No area of Alabama's football team had more room for growth at the start of this season than the offensive line.
As the top-ranked Crimson Tide enter their eighth game Saturday against visiting Tennessee, no group has come further. Alabama has gained a staggering 1,200 yards the past two weeks in thumping Kentucky and Arkansas by a combined count of 100-7.
"We had a lot of really young guys who didn't have a lot of starts under their belts," senior right guard Anthony Steen told reporters following last Saturday's 52-0 rout of the Razorbacks. "The more games we have played, the better everybody has felt together, and I think we are getting along just fine right now."
Kentucky and Arkansas have struggled in Southeastern Conference play, but the strength for each is its defensive line.
The Crimson Tide's offensive front began the season with, besides Steen, Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle, Arie Kouandjio at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center and Austin Shepherd at right tackle. Kelly injured his knee in the fourth game against Ole Miss and has been replaced since by Chad Lindsay, and Steen missed the game against Colorado State due to headaches, which enabled Kellen Williams to fill in for his lone career start.
Steen is considered the leader of the line, and his absence against Colorado State was noted when the Crimson Tide rushed 21 times for just 66 yards.
"Anthony has been the most consistent performer we've had probably on the offensive line," coach Nick Saban said. "Anthony has got a lot of experience, and I think his leadership and his effect on other people has been critical in the development of the offensive line. He's tough and physical and very confident in what he does, and he's played extremely well for us."
With the value of hindsight, Virginia Tech might not have been the best opening opponent for Alabama's rebuilding line. The Hokies under proven defensive coordinator Bud Foster repeatedly flustered the Tide, sacking quarterback AJ McCarron four times and holding Alabama to 96 yards on 38 rushes.
Virginia Tech has not lost since succumbing 35-10 to the Tide inside the Georgia Dome, and the Hokies currently rank sixth nationally in rushing defense (allowing 91 yards a game) and second in total defense (256).
The Crimson Tide bounced back from their opener with 234 yards on 37 carries at Texas A&M, and after the Colorado State showing they have averaged a healthy 271.5 rushing yards in their last four games. Alabama averaged 6.35 yards a carry against Ole Miss, 6.03 yards against Georgia State, 6.80 against Kentucky and a whopping 9.51 against Arkansas.
McCarron, meanwhile, hasn't been sacked since the third quarter of the Ole Miss game.
"I've kind of said that ever since Georgia State week, I've felt like we were growing as an offense and as a whole," McCarron told reporters earlier this week. "The offensive line has done a good job jelling together, and we're really balanced. Everybody is just doing their job and helping everybody."
Steen was overshadowed on last year's line that contained two-time All-American Barrett Jones and NFL first-round picks Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. He received his first SEC lineman of the week honor for his performance against Kentucky, when the 6-foot-3, 309-pounder had no missed assignments.
McCarron said he's never seen Steen in a negative mood, and Steen sees no need to be grumpy now.
"Any time we run for over 200 yards, I'm happy," Steen said. "Looking at this past game and at the previous games, I like where we are heading right now. I hope to keep it up."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.