TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If you were to ask Alabama quarterback Mac Jones whom he owes his success to this season, near the top of his list of key contributors would be his offensive line.
And he’d be right.
So far this season, the Crimson Tide’s front five have been immensely successful. Between center Landon Dickerson, left tackle Alex Leatherwood, left guard Deonte Brown, right guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. and right tackle Evan Neal, Alabama’s big guys up front have been a force against defensive lines all season.
Through seven games, Alabama has given up just 11 sacks for 73 yards, paving the way for Jones’ success in the air by giving him time to find his targets. Moreover, the line has also cleared the path for the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack, which averages 4.8 yards per carry or 182.4 yards per game.
According to Brown, this year’s success can be attributed to the team’s experience, especially when compared to years past.
“We have three seniors and one true sophomore that started as a true freshman and the newcomer that is also smart and very athletic," Brown said. "I would probably say just the age. We’ve been around football a lot so our chemistry is easily built and we roll with it.”
One stat that is most often attributed to quarterbacks — and rightfully so — is interceptions. While the quarterback is more often than not the individual responsible for opposing picks, hurries and pressure caused by a struggling offensive line can highly impact a quarterback’s performance on the field.
So far this season, Jones has only had two interceptions — the same amount he tossed in the Iron Bowl last year. Part of that can certainly be contributed to Jones’ improvement as the Crimson Tide signal caller, but it also goes back to Alabama’s solid performance in the trenches.
Dickerson agrees with Brown, citing experience as a key factor in this year’s performance against the various defensive fronts of the SEC.
“We’ve played a good amount of football games before this year, and it’s really about refining our craft and doing things until we can’t do them wrong instead of doing things until we get it right,” Dickerson said. “It’s at this point where we just really work on consistency, fundamentals, details, technique every day and just focus on getting better as players individually and as a team as a whole.“
On Saturday, in-state rival Auburn will arrive in Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl. The Tigers have averaged six tackles for a loss (enough for 62nd in the nation) and two sacks per game (64th in the nation).
Compare that to Georgia’s defense, which Alabama soundly handled in the trenches, the Bulldogs are ranked 22nd in the country with 18 sacks.
Brown believes that despite those below-average stats from the Auburn defensive front, it is still a force to be reckoned with.
“They’re all around a good defense,” Brown said. “They’ve been playing well the past couple of weeks. They’re just big guys. They’re very physical as the point of attack.”
Alabama has faced more intimidating offensive lines than Auburn, though. And with Alabama only allowing an average of 4.5 tackles for loss per game from opposing defenses, the Tigers’s hopes of providing consistent disruption up front does not appear promising.
But let’s go back to leadership and experience.
One name brought up more than others in the leadership department on Alabama’s offensive line has been senior Leatherwood. The Pensacola, Fla. product has earned compliment’s from Alabama coach Nick Saban.
“I think Alex probably does as much as anybody from the example that he sets, how he competes, how he plays,” Saban said. “He’s a little bit of a quiet guy but certainly leads by example and has done a really, really good job of that all year long, on and off the field. I think he’s demonstrated that the team is really important to him. The players on the team are important to him.
“He’s really matured nicely and played very consistently for us. But I think the big thing is he leads by example and really sets a good example for the other players.”
At the critical left tackle position, Leatherwood has provided a presence all season that has been tough to overcome. However, according to Brown, Leatherwood is always willing to take the time to assist in improving his fellow linemen’s technique.
“He’s a great leader but it’s mostly like off the field,” Brown said. “Well, not even off the field like other games like in practice and stuff he’ll get us going and he still helps me with some technique stuff that I might ask him. He’s a real good technician so he helps me and other guys however he can.”