Alabama's new o-line has big shoes to fill

Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

The expectations for Cyrus Kouandjio are high in 2013.Alabama’s chances for a second-straight BCS Championship were starting to look bleak. The Tide trailed Georgia 21-10 with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter of the SEC Championship. The Bulldogs had just returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown and had the momentum on their side.

Normally in this situation, a team would put the ball in the hands of their superstar quarterback. Alabama did the opposite. It turned to its power running game, led by one of the most dominating offensive lines in college football history.

The line featured the same starters for all 14 games last season: D.J. Fluker (11th overall pick by the Chargers), Chance Warmack (10th overall pick by the Titans), Barrett Jones (fourth round pick by the Rams and the 2011 Outland Trophy winner), Cyrus Kouandjio (No. 4 on Mel Kiper’s Big Board for the 2014 draft) and Anthony Steen.

Steen might be the most unheralded of the group, but according to TideNation’s Alex Scarborough, he was the only one that did not commit a penalty or allow a sack last season.

Behind these five men, the Tide ran on 20 of its next 22 plays, gaining 167 yards and scoring two touchdowns. It was old-school power football at its finest.

On the 23rd play, Georgia played a single high safety to help protect against the run. Alabama went play action. The result was a 45-yard touchdown pass from AJ McCarron to Amari Cooper. The Tide never trailed again all season.

The OL’s impact:

When asked about his team’s performance in the SEC Championship, Fluker said, “we just said, ‘We can’t be stopped and are going to run the ball down their throats,' and that’s what we did today.”

As Fluker noted, Alabama’s running game was unstoppable. The Tide averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season, sixth best in FBS. They gained at least five yards on a FBS-high 49.2 percent of their rushes and had a SEC-high 107 carries that gained at least 10 yards.

The line’s direct impact on the running game is difficult to quantify, but there is no denying that they opened massive holes in opposing defenses. Alabama’s running backs averaged an SEC-high 4.1 yards per rush before first contact and were not touched until at least five yards past the line of scrimmage on 34.6 percent of their carries.

It was not only the running backs that benefited. AJ McCarron led the country in passing efficiency in part because he had 13 touchdowns and no interceptions when throwing off play action.

More importantly for McCarron, the line held up in pass protection. Alabama allowed a combined 53 quarterback hurries and knockdowns, 15 fewer than any other SEC school.

Big changes for the OL in 2013:

(LT) Cyrus Kouandjio and (RG) Anthony Steen are the only two returning starters from last season’s offensive line.

The Tide have several options to put beside Kouandjio and Steen. Ryan Kelly appeared in nine games and was on the 2012 SEC all-freshman team. Arie Kouandjio, Cyrus’ older brother, appeared in 10 games, as did Austin Shepherd. Kellen Williams is a senior, who has seen action in 17 games during his career.

Another potential starter is Leon Brown, a junior college transfer, who was rated No. 50 in the Rivals.com JUCO Top 50 for 2012. None of them have started a game at Alabama.

The task of converting these players into a cohesive unit falls to new offensive line coach, Mario Cristobal. Cristobal was the former head coach at Florida International and was an offensive tackle at the University of Miami from 1989 to 1992.

Alabama’s reconstructed line will be tested right out of the gate.

In Week 1, Alabama faces a Virginia Tech defense that ranked in the top six of FBS in both negative plays forced and quarterback pressures (hurries + knockdowns).