Continuity has not been a strength of the University of Alabama’s offensive line thus far. Three different combinations have started in the six games thus far, not including the Ole Miss game when Deonte Brown was a featured substitute.
Continuity also has not been needed.
The UA offensive line is going into three straight SEC home games, starting Saturday against Tennessee, on the back of a run of improved offensive line play, to the tune of 5 yards per carry in each of the last three games. UA coach Nick Saban said earlier in the season that continuity would not be a prerequisite to success, and he’s been proven right.
“What happens in reality is you don’t always have the same five guys,” Saban said. “You want to have guys that have diversity and can play different positions, and those guys actually have to practice together in practice, so it’s not as uncommon, I think, that if you do have to move somebody around that these guys are out of touch with playing with the guy next to him.”
UA has found offensive line success through two factors: consistent execution and scheme.
Missed assignments were a regular occurrence in UA’s first games of the season, which was not surprising given UA had just two returning starters available for the first four games. Plus, one of the replacements was a freshman, season-long starting left guard Evan Neal.
As the assignment miscues improved over the opening weeks, it came down to individual technique.
“I’d say from a technique standpoint. Just trying to get all five guys to do the same thing on every single play and taking the right footwork that will minimize those errors,” right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. said. “I think we’re coming along well, especially collectively.”
Center Landon Dickerson added, “I mean, we’re really a unit. I don’t really think you can think at things individually. I think guys are progressing extremely well. We’re getting better and better each week, which is really all you ask for.”
Evidence of improved technique is shown in the diversity of scheme UA has deployed, which is where scheme comes in as a reason for the unit’s success. The players running the expanded scheme can’t prove it, but they can sense it.
“It’d be hard to say without looking at some numbers. It seems like we may have,” Dickerson said to if Alabama has pulled linemen more. “That really comes down to the game plan that’s put in place. It’s whatever the coaches want to call, really. If they feel like that’s going to give us the best chance to win or the best way to get a first down or whatever we need, that’s just what they’re going to call.”
The numbers support Dickerson’s hunch.
UA has played four Power 5 games this season, two in the first three weeks and two in the most recent three weeks. In the first two, against Duke and at South Carolina, UA used pulling linemen 14 times in each of those games to mixed results. Against Duke, UA averaged 2.3 yards per carry on plays with a pulled lineman, and one of those runs was a Tua Tagovailoa scramble away from pressure for a gain of three.
Against South Carolina, the pulling linemen were mostly used in RPOs that South Carolina influenced into passes, resulting in UA throwing 39 times compared to 25 runs that day.
In the last two games against Power 5 opponents, at home against Ole Miss and at Texas A&M, UA used pulling linemen 20 times each. It helped UA clobber Ole Miss to the tune of 5.2 yards per carry, 5.9 yards per carry on the 20 plays with a pulling linemen.
UA’s success with pulling linemen also helps when it uses them in the passing game: two of its three longest completions against Texas A&M featured a pulling lineman.
The result of consistent execution and expanded scheme is the Alabama offensive line finding the best version of itself, despite personnel shuffling. The shuffling could continue: Chris Owens is back in the mix now, after missing the Texas A&M game with a knee injury, and is a full participant in practice.
“Obviously we’ve had a lot of different combinations of guys, but whoever gets put on the field, it’s going to be the best five and we’re going to execute to the best of our ability,” Dickerson said. “I just have faith that anybody that steps in that rotation, they’re going to do that.”