Big bodies and big personalities aside, Alabama's offensive line still has big expectations
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — They talked about it once, and that was the only time it’s going to get mentioned until December.
At least officially.
When it comes to the 2019 season, the University of Alabama football team has numerous goals, many of which don’t need to be mentioned. They include winning another Southeastern Conference title, making the College Football Playoff for the sixth straight year and capturing the national championship.
However, an additional one for the offensive line is to win the Joe Moore Award. The Crimson Tide has the first ever given out in 2015, all 350 pounds of it, making it easily the heaviest non-team trophy in collegiate sports.
This group wants another and for Alabama to be the first repeat winner of the most outstanding offensive line honor.
“You always want to be the best, but after last season we kind of feel that we fell off,” junior right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. said. “It’s a big motivator for us.”
Two games in, though, and the unit has a way to go in terms of playing as a cohesive unit, especially in the interior. Nick Saban has said he feels like he has seven starters, yet heading into Alabama’s SEC opener against South Carolina (Saturday 2:30 p.m. CT, CBS) the Crimson Tide has yet to set its starting five.
It had four players play center during the season opener. There’s been similar turnover at right guard. The players are also dealing with a new position coach Kyle Flood, new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and new blocking schemes/philosophies.
Things haven’t clicked, especially in the running game, and all signs point to it being at least a couple more weeks before the starting five is set.
The uncertainty aside, the unit has size, talent and a chip on their collective shoulders. Plus it still has plenty of time to pull it all together.
There are also two anchors on the end to build around with Willis, the lone starter in the same place as last year, and Alex Leatherwood, a junior who has stepped in at left tackle.
The former led the team with 50 knockdown blocks and allowed just one hit on the quarterback last season. Meanwhile, in order to get on the field as a sophomore, Leatherwood played away from his natural position at right guard and ended up voted second-team All-SEC by league coaches.
“It’s a bunch of variables that go into that and it’s all subjective to the player,” Leatherwood said about going from one side of the line to the other. “That player may have played there for most of their career. They may be right-hand dominant over left-hand dominant. It’s a bunch of things that go into it.”
Everyone saw what Leatherwood could do at left tackle during the 2017 title game when he came in as an injury replacement and made a big-time contribution to the come-from-behind overtime win over Georgia. However, he also learned a lot by playing at guard for a season.
“I feel like I see the big picture more,” he said.
As for the interior spots on the line, the Crimson Tide had so many options during fall camp that one seldom saw the same combination lining up together on consecutive days.
Winning the job at left guard was massive true freshman Evan Neal, who at 6-foot-7 doesn’t look like he weighs 360 pounds. A likely tackle down the road, he immediately gave the line a more intimidating presence, especially when considering the other linemen: senior Matt Womack (6-7, 325), redshirt junior Landon Dickerson (6-6, 308), redshirt junior Chris Owens (6-3, 315), redshirt freshman Emil Ekiyor Jr. (6-3, 327) and redshirt junior Deonte Brown (6-4, 338).
Yeah, it’s a big line. Maybe the biggest in Crimson Tide history.
“It’s crazy,” Wills said. “It’s like we have a great wall. It’s amazing.”
It’s not just that the players are tall (and they are), but they’re also thick and can move. Brown turned heads with his power last season and Dickerson, a graduate transfer from Florida State, showed up ready to contribute. Ekiyor is the most versatile, while Womack has the most experience.
He was on that 2015 team that won the Joe Moore Award, which had the starting five of Cam Robinson, Ross Pierschbacher, Ryan Kelly, Alphonse Taylor and Dominick Taylor. That was a big and powerful group as well, which helped Derrick Henry win the Heisman Trophy.
“We definitely want to establish a powerful run game,” Womack said. “If a defense watches us coming off the ball and hitting people, then they are going to be thinking about that going into a game. So we really want a defense to see how powerful we are.
“We’re trying to strive to be the best O-Line, and the only way to be the best O-Line is to do the best you can do.”
But having size and power doesn’t tell the whole story because it takes a lot more to play up front at this level. At times, Evans and Owens, at left guard and center, respectively, looked like they were making their first career starts against Duke. Ekiyor was sidelined by a knee injury and Brown is out two more weeks while serving a suspension (and is also dealing with a minor injury).
Womack spent a good part of Week 1 lining up as a blocking tight end, filling a major need for the offense, but started Week 2 at guard with Dickerson going from right guard to center. It may not be where he’s best suited to play, though.
Consequently, freshman Darrian Dalcourt, Alabama’s center of the future, is another player to keep an eye on as the Crimson Tide continues to work toward a solution.
That’s on the field. Off it, the unit has what you would expect: some big-time characters.
While Leatherwood describes Wills as “Mr. Personality” (and Wills says Brown is in that club as well), off the field the players are as different as their home states of Alabama Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina.
“We have a pretty diverse group of people,” Leatherwood said. “You have the super-serious [casual], you have the goofy cats. You’ve got the group that mixed with everyone. You have the mutes. You have all of them.
“I’m right dab in the middle. I’m a little bit of everything. I hang out with everyone.”
Leatherwood described it as a “super-cohesive” group, but not clicky, to which Wills agreed — even though he said his fellow tackle likes Japanese anime cartoons (“Weird,” Wills said with a laugh. “Very smart on and off the field. He’s one of my good friends”).
Get them all away from football and the linemen hang out a lot, doing everything from bowling to going out to eat together, and new position coach Kyle Flood has been known to have them over to his house for group events.
Of course, they also like playing video games even though everyone got sick of getting beat by Tua Tagovailoa in “Fortnite” (the quarterback has since stopped playing the game, though). After the football team got an early sneak peak at the new “Call of Duty” that will hit stores in October, Wills is eagerly awaiting its release.
“I have other people from other schools ask us how do we do that?” he said about the special perk the players received in July. “It’ not up to me, it’s just the program that we’ve got.”
That was followed by a team visit from Mike Tyson, who the linemen were surprised to see was shorter than their starting quarterback. They had the opposite reaction last year when 6-6 Kobe Bryant walked in the room.
“Kobe was pretty cool,” Wills said of the guest speaker. “My favorite one, though, was probably Deonte [Wilder]. He had like his crazy-like, weird energy in the room. So you’re like, what would it be like to fight him?”
Incidentally, Wilder, the WBC heavyweight champion since 2015, is also 6-7 but weighs about 100 pounds less than the average Alabama offensive lineman.
There obviously something to be said there about determinism.
“We’re locked in on what we need to do,” Leatherwood said.