- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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There's a certain pride that comes with playing along the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line. If you sign up to be one of Tuscaloosa's big uglies, you better be prepared for the pressure of living up to the past.
While this year's line, which is replacing two starters from last season, is still slightly covered by the shadows of players such as Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Cyrus Kouandjio, and William Vlachos, the pressure of living up to what they did is absent.
The pressure for this line is to live up to its own potential.
"We want to be better than those lines," senior right tackle Austin Shepherd said. "We try not to live in the past so we'd like to have a million rushing yards if we could. We want to be the most dominant offense in the NCAA."
To do that, Alabama's offensive line tried to move faster this spring. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, speed has increased for lineman before snaps. Instead of lumbering to the line to make checks and adjust to the defense, redshirt junior center Ryan Kelly said offensive linemen have been running to get set and make calls earlier before the snap.
"That way we can at least be set before we want send motions or figure out what the defense is doing," Kelly said. "It's kind of speeding up the offense, but it's also helping us have more time and put us in better situations."
So far, the offensive line, which has the responsibility of protecting a new starting quarterback and arguably the nation's best running back stable, is coming together. There have been some natural hiccups, and coach Nick Saban even called out the line's physicality recently, but this doesn't appear to be a problem area for the Crimson Tide.
The three returning starters -- Kelly, Shepherd and fifth-year senior left guard Arie Kouandjio -- have cemented their places up front, while welcoming a few new pieces to the bunch. Most notably, left tackle Cam Robinson, the true freshman pegged to replace former All-American Cyrus Kouandjio.
The nation's No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class, Robinson stepped into the first-team spot at left tackle toward the end of spring, and hasn't moved.
With senior Leon Brown and junior college transfer Dominick Jackson dealing with injuries during camp, there has been a little shuffling up front, but third-year sophomore Alphonse Taylor has impressed at right guard.
The biggest thing the players want to take care of along the line is communication. Kelly said communication broke down at times last year, leading to some glaring errors up front.
One way to enhance that? Develop better chemistry, and to do that, Alabama's linemen are hoping to bring back the Thursday night dinner tradition started by former quarterback AJ McCarron.
A chance to unwind and leave Alabama football talk at the facilities, the Thursday night dinners have done wonders for bringing the big boys together, Kelly said.
"It was good," Kelly said of past dinners. "You spend so much time up here [at the football facilities] talking about football and stuff that you can get away. ...It clears your mind going into Friday and getting ready for the game [on Saturday].
"When you get away, your bonds become more than just a football relationship. You have real friends you can do stuff with and that carries over to the football field and makes us a better team."
McCarron played host before, but Shepherd is hoping to take over the reins this season.
"It's time to get away from all the coaches and just be guys around everyone else," Shepherd said. "The only other time we're all together at the same time is when we're in the offensive line meeting room with a coach in there. We can't really talk because he's teaching us. It's time to mingle and do what you want and hang out."
From watching Thursday night football games and playing a variety of sports video games on the house Xbox to dining on the finest red meats and starches, Thursday nights for Alabama's offensive line are special.
Meals have usually involved a combination of steaks, burgers, brats and tight end Corey McCarron's famous mac & cheese. Every once in a while, the group gets a surprise, like when former guard Anthony Steen's parents brought over venison to make tenderloin.
Just looking for a succulent steak? Talk to Shepherd.
"I cook a mean filet. I like it fresh off the cow," he said.
Need a tidy house to eat in? Well, Shepherd doesn't think he needs to go that far.
"It doesn't matter when you have all these nasty guys in there."