Bama's line drawing preseason honors, high praise
Alabama's offensive line includes an acclaimed scholar, one prodigy, a jovial giant and a couple of lesser-known veterans.
Led by Outland Trophy winner/graduate student Barrett Jones, the second-ranked Crimson Tide's front five are unquestionably the most established group on the defending national champions.
''I'm a defensive coach and watching that offensive line, that's as good an offensive line as I've seen in college football,'' Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
His eighth-ranked Wolverines are the first to take on `Bama's veteran line. The four returning starters have logged 95 combined starts but the line has undergone a notable makeover nonetheless.
Jones, one of the team's best-known players, is snapping to quarterback AJ McCarron at center not protecting his blindside at left tackle. Replacing him on the edge is sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio, a consensus Top-5 recruit last year who played in eight games as a freshman before sustaining a season-ending knee injury.
Jones, mammoth right tackle D.J. Fluker and left guard Chance Warmack are all first-team preseason All-Southeastern Conference picks. Anthony Steen started nine games last season at right guard.
''Our offensive line, you have Chance Warmack who is one of the best offensive linemen in the country,'' Tide tight end Michael Williams said. ''You have D.J. Fluker who is also in that same category. The whole offensive line is one of the best. Only thing is we have to break in Cyrus at left tackle, but if you see Cyrus Kouandjio, you wouldn't think twice that he's not a starter in the SEC.''
The line averages nearly 6-foot-5 and 314 pounds and allowed a league-low 17 sacks last season. Jones, Fluker and Warmack have helped pave the way for tailbacks Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in the past three years.
McCarron praises his linemen as a ''good group of guys'' but admits that his plans to treat them to a dinner before games at a restaurant of their choice will be ''painful.''
''I'm just glad we don't have a Ruth's Chris around here,'' McCarron said, referring to the upscale steakhouses.
The starting five:
- Jones has started 36 games, the first 25 at right guard. Now, he's on position No. 3, but still received more All-SEC votes than any other offensive player at the league's media days. He returned for his senior year of football even though he graduated last summer.
''He gets you in the right play to run against the right defense,'' Williams said. ''Barrett has evolved from guard to tackle back to center. Barrett, you already know, is one of the best and it's been an honor to play with him.''
- Fluker is a 6-6, 335-pound junior seldom seen outside of wind sprints without a smile on his face. Saban said he's grown quicker and better as a pass blocker.
''D.J. is one of the most physical players we've ever had here or anywhere,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''He reminds me of Flozell Adams at Michigan State, way back when.''
- Kouandjio is the new kid on the blockers, but he's an athletic 6-6, 311 pounds. ''I haven't done anything yet,'' he notes.
His upside might be as high as any of the linemen.
''He has a tremendous amount of talent,'' Jones said. ''He's got all the tools. It's my job and all other veterans' job to bring him along and to help him realize his full potential because he can really be the best left tackle in the country.''
- Warmack is a 26-game starter and joins Jones as the group's only senior.
- Steen made nine starts last season but gave way to now-departed utility man Alfred McCullough in the BCS championship game.
Collectively, said Warmack: ''I guess we're one of the tightest knit, closest offensive lines in the nation because we've been together a long time.''
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed to this report.