SEC: Mario Cristobal

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like a lot of position battles going on during spring practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala., -- hello, quarterbacks -- the starting five up front for the Crimson Tide likely won’t be decided anytime soon.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesCenter Ryan Kelly is one of three returning starters for Alabama. The Tide is auditioning several youngsters at left tackle and right guard.
Sure, Ryan Kelly returns at center, Austin Shepherd is back at right tackle and Arie Kouandjio remains at left guard, but that’s only slightly more than half the equation. The second half of the Kouandjio Bros., left tackle Cyrus, is off to a carer in the NFL, as is veteran right guard Anthony Steen, who racked up more than 35 starts in his career. Replacing those two stalwarts won’t be an easy, much less quick, task.

The good news for Alabama is that this isn’t the first time coach Nick Saban and his staff have been through this. Just last season offensive line coach Mario Cristobal had the unenviable job of replacing three All-SEC caliber linemen: Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. And do you remember what happened? The 2013 line actually one-upped the previous season's line in some respects. The line allowed six fewer sacks and also saw its rushes for zero or negative yards -- a good indicator of the push a line generates -- fall from 91 to 79, vaulting the Tide to fourth nationally in that category.

But, of course, there’s room to improve. Just ask Kelly.

“Communication is the most important thing,” he explained. “All 11 guys have to be on the same page. ... It starts with the offensive line. One of the things we’re trying to emphasize is get up to the ball, get down, get set. Last year, look at it, we were running the clock down to five, four seconds every time. The faster that we can get to the line, get set, let the quarterback look at what he’s got to look at, the more time we can have and we’re not rushing to make calls last-minute.”

Does that mean Alabama is turning to a more up-tempo offense under new coordinator Lane Kiffin? It depends whom you ask.

Brian Vogler, a senior tight end, said that he thought the offense would stay similar to years past, relying on the “mauler” style it was founded on. Kelly, however, asked the question: “Anytime we can run more plays it’s good for an offense, right?” He said he anticipates “a lot” of change this season, including new plays and new formations.

“Obviously, we want to practice faster every day,” Kelly continued. “As as the spread offense, stuff like that, it’s still the same. We’ve just been wanting to get more reps in practice. Obviously, reps make us better.”

More repetitions will be key for the newcomers on the offensive line, not to mention the communication among all five potential starters.

Through the first four practices, the first-team line features Kelly, Shepherd and Kouandjio at their usual positions, with Alphonse Taylor added at right guard and Leon Brown at left tackle. The two combined for 17 appearances and one start last season, the lone start coming from Brown when Shepherd was lost for the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.

Though he can play inside, Brown might be better suited at tackle given his length (6-foot-6, 313 pounds).

Taylor, however, has all the earmarks of a punishing guard. At 6-5, 335 pounds and a low center of gravity, he looks vaguely like Warmack when he shuffles upfield in running situations.

“If you look at how big he is, he’s actually really athletic, can bend really well and he’s got a lot of power,” Kelly said. “Another young guy, doesn’t have a whole lot of experience, obviously, playing games. But I think this spring’s going to be really big for him.”

But the most intriguing prospect of all has to be Cameron Robinson, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 2014 class. He has everything you look for in an offensive tackle: size, strength, athleticism. The 6-6, 325-pound freshman from Louisiana has shown some growing pains since enrolling in January, but he has also shown flashes of the talent that made him such a coveted recruit.

With a spring to learn, an offseason to prepare and an open position at left tackle to compete for come fall, don’t sleep on Robinson.

“He’s got a lot of ability,” Kelly said of Robinson. “He’s a big guy, can bend really well, long arms. Obviously he came into an offense where we kind of transitioning into a new style or new plays, stuff like that. So he never really learned the old one. Anytime you’re coming from high school to college it’s going to take a while to kind of get acclimated to it. Older guys have been helping him along the way, kind of showing him the ropes, because it can be eye-opening at times, coming from high school to college.”

Saban called Robinson “a young guy that’s learning and getting better every day.” But along the same line, Saban said of the entire line that he wasn’t “satisfied with where they are, but pleased with the progress they’re making.”

In other words, the line is very much an ongoing process.

“The depth chart means nothing right now,” Shepherd said. “The depth chart won't mean anything until we play West Virginia.”
Nearly everyone who watched Johnny Manziel run circles around opposing defenses last season agreed that the Texas A&M star was the nation’s top quarterback in 2012.

A new statistical measure that ESPN will introduce to college football this season -- Total QBR (Quarterback Rating), which it brought to the NFL a couple of years ago -- confirms that Manziel’s 2012 performance did more than just pass the eye test.

Of the 122 qualified quarterbacks, the Heisman Trophy winner led the nation with a 90.5 Total QBR.

Here is a primer on the similar NFL QBR, which explains how the metric attempts to explain everything a quarterback does: running, passing, sacks, fumbles and penalties. It measures a player on a 1-100 scale, where 50 is average.

Sharon Katz of ESPN Stats and Information recently explained how Total QBR is an important measuring stick for teams harboring BCS championship hopes. Four of the last five quarterbacks who helped their teams win the BCS title ranked in the nation’s top eight in QBR.

That might be an important statistic to watch for the six SEC teams who are ranked in the top 12 in the Associated Press preseason poll: No. 1 Alabama (AJ McCarron was eighth nationally last season with an 81.1 QBR), No. 5 Georgia (Aaron Murray, 13th with 78.4), No. 6 South Carolina (Connor Shaw, 38th with 64.6), No. 7 Texas A&M (Manziel), No. 10 Florida (Jeff Driskel, 51st with 59.1) and No. 12 LSU (Zach Mettenberger, 80th with 47.0).

If the annual QBR trends hold true, some of those players must considerably improve their consistency if their team is to snatch a spot in the championship game in Pasadena.

McCarron, however, might simply need to hold steady in order to lead the defending champion Crimson Tide to yet another spot in the title game. That could prove trickier than one might expect for Alabama’s senior star, who has a wealth of skill talent at his disposal, but will line up behind a rebuilt offensive line this fall.

In a recent blog post, ESPN.com’s Tobin Petipas examined the Tide’s o-line from 2012 -- a group that featured the same starting five in all 14 games and ranked among the most dominant offensive fronts in recent memory. Three starters -- D.J. Fluker, Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones -- became 2013 NFL draft picks, leaving behind only elite NFL prospect Cyrus Kouandijo at left tackle and right guard Anthony Steen, who was actually the only member of the group who did not commit a penalty or allow a sack last season.

Nonetheless, it will be difficult for Alabama’s rebuilt offensive line to provide the same dominant effort that allowed McCarron and the Tide’s running backs to perform so effectively in 2012. Alabama’s running backs averaged an SEC-high 4.1 yards per carry before first contact and were not touched until five yards past the line of scrimmage on a whopping 34.6 percent of their carries thanks in large part to the big holes the offensive line created.

Further, McCarron passed for 13 touchdowns and no interceptions off play-action fakes last season, largely because of the fear that Alabama’s rushing attack struck into opponents’ hearts.

New offensive line coach Mario Cristobal has no shortage of talent at his disposal, but his two returning starters are the only players in his meeting room who have started a game.

The Tide’s rushing production and McCarron’s Total QBR numbers could slide if Cristobal’s line struggles to adjust, but we should learn quickly how much of a concern the line will be for Nick Saban’s club. Alabama opens against a typically stout Virginia Tech defense, which ranked in the top six in FBS in negative plays forced and quarterback pressures (hurries and knockdowns) last fall.
Anybody ever heard that you win up front in the SEC? Here’s how we rank the offensive lines in the league heading into the 2013 season.

 Ja'Wuan James/Antonio Richardson
Icon SMIJa'Wuan James and Antonio Richardson make for formidable bookends to Tennessee's offensive line.
1. Tennessee: The Vols might have lost most of their offensive firepower at the skill positions from a year ago, but they return some serious muscle in the trenches. The tackle tandem of Antonio “Tiny” Richardson and Ja’Wuan James is one of the best in the country. Senior guard Zach Fulton ranks among the best interior linemen in the SEC, and senior center James Stone is on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award. The Vols enter the 2013 season with 123 combined starts in the offensive line and are as talented as they are experienced.

2. Alabama: Yes, the Crimson Tide lost three players to the NFL draft, but don’t feel sorry for them. Junior Cyrus Kouandjio might be the best left tackle in college football. Senior right guard Anthony Steen is one of the SEC’s more underrated offensive linemen, and sophomore center Ryan Kelly could be the next star center in the league. The battle for the right tackle job will be interesting, and Mario Cristobal is in his first season as the Tide’s offensive line coach. But when’s the last time these guys haven’t been lights out up front?

3. Texas A&M: One of the biggest recruiting scores for the Aggies this offseason was Jake Matthews bypassing the NFL draft and returning for his senior season. He’ll shift from right tackle to left tackle and take over for the departed Luke Joeckel, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Junior Cedric Ogbuehi will move from guard to right tackle and is receiving some preseason All-SEC mention. Junior Jarvis Harrison returns at left guard, and another member of the Matthews family -- sophomore Mike Matthews -- will take over for Patrick Lewis at center.

4. Georgia: Not only do the Bulldogs return all five starters, but they return their top eight offensive linemen from a year ago. Senior guard Chris Burnette is the anchor of the group, but there’s enough depth that offensive line coach Will Friend could have some options. Right tackle John Theus was a Freshman All-American last season, but was listed No. 2 on the post-spring depth chart behind sophomore Xzavier Ward. Senior Kenarious Gates can play guard or tackle. Junior David Andrews is back at center, and senior Dallas Lee has started each of the past two seasons at guard.

5. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is hard to please, but this offensive line has a chance to be the best one the Gamecocks have had since he arrived in 2005. One of the keys will be how well redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop fills the shoes of T.J. Johnson at center. Junior left guard A.J. Cann is All-SEC material, and sophomore right tackle Brandon Shell has matured and is poised for a big season. Some of the best news for the Gamecocks was that offensive line coach Shawn Elliott decided to stick around after being wooed by Alabama.

6. LSU: The Tigers were forced to shuffle people around up front last season after tackle Chris Faulk went down with an injury, and the lack of continuity showed in pass protection. They appear to be set going into this season. Junior La’el Collins is moving from guard to left tackle and has star potential. Vadal Alexander returns at right tackle, and senior Josh Williford and sophomore Trai Turner are back at the guard spots. True freshman Ethan Pocic had an impressive spring after enrolling early and will push for playing time at center.

7. Florida: The problem a year ago was pass protection, but the Gators are banking on D.J. Humphries making a big difference at left tackle. The entire left side should be better with the addition of Maryland transfer Max Garcia at guard. Another transfer, Tyler Moore, will step in at right tackle after starting as a true freshman at Nebraska. Senior center Jonotthan Harrison and senior right guard Jon Halapio have combined for 60 career starts. This should be the best offensive line the Gators have put on the field under Will Muschamp.

8. Mississippi State: Four of the Bulldogs’ five starters return. Guard Tobias Smith is also eligible to return after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, but given the state of his aching knees, he’s likely to take on the role of a student coach. Senior guard Gabe Jackson is one of the best interior linemen in the country, and junior Dillon Day is a menacing blocker at center. Justin Malone filled in when Smith was unable to go last season and is the likely starter at right guard. The Bulldogs allowed just 19 sacks in 13 games last season.

9. Ole Miss: Any time an offense puts up the kinds of numbers the Rebels did last season, that means somebody’s doing something right in the offensive line. Four of the five starters are back from a year ago, including 11 lettermen in the offensive line. Junior left guard Aaron Morris was sidelined this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but has All-SEC potential. Both starting tackles, Pierce Burton and Emmanuel McCray, are back, although they will be pushed by incoming freshman Laremy Tunsil, who was ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the country.

10. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were able to redshirt all of their freshmen on the offensive line last year and head into the 2013 season with the most depth they’ve had up front in some time. There’s no substitute for having a player as versatile as senior Wesley Johnson, who returns at left tackle. Vanderbilt welcomes back six linemen with starting experience, and Andrew Jelks is one of several redshirt freshmen who could step in and play right away.

11. Auburn: The Tigers return four of their five starters from a year ago and several others who played. And while there wasn’t much to like about anything Auburn did on offense last season, this is a group that has a chance to make significant improvement in Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up offense. Center Reese Dismukes is entering his third season as a starter, and sophomore left tackle Greg Robinson is probably the most talented of the bunch.

12. Arkansas: Go back and look at some of Bret Bielema’s rugged offensive lines at Wisconsin. Moreover, new offensive line coach Sam Pittman has a pretty impressive track record of his own. They inherit an Arkansas offensive line in transition. It’s a unit that will be anchored by senior center Travis Swanson, who’s shown up on some preseason All-America teams. Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers have moved inside to guard, and the Hogs like the extra punch they provided in the spring.

13. Missouri: Injuries decimated the Tigers up front a year ago. But with so many different players stepping in and having to play, Missouri should be better equipped to handle any adversity that comes its way this season. It’s always nice to be strong in the middle, and sophomore Evan Boehm will move to center after starting all 12 games at left guard last season as a true freshman. The Tigers need senior left tackle Justin Britt to stay healthy. He tore his ACL last season.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats want to play at a faster pace under new offensive coordinator Neal Brown, so there will be a natural transition. Replacing All-SEC guard Larry Warford won’t be easy, and there’s very little proven depth. Junior left tackle Darrian Miller will be the anchor of the group, and Zach West and Kevin Mitchell are also back after starting last season. But once the Wildcats get past their first four, they’ll have to lean heavily on redshirt freshmen and true freshmen.

TideNation: Cristobal's recruiting impact

March, 26, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Alabama sought a new offensive line coach to replace Jeff Stoutland, it wanted a coach who had similar characteristics. And why not? His lines were integral parts of back-to-back national championships during his two-year stint with the Crimson Tide.

Mario Cristobal
Jonathan Brownfield/US PresswireMario Cristobal's energy on the field has already been noticed by Alabama recruits.
Stoutland built what many considered to be the best offensive line in college football last season, and all five starters from that unit are likely to get drafted one day -- and at least three could go in the first round.

So how does a team replace a coach like Stoutland?

Enter Mario Cristobal. Nick Saban wanted a coach who wouldn't be overwhelmed with the task of rebuilding the offensive line, a coach who could handle the pressure at Alabama and a coach who could make a smooth transition both on and off the field.

The former Miami assistant coach faced a much more difficult situation when he accepted the top position at Florida International six years ago. If anything, Cristobal would seem up for the challenge.

"He's a go-getter," Hialeah (Fla.) High School offensive coordinator Dennis Marroquin said. "He means business, and he obviously knows the area down here in South Florida."

Stoutland previously recruited South Florida, and Cristobal will do the same. They also have other similarities. Both coached the Hurricanes before coming to Tuscaloosa, an advantage when it comes to recruiting the area, and both like really big offensive linemen.

Alabama's offensive line in 2012 ranged from 6-foot-3 to 6-6 and from 300 pounds to 330.

Since Cristobal took over in February, the Tide have offered close to 10 offensive line prospects. All the targets are at least 6-3, and the majority have weighed more than 300 pounds. The name might have changed, but the philosophy remains the same.

However, it could be their differences that pay the biggest dividends for Cristobal.

To read the rest of Greg Ostendorf's story, click here.
Cyrus KouandjioKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio might have a secure spot on the O-line, but not many others do.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At a certain point, there's too much work to be done on the football field. So much so that the idea of competition goes out the window. With three vacant starting positions on the Alabama offensive line this spring, the idea of actually battling for playing time is unthinkable, at least to left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.

The depth chart, he noted, is still open.

"Everybody is just working," Kouandjio said following Wednesday's practice. He and guard Anthony Steen are the only two returning starters on the line. "At this time, we're not even thinking about competition."

They might be the only ones, though.

If Alabama is going to have anywhere near the success it had last season, the offensive line must come together, and in a hurry. Kouandjio might have the luxury of feeling good about his position on the depth chart, but he's the exception to the rule, as Alabama must replace three NFL-caliber offensive linemen in Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. That's not to mention the other seven former starters now plying their trade elsewhere.

At least Kouandjio would admit that practice felt different without his former teammates around.

"It feels weird," he said. "I've been with those guys for a long time."

But he's been with his brother, Arie, longer. And with Warmack gone, Arie has a chance to start alongside his twin at left guard. He'll have to fend off Kellen Williams for the spot, but so far he's the favorite to win the starting nod.

Chemistry, the glue of any good offensive line, is already set on the left side. After playing together in high school, the Koundajios don't have to say a word to communicate to one another.

"It's my brother" Cyrus said, "of course we already have camaraderie. We already understand each other.

"I love playing with my brother. He's always pushing me, and I'm always pushing him."

The camaraderie of the line as a whole won't come from either Kouandjio, though. Ryan Kelly, the man charged with replacing Jones at center, is looking to make his stamp as the leader of the unit now. And as Cyrus put it, he brings a lot to the table, rivaling Jones in at least one respect.

"He's the most professional person I know," Cyrus said of Kelly. "He's really serious, and that's the perfect center right there. Most centers have to be really tough, and I trust him 100 percent. I trust him as much as I trusted Barrett Jones last year.

"I think things are looking good for him."

Cyrus also singled out rising sophomore Brandon Greene for his improvement this offseason. He, Williams, Isaac Luatua, Alphonse Taylor and newcomers Leon Brown and Brandon Hill have added depth to the offensive line.

"He's doing so much better from last year," Cyrus said of Greene. "He got so much better over the break. His hands are where they're supposed to be, his footwork is good, he is where he's supposed to be right now."

Head coach Nick Saban, for his part, downplayed the transition taking place on the offensive line. He said new position coach Mario Cristobal is doing a "really good job" at coaching and connecting with the players.

"He’s done a good job teaching them," he said. "He’s got good energy and enthusiasm. He brings some new ideas. That’s always welcome when you have new coaches join the staff. So everything about this so far from a transition standpoint has been positive."

And like everything with the offensive line, Saban's remarks came with a caveat.

"But that's a work in progress, too," he said.

SEC lunch links

March, 12, 2013
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Linking our way around the SEC:
It didn't take long for Nick Saban to find a replacement for former offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland.

With Stoutland leaving the Crimson Tide to take a job with the Philadelphia Eagles, Alabama has hired Mario Cristobal as his replacement, a source inside the program told Alex Scarborough of ESPN's TideNation. CBS Sports originally reported Cristobal's hire. Cristobal is leaving Miami after he was hired in January to be the Hurricanes' tight ends coach and associate head coach. Cristobal was also the head coach at FIU from 2007-12.

Cristobal walks into his new job facing the challenge of replacing three valued starters on Alabama's offensive line, but he does have some experience when it comes to coaching the big fellas up front. He coached Rutgers' offensive line and tight ends from 2001-03 and coached Miami's offensive line in 2006.

He was also an offensive tackle at Miami during his college days (1989-92).

So, it's not like Cristobal won't know what he's doing while he tries to restructure the Tide's offensive line. He also brings a heavy amount of experience recruiting in South Florida. That was Stoutland's recruiting area, and with Cristobal so familiar with that part of the state, he should have no problem picking up where Stoutland left off with all of the ties he has down there.

Shawn Elliott staying at South Carolina

February, 15, 2013
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South Carolina has managed to hold onto one of its most valuable assistant coaches.

Offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Shawn Elliott informed South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier on Friday that he would be staying in Columbia after interviewing with Nick Saban for the Alabama offensive line job.

Elliott, who'll be entering his fourth season at South Carolina, has been a big part of the Gamecocks' success. He's provided stability for South Carolina's offensive line and also brought the zone read package with him from Appalachian State that the Gamecocks have used so much of the past three seasons.

Being able to keep Elliott says something about where South Carolina's program is right now. He's obviously a commodity, and his name has come up a couple of different times the last two years in job searches.

But he's a Camden, S.C., native and grew up attending South Carolina games at Williams-Brice Stadium with his father, who was a South Carolina state highway patrolman.

Elliott obviously feels at home at South Carolina even when a powerhouse like Alabama comes calling.

Here's something else to consider: If you're looking for legitimate candidates to replace Spurrier when the Head Ball Coach does decide to step aside, Elliott would (and should) be in that conversation.

He's a superb coach and an excellent fit at South Carolina.

With Elliott out of the picture at Alabama, Miami associate head coach/tight ends coach Mario Cristobal is the latest candidate to reportedly interview for the Crimson Tide's offensive line job. Cristobal was the head coach at Florida International for six seasons before being fired following this past season.

Two other names connected to Alabama's search for an offensive line coach were former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill and UCF assistant head coach/offensive line coach Brent Key.

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