TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- His name rarely gets called over the public address system and the only time he touches the football, it's to quickly give it to someone else. But there he is, the heart of the Alabama offense, the glue holding everything together.
You might argue that Alabama’s most valuable player through seven weeks has been running back Derrick Henry or linebacker Reggie Ragland. Their production has been off the charts. But there’s another candidate you ought to consider, one that doesn’t live in a world of individual stats -- center Ryan Kelly.
If you were wondering what kind of impact the fifth-year senior has had on his team, all you had to do was watch what happened after he left the game against Texas A&M on Saturday with a concussion. While his backup, sophomore J.C. Hassenauer, performed admirably in Kelly’s stead, things weren’t the same. The line regressed, quarterback Jake Coker felt the pressure and the running game went from dominant to average in a hurry.
Texas A&M freshman defensive tackle Daylon Mack made a habit of jumping Hassenauer’s snap count and set up shop in Alabama’s backfield. Coker was either sacked, under duress or hit by the defense on 25 percent of his drop backs during the second half, and Alabama’s average yards per rush fell from 8.36 to 3.22. Ten times the offenses was stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage in the third and fourth quarter.
On Monday, coach Nick Saban lamented too many “negative plays” on offense. He said it was a result of poor execution, and one reason for that was Kelly’s absence. A three-year starter, he’s the stabilizing force on the line. Ross Pierschbacher, one of three first-time starters on the offensive line, once said, "Hopefully I can be as good as Ryan Kelly someday." When Kelly was forced to the sideline against Texas A&M, the offense’s chemistry was thrown off.
Coker, who called Kelly “as good as it gets at center” after the game, said on Monday that it was a lot to ask of Hassenauer to come off the bench in such a difficult road environment.
“It’s tough for a guy to come into a situation like that when you can’t hear a thing,” Coker said. “I was trying to talk to him face to face and you could barely hear what each other was saying.
“... As you could see it was a little bit different. It wasn’t his fault some of those false starts or anything, but it just took some time to get used to him being in the game.”
On Monday, Saban said that Kelly is “under concussion protocol.”
“When he’s normal, which he’s very close, we’ll allow him to resume activity,” he said. “... We feel like he’ll be OK. It’s not that bad right now.”
It’s ultimately the medical staff’s decision, Saban said, but it was nonetheless a piece of good news for Kelly and Alabama moving forward, beginning with Saturday’s home date with Tennessee.
The Volunteers might be 3-3 on paper, but Saban sees them as a much more dangerous team than their record indicates.
“Butch Jones has done a really good job,” he explained. “They've gotten better and better and better every year and could arguably be undefeated or a one-loss team very easily this year.”
In order to avoid an upset, Alabama needs Kelly back in the mix.
We've seen what can happen without him.
Henry is a great running back, Coker has made significant strides at quarterback and Calvin Ridley has emerged as a big-play threat at receiver, but none of that matters without a good offensive line. And with Kelly at the center of it all, he's the most valuable, most underrated piece of the puzzle.