When the Alabama Crimson Tide put on full pads for the first time Monday, there is little question which position group is facing the most grueling challenge.
Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson are Alabama's lone returning starters on the offensive line. The defensive line, however, returns starters A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen, as well as its second wave of Dalvin Tomlinson, D.J. Pettway and Darren Lake.
Also looking to venture into the defensive line mix are sophomore end Da'Shawn Hand, Rivals.com's No. 1 prospect nationally in the 2014 signing class, and freshman tackle Daron Payne, a five-star signee in February.
"They are the best defensive line in the country," Kelly said this past week in a news conference. "It's awesome to go against them every day in practice, because it makes us better as an offensive line. They are just massive guys."
The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Robinson started 13 games last season and enters his junior year with 87 career tackles, including 14.5 for loss. The 6-4, 313-pound Reed started 13 games inside last year, tallying 55 tackles and 6.5 for loss, while the 6-3, 283-pound Allen had 12 starts at end and collected 33 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban bristled at a reporter last year for discussing the potential of the defensive line, but he seems far more satisfied now when describing the deep, talented and far more proven group.
"The defensive line played fairly well last year, I thought," Saban said. "We've got quite a few guys coming back, and I thought they did a nice job in the spring. We have a good mix in terms of the diversity of types of players that we have. Some guys are athletic and can rush, while some guys are physical and can play inside.
"You need that in our league, because we're going to play three or four teams that are I-formation, two-back teams. We are going to need some big, physical guys to play against that, and then we're going to play a lot of spread teams to where we'll have to be more athletic."
Saban expects as many as 10 defensive linemen to be in the rotation this season.
The development of the offensive line isn't so far along. Right tackle Austin Shepherd and guards Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown are having to be replaced, and filling those roles for now are Dominick Jackson, Bradley Bozeman and Ross Pierschbacher.
Alabama has no shortage of offensive linemen competing for playing time, including Alphonse Taylor, J.C. Hassenauer, Korren Kiven, Isaac Luatua and Josh Casher, as well as true freshmen Dallas Warmack, Brandon Kennedy, Lester Cotton, Richie Petitbon and Matt Womach.
"The offensive line is good, and I think we're getting each other better," Robinson said. "We've got to get some of those new guys better and ready for the games."
Saban was asked this past Thursday at a news conference about the continuity in the offensive line. That was his new opportunity for a bristled response.
"There is competition, and if you put continuity before competition, how do you allow anybody to beat anybody out?" Saban said. "We've got players who are competing, and we don't have a depth chart now. I tell the players that all the time, and it's up to everybody to prove that he can play winning football at his position."
Alabama's practice Saturday afternoon was the third of the preseason and the first in shoulder pads and shorts. Former reserve tight end Corey McCarron, the younger brother of former Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, has transferred to Middle Tennnessee State, which plays in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 12. The two McCarrons hooked up for a 3-yard completion in a 2013 win over UTC.
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