Since head coach Nick Saban took over in 2007, Alabama has been a run-heavy team. The Crimson Tide won its first two Heisman Trophies with running backs Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry claiming the awards in 2009 and 2015, respectively. The key for both to succeed, along with every other running back Alabama has had, is the offensive line.
This year’s line isn’t any different. While it took a little longer than usual, Alabama’s running game is hitting its stride, as it has gained 2,016 yards on 369 attempts this season.
“Coach Saban challenges them every single week, because we know we’re going to get a defense’s best game, and it really starts up front with the O-line” running back Damien Harris said. “They really set the tone and set the standard for how we’re going to play in a game. They’ve rose to the occasion every single week, and we’re lucky to play behind those guys.”
Center Bradley Bozeman is the only member of the 2017 offensive line no longer on the roster, but there were three significant changes when Alabama opened its season against Louisville.
Ross Pierschbacher, who played left guard the last three years, moved over one spot to center. This inserted sophomore Alex Leatherwood to that spot. Leatherwood made his biggest mark on the season in the national championship against Georgia last year. Fellow sophomore Jedrick Wills won the starting left tackle job at the start of the season.
With those changes, the line needed some time to come together to work as a single unit.
“Week 1, we started a little rough,” Wills said. “I feel like ever since then it got better and better. I feel like last week against LSU, being in that environment, it was really rolling.”
The line changed again against Tennessee as Deonte Brown joined the starting group at left guard, replacing Lester Cotton Sr.
Since Brown entered the starting lineup, Alabama has rushed for 499 yards, including a season-high 281 yards against LSU. The Crimson Tide was even able to finish the game the way Saban wants – on the ground. In the fourth quarter, Alabama ran 13 total plays and threw the ball only one time.
“I think that we were able to run the ball a little bit better in the last couple of games, which I think is the balance that we wanted to try to create,” Saban said. “I think finishing the game like we did at LSU is something that we probably wouldn’t have been able to do early in the season.”
Last week, Alabama faced its toughest defense to date when it played LSU. The Tigers are currently ranked as the No. 40 defense in the country.
Alabama’s next opponent is Mississippi State, which is ranked as the No. 6 defense. The Bulldogs are also ranked in the top 20 against the run. They allow only 111.4 yards per game on the ground and 3.3 yards per carry.
The biggest tests for the Crimson Tide’s offensive line will be Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons. In his senior season, Sweat has 9.5 sacks on the season, which is the fourth-most in the country. Simmons is second on the team in tackles for loss with 9.5.
“We have improved,” Saban said. “I think we get a lot of different looks, but we’re going to get challenged this week by some individual players who are going to be a real challenge to be able to get blocked, so it’s not going to just be a scheme thing. It’s going to be a personal challenge to a lot of guys to get a lot of really good players blocked.”
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