Najee Harris noticed the change. The University of Alabama football team made a concerted effort to run the ball more against Southern Miss, and he said after the game it was more than a simple matchup decision.
“The offensive line, they took the challenge and did a wonderful job,” Harris said. “The O-Line did the best job they’ve ever done. If they keep up that level of play we’re going to be straight.”
It came one week after UA gave its running backs all of six carries in the first half at South Carolina. The explanation was a RPO-heavy offense combined with South Carolina’s game plan to create more passes than runs, but UA coach Nick Saban knew there would come a time when a strong rushing attack was required.
The offensive line rose to the challenge. There will be more to come.
“The offensive line, I think, has improved,” Saban said. “I thought we played the best we’ve played last week. I think we were more efficient in the running game, pass protection was pretty good for the most part. I think we’ll be much more challenged this week, so it’ll be interesting to see if we can continue to progress.”
That next challenge comes 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Ole Miss, and it will be just the beginning of more difficult challenges to come. UA is a day away from its first SEC West game, two weeks away from a trip to Texas A&M and a little more than a month away from its much-anticipated date with LSU, each one providing a more difficult blocking challenge than the last. All eyes will be on the offensive line Saturday for that reason, and for others.
Among the other reasons is Deonte Brown, who started a few games at left guard last season before being hit with a six-game NCAA suspension — the two College Football Playoff games last year and the first four games of this season. This week is his return to eligibility; he has practiced as the second-string right guard in the media viewing periods this week.
“Deonte is excited about playing,” Saban said. “It seems like he’s working hard. He certainly adds depth and will create competition inside for us at the guard positions, either one, and gives us a little more flexibility inside with the players.
“Well, the plan for every player on our team is the guy’s got to beat someone out if he wants to play. I mean, nobody’s entitled to play. If he gets in shape, he does what he’s supposed to do, he shows he’s better than somebody else who’s playing, that’s the plan. Just like it’s the plan for every other guy on the team. That’s really kind of up to him. It’s not up to me.”
The offensive line will remain a subject of intrigue, personnel aside.
UA turning to more designed runs last week meant more pulling linemen. Right guard Landon Dickerson was the most common puller, but there was one successful run play that saw right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. pull into the interior as a lead blocker.
“I think first of all if you have good initial quickness and you have explosive power, and you’ve got good balance and body control, those things are what’s going to help you pull, move, be under control,” Saban said. “I think one of the biggest things you see with players now who struggle in these areas, they don’t bend their lower body so they get sort of top heavy, bend at the waist, don’t have very good balance and body control so if the target moves at all, especially when they’re on the move, they have a hard time adjusting. Guys that can bend and strike are usually the best guys that can bull and block in space.”
UA’s use of more pulling guards indicated its dedication to the traditional run game, outside of the RPO structure, but it’s not possible without the Crimson Tide solving a consistent problem from its first weeks: stunting.
Duke in particular caused problems for Alabama’s new offensive line with stunts and movements in its front. Whatever the defense does, it’s on the offensive line to ensure no defender goes unblocked. The offensive line has come to accept it will be the subject of stunts going forward, and has adjusted accordingly.
“We know we’re going to get all sorts of stuff from every team we play. We prepare for everything and we’re not surprised by anything,” center Chris Owens said. “I’m not really a defensive wizard, I just know if they do it, we have to handle it.
“There’s a lot of things we can do. Basically when you key in on somebody, you have to pick them up, you can’t rely on someone else to pick up your man just because they left the gap. So as long as you just take care of your responsibility and everyone takes care of their responsibilities, we have 10 hats on other hats, the ball carrier will be fine.”
Owens, as the center, is responsible for organizing UA’s offensive line to abnormal pressures. It’s a big task for the first-time starter, but he says he has a group of smart players around him that make the job easier.
That job is clearly changing, as UA shows early signs of dedicating itself to its run game. The coming weeks will test that dedication, just as it will test the mettle of the group tasked with establishing it.
“If (offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian) wants to put an emphasis on it, we want to put an emphasis on it because we can’t always rely on two-, three-play drives, sometimes you have to grind it out,” Owens said. “When that situation comes, we have to be ready to run the ball and take care of it so it opens up the passing game even more.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or email@example.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson