This is the second in a six-part series looking ahead to the start of Alabama’s spring football practice.
Countdown to Spring: Part I Quarterbacks

It wasn’t a classical Alabama offensive line in 2016. The results were good enough, but the ability to run the ball in between the tackles, like has been seen from Crimson Tide’s offenses since 2008, wasn’t the same.

The offense relied more on perimeter runs, and part of that was due to freshman Jalen Hurts’ ability to effectively run zone keepers on the outside. But partly the change was due to the interior of the offensive line, particularly at the guard spots, where the line didn’t get as much movement or show as much power as seen in previous seasons.

The right guard position saw four different starters. That revolving door in a search for the best fit lasted essentially all season. Three starters return this season and a lot of unproven talent exists for offensive line coach Brent Key to work with. The right guard position will be one of the more intriguing position battles of the offseason.

Intrigue level: 5

*Intrigue level is rated on a scale of 1-5 based on competition, number of starting spots available at a respective position and growth needed for a position

The tackles

Jonah Williams received rave reviews from his coaches, teammates and those around the country who appreciate offensive line play. The true freshman played like anything but as he exhibited footwork and technical savvy that takes most players years in a college program to acquire. He started all 15 games at right tackle but there are many who assume he will switch to left tackle this season. Regardless of where he starts, he’ll take one of the tackle spots.

There is no shortage of talent in the competitors who will compete for the other tackle position, including Lester Cotton (who can play guard or tackle), Alex Leatherwood, Scott Lashley, Matt Womack and Elliot Baker.

Cotton earned some playing time at guard last season but he may be more natural at tackle. Lashley has earned positive remarks behind the scenes and Leatherwood is a talented true freshman who can play tackle or guard, depending on how things shake out during the competition. Baker is a junior college transfer and Womack was a back-up a season ago.

The interior

Ross Pierschbacher started the season at right guard after experimenting at center during last spring, but he ultimately moved back to left guard, where he played the entire 2015 season. How much he’s moved around this season remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him stay at left guard.

As for right guard, it’s a full-on competition. Leatherwood, the true freshman, might get a look inside if someone else nails down the other tackle spot. Like with the tackles, there is no shortage of bodies that are capable of competing for a guard position, including Chris Owens, Dallas Warmack, Josh Casher, Cotton, Brandon Kennedy and Deonte Brown.

UA coach Nick Saban labeled starting center Bradley Bozeman as the team’s unsung hero and he did a solid job there all season. It will be an upset if Bozeman doesn’t hang on to his starting job this season. His backup is J.C. Hassenauer.

The outlook

The competition for the starting five should be fierce. There are three returning starters from a season ago, but outside of Williams, there should be steady daily competition. Alabama needs to improve the interior of its offensive line to get more power and movement to help in the running game.

There are plenty of powerful guys to choose from, but as any former offensive lineman will tell you, it’s about finding the five guys that fit the best together, not necessarily the five best offensive linemen.

Normally replacing a player of Cam Robinson’s ilk is always worrisome, but Williams was so sound his freshman season that those fears have been allayed to a certain extent. He will be the tone setter this year on the line.

A couple of young players to watch who will loom large during the competition for starting roles are Lashley, Leatherwood and Owens.

Reach Aaron Suttles at aaron@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0229.

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