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July 30, 2012

Fall camp preview: Offensive line

Tidesports.com's annual fall camp preview begins with a look at the what is likely the team's strongest unit, the offensive line. Throughout the week before practice begins, Tidesports will take a close look at both lines of scrimmage, as well as the skill positions on both sides of the ball.

D.J. Fluker, Barrett Jones and Cyrus Kouandjio will be key players in Alabama's 2012 offensive line.

The tackles
Technically, the Crimson Tide enters camp with a first-year starter in Cyrus Kouandjio at the left tackle position that is crucial for pass protection. But on more than one occasion, UA coach Nick Saban has said the sophomore is a starter-quality player. Kouandjio's playing time at left tackle was on the rise last year until an October knee injury ended his season early. His recovery was quick, however, and he worked full speed with the starters throughout spring drills. On the other side, UA returns D.J. Fluker, who will be a third-year starter on the right side. Fluker (at left) had an outstanding season as a sophomore a year ago, particularly in the run-blocking part of his game. Sources indicate Fluker has maintained good conditioning throughout the summer and is primed for another big year.

The interior
It starts with new starting center Barrett Jones, who was UA's backup center last season and saw limited game action at the position. This fall, the fourth-year starter must not only play the position, but find a comfort level with it as well. Two years of experience as a starting guard will help that process as much or more than the limited action he saw at center last year. Jones (at right) recently said snapping the ball has been the biggest adjustment. At guard, Alabama returns Chance Warmack, who with 26 career starts is the team's second-most experienced offensive lineman, on the left side. Anthony Steen, who was a part-time starter at right guard last year along with the departed Alfred McCullough, returns on the right side.

Key Reserves
The development of backup tackle Austin Shepherd (at right) will be important in camp as the Crimson Tide looks to build depth behind a starting line that could face heavy turnover after the season. Shepherd, a third-year sophomore, has spent practice time working on the right side behind Fluker. He played in seven games last year. The competition behind Jones at center will be an interesting one as well. Backups such as Kellen Williams, Chad Lindsay and Ryan Kelly have seen practice time at the position. Finally, third-year sophomore Arie Kouandjio looks to rebound from knee trouble and has logged practice time at both guard and tackle.

What must be done
By the end of spring drills, it appeared that Jones and Cyrus Kouandjio (at right) had taken to their roles at center and left tackle, respectively, quite well. Whatever might be key in their continued development -- be it improved technique for Jones at a new position, enhanced knowledge of the system for Kouandjio as a new starter, or anything else -- fall camp will be the time to hammer any loose nails. Also, will Alabama be able to identify a versatile reserve who can be counted on at multiple positions the way Alfred McCullough was a year ago? Finding someone who can play both center and guard is one thing, but finding one who can be effective at both guard and tackle can be a little tougher.

The fact that three-fifths of Alabama's offensive line is on the Outland Trophy watch list (Warmack, Fluker, Jones), including the defending winner (Jones), says all that needs be said about the kind of preseason respect this unit has earned. The five that exited spring drills as the first team have a combined 95 career starts between them. Given a healthy season for each, that number will be 150 by the time the 2012 Iron Bowl kicks off. Steen (at left) made significant improvement in 2011. Although UA can ill-afford to lose any of the starters to an injury, the starters project as the potentially the best unit in the Southeastern Conference. Critical will be Cyrus Kouandjio's continued development at left tackle.

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