Starters:Jonah Williams, Lester Cotton Sr., Ross Pierschbacher, Matt Womack /Alex Leatherwood/Jedrick WillsJr.
Backups: Richie Petitbon, Deonte Brown, Chris Owens, Kendall Randolph, Scott Lashley, Elliot Baker, Joshua Casher, Hunter Brannon
New arrivials: Emil Ekiyor, Tommy Brown.
One can understand if there were times that Ross Pierschbacher may have felt like he was on a new team this past spring.
Even though Alabama was returning four offensive linemen from last year’s national championship team, only one was in the same spot and it wasn’t the senior from Iowa. Lining up someplace new isn’t unusual for the Crimson Tide, as Nick Saban’s teams have always been known to experiment to try and find the best combination, this was like someone shaking up an Etch A Sketch.
“Having guys being able to play multiple roles, if an injury comes along, some guys will have to fill in and play at a high level,” he said. “Even for NFL scouts, just showing that you can play more than one position can help you in the league, and yeah, you just have to able to play more than one position. So, having guys that can play multiple positions will really help us in the long run and create depth along the line.”
It didn’t help in the spring, which is why some people are questioning how good the line will be. In terms of potential, though, the it could end up being very, very good.
With Bradley Bozeman the lone departure among the starting five the top priority was to find a new center, a position that Alabama always considers extremely important as not only does the player have to snap the ball but make and call out all pre-snap line adjustments.
The Crimson Tide has had two Rimington Award winners for the nation’s best center during the Saban era, and every starter has been a finalist for the honor.
Jonah Williams was thought to be an option there, especially since Barrett Jones went from left tackle to center after winning the Outland Trophy in 2011, but coaches instead opted for the player who had been at left guard the past couple of years, Pierschbacher.
If there’s a familiarity to that, during the 2016 offseason Pierschbacher prepared to make the switch and take over for Ryan Kelly, a first-round draft pick by the Indianapolis Colts. But roughly a week before the season opener he was back at left guard and Bozeman inserted.
This time it looks like it’ll stick.
“We’re fortunate to have a guy after Boze leaves who can step in at center,” Williams said. “He has four years of experience and played center a few years ago the whole offseason. I think he definitely brings a lot of leadership to that position.”
To fill Pierschbacher’s spot coaches made yet another change, swapping senior Lester Cotton Sr. over to the left from where he started at right guard in 2017. Factor in that starting right tackle Matt Womack missed the spring with a foot injury and the right side of the line ended up with new faces — albeit belonging to two very talented up-and-coming sophomore linemen.
Alex Leatherwood and Patrick Wills Jr. may already be too good to keep in the bench. Leatherwood was the one to step in for injured Williams during the title-game comeback, and finished the spring at right tackle with Wills at right guard.
“We have to find out where the best combinations are, and if we lose players who gives us the best option to get the best players on the field next year,” Saban said. “That becomes a bit of a work in progress when you move guys around.
“You can’t just assume just because a guy can play tackle that when he goes and play guard it’s not going to take some reps. Things happen a little quicker inside and you have to be able to react a little better.”
So far, Williams has been the exception to that, staying at left tackle, although he did play his freshman season at right tackle. He gained almost 15 pounds from the end of last season, and might have a shot at the Outland Trophy for best interior lineman.
Although known for being a self-motivator, he had a little extra incentive during the offseason after being sidelined when the national title was on the line.
Williams, who started every game during his first two seasons with the Crimson Tide, suffered both a high-ankle sprain and a ruptured deltoid early in the third quarter of the 26-23 overtime win. There was no chance of him returning to the game no matter how much he wanted to.
“It’s been a big motivation for me,” he said. “I want to make the most of the opportunity when I do have the chance again to play in the fall, and just not leave anything out there because you never know when it’s your last play.”
Even if sophomoreTua Tagovailoa becomes the starter at quarterback, there’s no indication that Williams would go back to right tackle, where he was named a Freshman All-American in 2016,to protect the left-hander’s blind side.
“I wouldn’t say there’s no chance because we want the five best out there, but I’m very comfortable at left tackle,” said Williams who was named All-SEC as a sophomore.
The only time Williams didn’t line up at left tackle last season was against Mercer, when for a handful of snaps the coaches had him at guard working alongside Leatherwood, who is more of a natural left tackle. Considering what happened during the National Championship Game it paid off and helped give the freshman the necessary confidence to step in at such a crucial time.
“Alex played great in the national championship game when he had to go in there for Jonah,” Saban said.
As for depth, Alabama had reserves Dallas Warmack and Brandon Kennedy transfer out in hopes of landing starting jobs with other teams. Kennedy was the backup center, but Alabama has other players who can fill that role like Chris Owens.
Other reserves like tackle Scott Lashley are still waiting for their chance. They include Richie Petitbon, Deonte Brown and Joshua Casher, who spent part of the spring lining up as the first-team left guard. Versatility is considered the key with some of them, and their best chance to get on the field.
This is the third story in a seriespreviewing every Alabama position group for the 2018 season: