TUSCALOOSA — Amid all the changes along Alabama’s offensive line the past couple of years, the one constant has been Jedrick Wills Jr.
Whether it was earning his first career start as a true freshman against Ole Miss when the Crimson Tide opened in its jumbo package, or the 15 he made at right tackle last season while superbly protecting the blindside of left-handed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Wills has been Alabama’s Rock of Gibraltar.
That's why the rotating door to his immediate left, where four players — redshirt senior Matt Womack, redshirt junior transfer Landon Dickerson, redshirt junior Deonte Brown and redshirt freshman Emil Ekiyor Jr. — have split first-team reps at right guard this preseason, has been challenging at times.
“The plus side is everyone knows their playbook. So it’s been easy with communication and things like that,” Wills said this week. “I feel it’s more, kind of like, I guess you don’t have the same bond as everybody else. But whomever they hop in there it goes smooth and easy. It’s all been pretty good.”
While rotating different players into the first-team mix along the offensive line is just a part of preseason camp, as the Tide coaches look to determine the perfect five-man combination, this August has seemingly come with more movement up front than in previous years.
While both Wills and fellow junior Alex Leatherwood appear secure as starters at right and left tackle, respectively, between four to six players — Brown, Dickerson, Ekiyor, Womack, freshman Evan Neal and junior Chris Owens — seem in contention to start at one of Alabama’s three interior line spots even as the team has already started preparing for Saturday’s season-opener against Duke.
And it’s not a matter of talent. In fact, the uncertainty is more about the Tide’s wealth of quality options, a luxury that has head coach Nick Saban feeling unusually happy about his offensive front.
“I like the offensive line. I think we’ve got some pretty good experience there,” Saban said last Saturday. “I like the two tackles that we have. I think they’ve both had really good camps. We have four or five guys that can play inside that have done really well. Without naming specific players, I think we can have a really good offensive line.”
Not that any one has let the constant rotating affect them.
“It’s been smooth. You don’t even know different guys are in there from time-to-time,” Wills said. “Everyone’s working to get better and it will be a coaches’ decision on who plays there.”
At this point, only Brown — who must serve the remaining four games of the six-game suspension levied by the NCAA prior to last season’s College Football Playoff — appears out of the mix to start Aug. 31 in Atlanta, though Dickerson, Ekiyor and Owens remain in the running to be the Alabama’s starting center.
Ekiyor, who has been dealing with a right shoulder issue of late, could be the linchpin given how many quality first-team reps he’s seen all across the line this offseason.
“He’s played all three interior positions. Especially when he hops in at center, he knows what he's talking about and he knows what he’s doing,” Wills said. “It’s really good to have him be able to play anywhere for us.”
That said, after both Dickerson and Ekiyor rotated as the first-team center over the previous two weeks of camp, the 327-pound Ekiyor has spent much of the last week working as the second-team center behind Owens while Dickerson has spent the last several practices lined up at the first-team right guard spot ahead of Womack.
Neal, the 6-foot-7, 360-pound five-star tackle signee, also appears to have found a home as the first-team left guard, creating a powerful tandem with Leatherwood, the former No. 1-rated tackle in 2017 who started 15 games at right guard last season.
“He’s a big guy,” Wills said of Neal, who he described as a “big, physical player, smart guy — he’s got all the intangibles.”
“But from when he first went in there, he was real smooth and (it was) real easy. I haven’t really seen anything that really stood out about him being in a new position, so that’s a good thing.”
It’s been a similarly smooth transition for Dickerson, the Florida State graduate transfer who arrived at the beginning of August and immediately turned heads. With a powerful presence at the point of attack, and the quality experience having started 15 games over his first three years at FSU, Dickerson has quickly proven he deserves to be a starter on Alabama’s line.
“I think Landon Dickerson has done a really good job,” Saban said last week. “He’s really tough, he’s a very physical player, very smart. He’s played center and guard both for us and to have that diversity as a player is really important, I think.”
That diversity has been key to creating quality depth along the offensive line, providing the Tide multiple contingency plans should one of its starters suffer an injury at any point this season.
But until that happens, the next task is establishing some consistency up front, especially if the first-team unit — Leatherwood, Neal, Owens, Dickerson and Wills (left-to-right) as of Saturday's practice — is going to develop the necessary synergy heading into next Saturday’s opener against Duke.
"I guess from anywhere on the line you have to trust the guy on the left of you, to the right of you,” Wills said, “so it’s kind of like a trust thing, knowing actually who’s in there for you in certain situations."