(The Rock Report) -When the Irish collide with the Crimson Tide on January 7th, the biggest collisions will happen when Alabama’s irresistible force of an offense line meets Notre Dame’s immovable defensive line. The sheer size of the players beckons to Grantland Rice for a line from the grave.
Alabama’s offensive line averages 6’4.5 314 pounds, has two All-Americans in Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack (who are also projected 1st round picks), a second team All-American in DJ Fluker, and in the last two games has plowed the way for over 600 rushing yards against Georgia and Auburn. And you can throw massive 6’6” 269 pound Tight End Michael Williams into the mix. Notre Dame’s defensive front averages 6’4” 313 pounds and while far less heralded has held opponents to 92 ypg, 3.2 yards per carry, 10 points per game and totaled 27 TFL and 20 sacks. If you add in Prince Shembo, those numbers go up to 37.5 TFL and 27.5 sacks.
Of course it’s not just size that differentiates Alabama’s offensive line, their creed is domination (seriously they talk about it all the time) and they set out to physically impose their will on the opponent as they did against Georgia. “They just lined up and played inside drill for awhile,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “They just lined up and knocked us off the ball.” Diaco called them the best unit he’s seen. Physically and talent-wise the game sets up for an epic battle at the point of attack.
71 Cyrus Kouandjio | 6-6, 311, SO vs. 7 Stephon Tuitt | 6-6, 303, SO
Scouts will have a close eye on the let side of the Alabama line, where 6-6, 311 pound sophomore left tackle wunderkind Cyrus Kouandjio will line up across from 6’6” 303 pound sophomore wunderkind Stephon Tuitt. Kouandjio was the top rated offensive tackle in the country coming out of high school and has already bested likely top ten first round pick Sam Montgomery of LSU. Tuitt has been a force in his second year for the Irish notching 12 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. His athletic ability is at times almost comical as when he outran the entire Navy team most of the length of the field for a TD. “You’re shocked when you watch him run,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “He really runs like a little guy. He’s got a lot of foot action. He can change directions. He’s an excellent athlete. He can bend and twist. So he’s got a unique blend of tangible traits coupled with … that intangible element of effort and intensity and passion in that he just loves to play football.” He has been spectacular at times, but Diaco is clearly pushing him toward consistency.
65 Chance Warmack | 6-3, 320, SR , 75 Barrett Jones | 6-5, 302, SR & 61 Anthony Steen | 6-3, 303, JR vs. 89 K. Lewis-Moore | 6-4, 306, SR & 9 Louis Nix | 6-3, 326, JR
Inside of Kouandjio is perhaps Alabama’s best offensive lineman, Chance Warmack who has a “chance” to be one of the highest drafted guards this spring. Todd McShay has described Chance Warmack as the best interior lineman he has evaluated in the last decade. McShay continued, “he just rarely ever has trouble versus quick guys because he’s so wide and able to get in position and play with such balance. Once he gets the guy in the phone booth, it’s over.” Running back Eddie Lacy used a different analogy. “It’s like a freight train,” Lacy said. “You know no matter how many people are in the way when he’s getting there, he’s going to knock them out of the way. It’s a sense of security knowing he’s in front of you.”
Warmack teamed with 2011 Outland award winner, 2012 Rimington winner and two time All-American Barrett Jones, giving the Tide a powerful inside game. Jones has been hobbled since the SEC championship game and from some reports is still in a boot, but anyone counting on the veteran to be anything less than his All-American status is missing the fact that he’s a technician and a warrior. Said one scout “his hand placement and knee bend are picture perfect. There is no doubt that Jones has done a superb job of developing his technique. He has honed it in practice while going up against many future NFL linemen like Courtney Upshaw, Josh Chapman, Jesse Williams and Marcell Dareus. As a run blocker, Jones has the strength to push defensive linemen around at the point of attack. He is a good drive blocker to be a power-man blocker with the mobility to hit blocks on the second level. Jones is rock steady in pass protection.”
Jones vs. burgeoning star Louis Nix figures to be a battle royale. Nix, at 325 pounds (uh-hum), has an incredibly quick first step that makes it very hard to block him one on one. Nix physically pounded Oklahoma’s Gabe Ikard in Norman, often times knocking him into the backfield. “We played hard, we played with energy, we played with toughness,” said Ikard. “But when it comes down to it, they controlled the line of scrimmage. Things are not going to go your way when that happens.” Nix punched Ikard into the backfield again and again, but if he has a weakness it’s in technique sometimes he lets players get underneath him and Jones will exploit any advantage Nix gives him.
The right side of the Alabama offensive line has been considered the weakest part of the line, but against Georgia’s massive John Jenkins, Alabama blew the Bulldogs away via the right side in the second half, not with brute strength, but with technique. “They caught me off guard because nobody had ever used it on me,” Jenkins said of the blocking strategy. “Somehow, he would draw my momentum to him and get in front of me. They were technically sound. It was position blocking.” 6’3” 303 pound Anthony Steen is a redshirt junior (read senior) with a ton of experience under his belt. He’ll be lining up at times against Kapron Lewis Moore depending upon the matchups pitting experience against experience. Old man Kap might be the most underrated player on the Notre Dame defense. Lewis-Moore had six sacks on the year and was immovable in goal line situations.
76 D.J. Fluker | 6-6, 335, JR vs. 55 Prince Shembo | 6’2” 250
KLM will also match-up against giant DJ Fluker at right tackle. Fluker , another 5-star #1 rated tackle out of high school, is a Walter Camp second team All-American that started all 12 games for Alabama at right tackle in 2011 and then did the same this year. Fluker is a powerful run blocker who often engulfs defensive lineman. If he has a weakness, it may be in pass protection, Fluker was beat soundly by Western Kentucky’s defensive linemen earlier in the year and looked slow of foot at times. Which brings us to Notre Dame’s Prince Shembo. Shembo looked woefully out of place at the dog position last year, but now that he’s back at cat, is fulfilling the potential he showed as a freshman. Shembo held the edge well this year against the run and was lethal at times against the pass registering 7.5 sacks and 10.5 TFL. It will be interesting to see if Saban gives Fluker support against the Irish with tight end Michael Williams.
Alabama has shown to be very patient with the running game, pounding opponents until they start breaking down leading to big runs from their big backs Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon. If they succeed running against the Irish, they’ll use play-action in their highly underrated passing game. Tide quarterback AJ McCarron currently leads the nation in passing efficiency and has play-makers on the outside in Cooper, Norwood and possibly Bell.
To counter Alabama’s strength Notre Dame will have to use its defensive line depth. The Irish have liberally substituted on the defensive line all season with Kona Schwenke, Sheldon Day and Tony Springman all contributing, the latter two having particularly impressive years. If the Irish can successfully substitute throughout the game without losing at the point of attack, Notre Dame could own the advantage in the fourth quarter. If Notre Dame is unable to substitute effectively then Alabama will wear down the Irish defense allowing Lacy and Yeldon into the second layer of the Irish defense. If that happens the Tide will be rolling to their third national championship under Saban and 32nd claimed national championship.