TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If there's been one big takeaway from Alabama's first two scrimmages of the preseason, it's this: The offensive line hasn't developed as quickly or as well as Nick Saban would have wanted. The Crimson Tide's notoriously critical head coach has seen his starting five work for the better part of three weeks this preseason and while he's not been entirely disappointed with the group as whole, he'd like to see some improvement for the offense to get to where it needs to be in time for the season opener against Virginia Tech on Aug. 31.
Straddling a podium in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Saban explained.
"Well, I wasn’t real pleased with the way they played today, to be honest with you," he told reporters. "I’ve always been really pleased with the way our offensive line has played and progressed, but I thought today we didn’t get a lot of movement. Too many times we had a soft pocket, we got pressure in the pocket, made some mental errors up front, had a couple false starts -- things that our offensive line typically has not done.
"So hopefully this will be something they can learn from and improve on and we’ll get better and continue to progress."
To be fair, a learning curve should have been expected. The process of replacing three All-SEC starters, not to mention the position coach, is never easy and rarely swift. Frankly, it's surprising that similar comments from Saban haven't been made before now. It was all sunshine and lollipops in April, but clouds have gathered of late.
Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen continue to be anchors at left tackle and right guard, respectively, and Ryan Kelly has been a stalwart at center, essentially beginning his transition to the starting lineup during bowl practices last December when Barrett Jones was sidelined with a foot injury.
But if and where Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd will start is still up for debate. Arie, who worked with the first team at left guard throughout spring, spent time at right tackle last week, and Shepherd, who played primarily at right tackle through the spring and early fall, split time with Kellen Williams at left guard.
"We feel like he's one of our best offensive linemen now," Saban said of Arie a week ago, sounding all-in on his move to tackle. "He's really done a good job. He's played tackle all of his life. We actually moved him to guard because we thought maybe because of his knees that it would affect his mobility, but as he improved we said, 'Why aren't we playing this guy at tackle?' He has all of his mobility back and he's really playing well."
Tuesdays practice looked different, though, as Kouandjio went back to left guard and Shepherd back to right tackle.
So where are things with less than two weeks remaining before the start of the season?
Steen said the line isn't necessarily behind, but he hoped the chemistry was further along than it is now. He said it's disappointing but, "We obviously aren't where we need to be."
“It’s been a little difficult," he said. "Shepherd has a little different footwork than Arie (Kouandjio), but it’s nothing I can’t adjust to. Arie was a little different at power blocking than Shepherd was and he was a little different than Shepherd was at pass protection, but it wasn’t anything too difficult.
"The season starts you get to know each other a little better, get the feel of everyone around you, and everything starts to click and we all get along with each other.”
Establishing chemistry, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier explained, will be vital to the offensive line's success. So many of last season's starters had played together before and knew how to work with one another. Getting that kind of camaraderie with this group will only come with time.
"I don’t think people talk enough about the chemistry and the communication -- both verbal and non-verbal -- that happens up front," he said. "You see most good football teams have the ability to consistently play with the same group up front. That’s what we’re trying to do, is get as many reps with those guys as we can.
"We’ve got great competition up front. The guys are competing extremely hard. And then it’s about getting guys in different groups so that they’re working with different guys next to them, because there is so much communication that happens so fast that you’ve got to get repetition."
With less than two weeks remaining before the start of the season, there aren't many reps left. For Alabama to be a championship contender, the offensive line needs to find itself in a hurry.