Alabama's shaky O-line on display in season-opening win over Hokies

Behind a rebuilding offensive line, Alabama QB AJ McCarron struggles against Virginia Tech's pressure. (USATSI)
Behind a rebuilding offensive line, Alabama QB AJ McCarron struggles against Virginia Tech's pressure. (USATSI)

ATLANTA -- Nick Saban was right.

It's a 'process.'

Well, Alabama should process this: Protect like this again and the looming matchup with Texas A&M in two weeks will be much tighter than Saturday's 35-10 win over Virginia Tech in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game.

Twenty-one points from safety Vinnie Sunseri (interception for a touchdown) and return man Christion Jones (94-yard kickoff and 72-yard punt return) masked a shaky night for the offensive line and amplified this reality -- replacing Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker won't be easy.

Alabama's four-year ascension has spawned wild expectations to the point where fans want you to "go out there every game and win by 50," as guard Anthony Steen said. Players admitted the postgame locker room was relatively quiet and barely celebratory.

The score was less important than the way Virginia Tech's defense -- a vintage coaching job from Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster -- flustered a line that looks imposing but needs time to maximize potential.

Give Tech credit. Its line was impressive and constantly moved around at the line of scrimmage to confuse Alabama, which prefers the simplicity of smashmouth football.

But there's little excuse for the Tide recording 97 yards of total offense at halftime. If Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas wasn't a 19 percent passer (5 of 26), perhaps Tech could have made this game interesting.  

"We have too good of skilled players not to give them more opportunities to make plays in the game," Saban said when discussing his offensive line. "I'm not going to single out young guys. I think the entire group needs to do a better job."

Midway through the quarter, Alabama had six first downs. A traditionally dominant running team behind T.J. Yeldon averaged 2.5 yards per carry, 96 yards total.

McCarron (10 of 23, 110 yards, one interception) never looked comfortable despite a beautiful touch pass to Jones for a 38-yard score late in the third quarter.

Cleaning up the line shouldn't be a timely project. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and his bro, left guard Arie Kouandjio, are what coaches who use the football cliche 'beast' look for in offensive linemen. Alabama coaches believe new center Ryan Kelly has the potential to match or eclipse the impact of Jones. Steen entered the year with 23 career starts. Right tackle Austin Shephard is a first-year starter but has been developed behind the scenes for three years in the Saban factory.

Alabama's strength is going "straight at you and muscle you," Steen said, yet the Tide wasn't ready to adjust when Tech concocted an efficient plan. McCarron took four sacks. Tech's linemen were going "sideways" all game, Steen said.

"I'll hope they'll just stand straight up and I can muscle them around," Steen said about the Texas A&M game on Sept. 14, Alabama's next game after the coming bye week. "That's what I'm used to."

Or A&M's young defense could follow Foster's plan. If so, will Alabama adjust? With Saban having a bye week to gameplan, that's doubtful.

Perhaps Amari Cooper (four catches, 38 yards) can explode on Kyle Field after being bottled up most of the game by impressive Tech corner Kyle Fuller.

McCarron expects offensive improvement but points the blame at himself for the erratic play. He did not point to himself with his bummed toe, which was in a protective boot after the game. McCarron on Thursday underwent surgery to remove a toenail.

"You can put the blame on me and say I have to get rid of the ball a lot faster," McCarron said. "I thought they played excellent. I'm proud of those guys. Three missed starters. I thought they played their butts off."

This is Alabama's burden now, explaining why a 25-point win against a once-powerhouse program was sloppy.

McCarron seems numb to it all. He answered questions from the media, walked slowly toward the team bus while singing a song coming from his headphones, then greeted his family with hugs by the team bus underneath the Dome.

He's got two weeks to get Alabama right.

"We're going to get better," he said.

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