Alabama's offensive line starts taking shape
A cool nickname and some mop-up duties were the best Ryan Kelly and the rest of Alabama's second-team offensive line could hope for last season.
Playing behind three All-Americans and one rising star for a unit that seldom gets all that much attention anyway can be pretty thankless work. So then-line coach Jeff Stoutland dubbed them the ''Touchdown Twos'' after the backups produced given their chance.
''I can't remember what game it was we scored a touchdown and then during practice brought a lot of energy to the table,'' said Kelly, who was Barrett Jones' backup at center. ''It was just fun for us. Being a one is a little more serious. Being a two you still need to be ready but at the same time mentally it's kind of hard.
''You don't know if you're going to play so you get ready mentally, but at the same time you might not play. That's the best you can ask for, to go out and have fun with it.''
It's time to get serious. Even though left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick and right guard Anthony Steen is a proven veteran, the two-time defending national champions lost more star power on the offensive line than any other spot. Guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker are projected first-rounders, and Jones won the 2011 Outland Trophy and 2012 Rimington Award.
A team that appears to be loaded with skill players like quarterback AJ McCarron, tailback T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper needs some big men to step up.
Kelly and left guard Arie Kouandjio - Cyrus's brother - appear to have the inside track on promotions to starting jobs. Austin Shepherd is battling junior college transfer Leon Brown at right tackle.
So three of the ''Touchdown Twos'' are in the running for promotions. Each of them saw action in 10 games last season.
''Everybody on the two offensive line is getting their shot,'' Kelly said. ''The spring is such a big part about finding who is going to be the starting five. Everyone is working really hard right now, busting their butt in the offseason trying to get better.''
They're also laboring under a new position coach in former Florida International coach and Miami Hurricanes assistant Mario Cristobal, who was hired in February.
Coach Nick Saban sees positive signs of progress for players like Arie Kouandjio, Shepherd and Brown and Kellen Williams, who has practiced at center and guard.
''That part of it, I feel like is taking shape,'' Saban said. ''I think we have some other parts of our team that we really have to be concerned about, trying to get some depth created, but I kind of like the way the offensive line is coming along.''
The left side is particularly intriguing.
Arie Kouandjio has battled injuries to both knees during his Alabama career, while his brother's freshman season was cut short by a knee injury two years ago.
Now, it seems likely they'll be lining up next to each other next season, a prospect they're ecstatic about.
''It's insane. I love it,'' Arie Kouandjio said. ''We're real in sync and we know how each of us feel and we don't really have to talk that much to know what's going down and stuff like that with each other. It's real cool, all of it.''
They were bookend tackles at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md.
''We had a good time then, too, and I guess we're going to keep it going,'' Arie Kouandjio said. ''Now we're actually closer to each other and can actually see what each of us is doing and it's more fun now. We're in for a good time.''
Kelly has drawn rave reviews from teammates in his bid to replace Jones, who moved from left tackle for his senior season.
''I trust him as much as I trust Barrett Jones,'' Cyrus Kouandjio said.
Kelly got some extra experience after Jones went down with a foot injury in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Jones was also limited in practice leading up to the BCS title game against Notre Dame.
''I hadn't played with the ones all year and they just threw me in there like I was a piece of meat and I don't know what's going on,'' Kelly said. ''It's a lot like you're stepping into a big role, you're up to bat and this is you. It's big time.''