Alex Leatherwood, the then-freshman left tackle for the Alabama Crimson Tide, crouched down into his stance, lined up opposite Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy, who had just beaten him for a 16-yard sack on the previous play.
This time, Leatherwood didn’t let Bellamy cut inside en route to the quarterback. He used Bellamy’s momentum against him, pushing him past Tua Tagovailoa and enabling the game-winning pass to DeVonta Smith.
It was the culmination of an excellent performance for Leatherwood, who entered the national title game when starter Jonah Williams left with a high ankle sprain. It also gave coaches some tough decisions for this spring, knowing that some talented players will be on the bench this fall because of the team’s depth on the offensive line.
With four of last year’s starting five back for 2018, Leatherwood, sophomore Jedrick Wills and senior Josh Casher also pushing for starting jobs, there will be plenty of players experimenting with new positions throughout spring practice for the purpose of identifying the best five on the team.
“I think [the moving between positions] is going to go on throughout the spring,” Williams said, who has yet to practice anywhere but left tackle. “There’s not a crazy amount of shuffling so far. We’re kind of all working on our different positions. The ultimate goal is obviously to get the five best out there, so however that falls out is how it’s going pan out.”
Last year’s starting center, Bradley Bozeman, graduated and will likely be drafted into the NFL in late April. So far this spring, Ross Pierschbacher, who has started 42 games at left guard since 2015, has slid into the center spot.
Pierschbacher said his previous experience at center makes him confident in his ability to switch, and added that most of the O-linemen on the team could probably play multiple positions.
“I think [versatility] takes a lot of smart guys, so that’s a credit to the guys in the room, and just being an athlete really to go along and having to make that switch with your stance or technique,” Pierschbacher said. “I think it’s just really having a grasp of the whole playbook and your assignment and just being able to go out there and execute.”
Pierschbacher called Leatherwood and Wills, who are both tackles, very talented players who the team will do its best to find a role for, even on a very experienced line. Pierschbacher has played 43 of the team’s last 44 games, and Williams has played a full season at both left and right tackle, starting 29-straight games.
Additionally, redshirt junior Matt Womack started all 14 games at right tackle last year, and senior Lester Cotton started 13 at right guard.
“I feel really old compared to a lot of the other guys on the team,” Pierschbacher said. “I think Leatherwood might have been born in 2000 or something like that, so I feel old. But it’s been fun and each year there are guys stepping into different roles, so we’re all just trying to find our role adjust and just get the camaraderie.”
Wills was listed as a co-starter with Womack on last year’s opening day depth chart, but Womack ended up starting every game. Womack will miss all of spring practice with a foot injury, however, which has opened the door for Wills to get first-team reps.
Spring practice is only one-third over, so there is ample time for the coaches to test more players out at different positions. The starting O-line for the season opener against Louisville is anything but set.
“This probably won’t be the first experiment we have in the offensive line in terms of who plays where,” coach Nick Saban said. “I think Alex can play someplace else, and I think Jonah can play someplace else. I think Jedrick Wills may be able to play somewhere else. We may experiment with somebody else playing center at some point in time as well … I think this will just give these young guys more reps and a better chance to sort of make progress themselves and acquire more knowledge and experience.”