel pretty good about that group,” Saban said. “They’ve got to develop probably more consistency in what they’re doing, but I feel pretty good about that group and I feel good about the progress they’ve made.”
Saban also called the transition of Kyle Flood, the former head coach at Rutgers who was hired to oversee the offensive line, “seamless.” Flood was most recently with the Atlanta Falcons, where he current Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian held the same title.
“Definitely a great learning experience,” Wills said about his new position coach. “His knowledge of the game and how long he’s been in it, and especially being at a high level NFL. I think it’s something to advance our game.”
This is the fourth story in a summer series previewing the 2019 Crimson Tide: