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Alabama offensive line's maturation key to matchup with Texas A&M

Photo: Scott Donaldson/Icon SMI

Center Ryan Kelly (70) is one of three new starters on the Crimson Tide's offensive line in 2013.

They wandered around the Georgia Dome field with bug-eyed, what-just-happened looks on their faces, as if trying to comprehend all that had transpired in the previous three and a half hours against Virginia Tech on Aug. 31. The five starting offensive linemen for Alabama -- junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, junior left guard Arie Kouandjio (Cyrus' older brother), sophomore center Ryan Kelly, senior right guard Anthony Steen and junior right tackle Austin Shepherd -- had struggled against the Hokies, and now they wanted to head to the locker room following the Crimson Tide's 35-10 victory. Then an Alabama official told Steen that the team had to stick around for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game trophy presentation.

"Man, let's just get out of here," Steen said to no one in particular.

Steen and company definitely weren't in the mood to celebrate after their performance against Virginia Tech. The Tide gained only 206 total yards against the Hokies, including just 96 rushing yards on 38 carries (an average of 2.5 yards per rush) a season after 'Bama averaged 226.5 yards per game on the ground, 12th nationally. Now the offensive line is top-ranked Alabama's biggest question mark as it prepares to play No. 6 Texas A&M on Saturday in College Station. For the past 10 days, the Crimson Tide's offensive front has been dissected countless times on sports talk radio shows in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. In the Yellowhammer State, the topic seems to be freighted with same level of import as matters of national security.

In his press conference on Monday, Alabama coach Nick Saban emphasized the need for better communication among the rebuilt line, which features three new starters in 2013 (Arie Kouandjio, Kelly and Shepard). "We need to have faith, trust and confidence in what we're doing, but we need to communicate it and have trust in that, too -- and each other, so that we can all play with confidence," Saban said. "And I think that's going to take some time to develop, but I also think we're capable of doing it much better than we did."

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The leader of the line is Cyrus Kouandjio, the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder who appeared to improve with every snap in 2012. By last season's end, many pro scouts believed he was a future top-10 NFL draft pick. But Kouandjio looked a step slow against the Hokies. He was flagged for two holding calls and was repeatedly beaten around the edge by Virginia Tech defensive end J.R. Collins. "It was a bit sloppy," Kouandjio said after the game, noting that the Hokies' defense had confused 'Bama's offensive line with pre-snap shifting and gap-hitting blitzes. "We have a lot of things to work on."

Kelly, the center, admitted that he missed some calls against Virginia Tech, and that the line was out of position at times. The question becomes: Will the line play better against the Aggies on Saturday?

A&M's defense has looked shaky in its opening games against Rice and Sam Houston State, two teams that will never be confused with Alabama and its roster of former four- and five-star recruits. The Aggies have given up an average of 273 yards on the ground and 899 total yards. Still, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin hasn't sounded particularly concerned about his group this week.

Why? The Aggies were without three defensive starters serving suspensions for the first two games (linebacker Steven Jenkins, defensive end Gavin Stansbury and cornerback De'Vante Harris). As a result, Sumlin said, the defense has been "vanilla." Against Alabama in Week 3, A&M plans to unveil multiple new formations and blitz packages. The manner in which the Tide line responds to these changes will undoubtedly be one of the keys to the game.

Though quarterback AJ McCarron was sacked four times against Virginia Tech -- Alabama quarterbacks were sacked only 23 times all of last season -- McCarron was adamant after the game that better, more dominating days lay ahead for the offensive line. "It's only the first game and I have 100 percent confidence in all of those guys," McCarron said. "The great thing is we'll all learn from this game. We'll be fine. We'll be fine."

Last season, the Crimson Tide's line featured three All-Americas: center Barrett Jones, tackle D.J. Fluker, and guard Chance Warmack. That talented group was the engine that powered Alabama to its third national title in four years. To stay atop the summit of the sport -- and to win the most anticipated game of the 2013 college football season -- the Tide's young front wall will need to grow up. Fast.

SI Now: Expectations for Texas A&M-'Bama
Maggie Gray and Andy Staples discuss the upcoming Texas A&M-Alabama game.

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