Wills, Leatherwood lead offensive line with consistency


CW / Madelyn Verbrugge

In football, an efficient offensive line needs consistency. 

Coming into the 2019 season, the offensive line was anything but consistent, as Alabama had to replace three experienced linemen. With Jedrick Wills Jr. and Alex Leatherwood returning for the Crimson Tide, coach Nick Saban would be able to play the best five linemen rather than trying to fit a player to a new position.

I like the two tackles that we have,” Saban said. “I feel better about the number of players that we have [on the O-line] now than I’ve had most of the time in the past, so I feel pretty good about it.”

Between Wills and Leatherwood, the two tackles have a combined 39 career starts and help anchor a line that has allowed just one sack per game. The small amount of sacks allowed becomes more impressive in recent years, with Alabama choosing to throwing the ball more than running. 

“It used to be a lot more closed formations; now everything is spread and open,” Saban said. “I think space play is much more important than it used to be years ago. People throw a 2-yard pass on an RPO, and it turns into a 70-yard play. The game has just opened up to where horizontally and vertically you’ve got to cover the entire field.

“I think that’s created a lot more explosive plays on offense, and people who have good skill players and a good quarterback have a chance to really take advantage of some of those things,” Saban said.

With a greater emphasis on the pass rather than the run, opposing defenses attempt to bring more pressure to the quarterback in order to force an errant throw. In turn, there is more pressure on the linemen to protect, especially the tackles. 

Ole Miss offensive lineman Alex Givens compared playing at tackle to “being stranded on an island,” as tackles do not receive the same amount of help as a guard would. 

“At guard, you’re setting the block up for the tackle to come in and take the guy out,” Alabama senior offensive lineman Matt Womack said. “Compared to if you’re a tackle, you’re just waiting to come in and knock the 3-technique over.”

Having played both guard and tackle, Leatherwood understands the difference well. In 2018 the Pensacola, Florida, native started all 15 games at right guard on an offensive line that gave up the fewest sacks in the SEC. This year Leatherwood moved back to tackle, the position he played in high school and his freshman year at Alabama.

“He’s actually gonna be a better tackle than he was a guard,” SEC analyst Cole Cubelic said in July. “His body’s built that way. His frame is built for that. I’ve seen him play tackle in a game, in practice, in high school. He has a better feel for that type of movement with his body, biomechanically. So I actually am excited to see Alex at tackle. I think he has a chance to be one of the better tackles – not only left tackles, not only in the SEC, but maybe in college football.”

Unlike Leatherwood, Wills remains at the position he has played since he was a freshman. Wills now has 20 starts in his career, making him the team’s most experienced lineman. 

Wills also gained some national attention for his play. Prior to the 2019 season, The Associated Press, The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and USA Today named Wills to the Second-Team Preseason All-American list. Wills was also named to the watch list for the Outland Trophy, given to the best lineman in the country. 

Wills is looking to be the second straight Alabama player to win the award after nose tackle Quinnen Williams won it in 2018. Former left tackle Cam Robinson was the most recent Alabama O-lineman to win the award in 2016.

“I think Jedrick Wills is the best right tackle in college football,” Cubelic said. “He’s a road grader. He’s a mauler. You watch him play the game, he does it the way it’s supposed to be done. He’s fun to watch.”  

As Alabama prepares to face Ole Miss on Saturday, the Rebels come into the matchup averaging 3 sacks per game, tying them for 20th in the FBS. For junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, he has some peace of mind with Leatherwood and Wills lined up in front of him.  

“It’s funny, Jed just won our offensive [player of the week],” Tagovailoa said. “So I thought he did really good this past weekend. Alex only had one hurry this entire year, so how can I not feel safe with those guys blocking for me? It’s been really good.”