Even on the biggest stage, sometimes it’s like no one is watching.
Over the summer Alabama’s quarterback battle dominated the headlines, but it didn’t matter too much to the fan base. Jake Coker, Alec Morris, David Cornwell, Cooper Bateman or even Blake Barnett — it seemed, at times, that all Alabama needed was a quarterback that could hand the ball off and get out of the way.
Alabama’s not-so-secret ingredient, running back Derrick Henry, would take the pressure off of the quarterback. Add in two helpings of talented defensive players and a pinch of Kenyan Drake and Alabama’s recipe for success seemed complete.
On Saturday, Alabama took down No. 20 Wisconsin in the only opening week game featuring two ranked teams. The Crimson Tide scored four of five touchdowns on the ground with running back Derrick Henry supplying a personal best three-touchdown performance.
Just like the fans expected, Derrick Henry inspired plenty of headlines when he gashed Wisconsin for 147 yards, but as talented as he might be, Henry didn’t average over 11 yards per carry on his own.
“Offensive line did a great job,” Henry said. “They did a great job in that game, and I thank them for it, and I know as the season goes on they’ll get better and better.”
When the offensive line took the field on Saturday, only center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson had started more than two games for Alabama. While fans had confidence in Henry and Drake, the offensive line was responsible for making the lanes, and the ultimate key was Kelly.
“My appreciation for Ryan Kelly is absolutely through the roof, man,” Robinson said. “Everything that he does is behind the scenes.”
Kelly is the unquestioned leader of what is likely Alabama’s most important unit. Having a new quarterback behind him makes his role even more critical. Before the Wisconsin game Kelly said he looked forward to a physical contest on the big stage.
Kelly and the line delivered, but they don’t play for headlines. They will rarely—if ever—get them.
The line has a standard to meet. Over the last six years, four Alabama running backs have taken a turn at being the lead back. All four guys have finished at least one season with over 1,000 yards on the ground while averaging at least six yards per carry.
Left guard Ross Pierschbacher started in his first collegiate game next to Kelly on Saturday. Kelly’s influence as a leader will be critical to his development. The guy on the other side can attest to that.
“[Kelly] was a lot of help [last season],” Robinson said. “They didn’t put a lot of pressure on me like, ‘Man, you’re a freshman starting.’ They just treated me like I was another one of the guys. I think that was very big and influential, and part of the reason I guess I did pretty well.”
There is also inexperience on the right side of the line. Right tackle Dominick Jackson also got his first start on Saturday and Alphonse Taylor started his third game for the Crimson Tide. Bradley Bozeman might start in Taylor’s place as they are listed as co-starters on the depth chart, but Bozeman only has two collegiate starts under his belt as well.
“It’s different, just like quarterback switching as well,” Kelly said. “It’s kind of hard to get used to at first, but you start to get used to both guys and what they do differently.”
As good as Alabama’s offensive line played on Saturday, the unit still has work to do. Wisconsin’s pass rush caught Alabama off guard at times.
“A couple of times we sort of overset in pass pro and got some pressure in the pocket that we don’t need to have, but I was really pleased with the movement, the toughness [and] how physical we played up front,” coach Nick Saban said.
Early in the game Robinson and Pierschbacher both got caught a little too flat footed at times when Wisconsin rushed the passer. Robinson said poor communication was one of the unit’s biggest problems.
As the game wore on, the offensive line finally got some attention; unfortunately, it was from the referees, and instead of headlines, they were getting yellow flags for holding, but tight end O.J. Howard said those were fixable penalties.
“We’re playing so aggressive, we’re going to hold,” Howard said. “If we have penalties that we’re playing hard, playing fast, we can live with those. We can fix those in practice on Mondays.”
With only one more game standing in between the Crimson Tide’s first SEC game, the time to fix things is now, and Alabama will likely look to Kelly to lead the way on fixing these mistakes, just as it does for so many other things.
“He’s the heart and soul of our offensive line, everything starts with him,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of all the qualities he brings to us, not only as a player but as a leader off the field also.”
Source:: The Crimson White Sports