Even though Jedrick Wills Jr. has moved on, Evan Neal looks ready to be a rock at tackle
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There was no press conference on Monday.
You may not have noticed that Monday was the deadline for players to declare for the 2020 NFL Draft. For the past few years Alabama football players have had to rush to make a final decision, a handful of days following the National Championship Game.
However, for the first time in over a decade there was nothing for the Crimson Tide to announce. Alabama didn’t make the playoff, and the players were considering leaving early all announced their decisions on their own. The departures include linebacker Terrell Lewis, safety Xavier McKinney, quarterback Tau Tagovailoa, wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III and offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.
Really none of them were a surprise, including Wills, guaranteeing that the offensive line will look a little different 2020. But that’s part of college football. Having five returning starters is extremely rare, and is why recruiting players to play up front always remains a priority.
“We always want to at least replace the offensive line,” Nick Saban said during the early signing period.
Wills was a two-year starter at right tackle. He graded out at over 91 percent for the Crimson Tide this past season, allowing only one sack and 3.5 quarterback hurries while protecting Tagovailoa’s blind side.
He missed only seven assignments in 714 snaps for a success rate of 99.9 percent, while the line surrendered 12 sacks in 381 pass attempts, or one every 31.8 passing plays.
That’s tough to replace, but his heir apparent appears to be obvious. Although the coaches will likely do some experimenting during the spring, Evan Neal will likely move over from left guard, where he was named a Freshman All-American. He’s listed as 6-7, 360 pounds, and that was after losing a lot of weight.
“Neal has done a really good job for us at left guard,” Saban said. “I think that the fact that we have two tackles that are experienced guys and pretty good players probably helped him. Landon Dickerson also is a very experienced player playing center, so that's probably helped him.
“We're really pleased with his progress and I think he has a very bright future.”
Consequently, the biggest question on the line has to do with Dickerson, who started at center after having never played the position before. With three of the top contenders to step into the starting five able to play guard or center — Darrian Dalcourt, Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Chris Owens — coaches will have some options.
The other returning starters right guard Deonte Brown and left tackle Alex Leatherwood, who like Dickerson are heading into their final year of eligibility. After moving from guard last year, Leatherwood appears to have the least chance of moving.
He graded out at 89 percent as a junior, allowing just two sacks and three quarterback hurries, while missing six assignments in 694 snaps.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that I felt like I was back home because that was the position that I started off in, you know what I mean?” Leatherwood said. “Then I moved to guard for the team, you know what I mean, so we could have a good O-line, I guess. Yeah, I feel back home.”
Alabama will be looking for someone to step up behind him and proved depth at left tackle. It won't be Scott Lashley, who heading into his final year of eligibility has transferred to Mississippi State having already earned his degree.
Even so, with four returning offensive lineman, and starting running back Najee Harris back, Alabama's running game has the potential to be the most challenging in the SEC, if not all of college football.
Alabama Offensive Line
Name, Recruiting Class, Stars, Rank
Alex Leatherwood, 2017, 5, 4
Evan Neal, 2019, 5, 7
Landon Dickerson, 2016, 4, 31
Pierce Quick, 2019, 4, 40
Amari Kight, 2019, 4, 76
Emil Ekiyor Jr., 2018, 4, 113
Tommy Brown, 2018, 4, 132
Deonte Brown, 2016, 4, 177
Darrian Dalcourt 2019, 4, 177
Chris Owens, 2016, 4, 187
Kendall Randolph, 2017, 4, 180
Tanner Bowles, 2019, 4, 290
Jedrick Wills Jr., 2017, 4, 34
Scott Lashley, 2016, 4, 201 [transfer to Mississippi State]
Matt Womack, 2015, 3, 623
Hunter Brannon, 2017, 3, 943
Seth McLaughlin, 2020, 3, 470
Javion Cohen, 2020, 4, 339
* Rankings are 247composite; *-indicates ranking was at another position