Tuscaloosa Truck Line: Heavy haulers deliver for arguably most prolific Alabama offense ever
When you’re out on the highway, they’re impossible to miss but easy to forget about. Sometimes, you only notice them when they’re cutting you off or sitting in a ditch waiting for assistance.
But that gargantuan Peterbilt or Freightliner rig in your rearview mirror is hauling ton upon ton of freight throughout North America. It might be providing you or your neighbor’s next tank of gasoline, box of cereal, bedspread or COVID-19 vaccine.
Similarly, there’s a fleet of big rigs that have the Alabama football program upon the precipice of college football preeminence: a record-breaking 7th national title for coach Nick Saban, featuring quite possibly the best offense in the Crimson Tide’s illustrious school history. They toss defensive linemen aside so Najee Harris can do Najee Harris things, and they form a nearly-impenetrable barricade so Mac Jones often ends games with a jersey as clean as his high-and-loose haircut.
They now have the Outland and Rimington trophies displayed on their mantel. They come from as close as Decatur, Alabama, and as far away as Indianapolis. You’d take left tackle Alex Leatherwood in either a street fight or an academic decathlon; center Landon Dickerson, who is injured, is more of a comedy tour candidate. They’re young and old in linemen years, with a trio of seniors who came back in hopes of doing something special — mission accomplished, regardless of what happens in Monday’s College Football Playoff Championship Game in Miami.
It’s a group that’s been forged both via recruiting and development; four of the six main men in Bama’s rotation redshirted. Together, they have a combined 126 career starts under their belt. Most, if not all of them, will play in the NFL.
Call ’em the Tuscaloosa Truck Line.
A lot of good ones have rolled through this program: Don Whitmore during the World War II era, John Hannah and Dwight Stephenson during the Bear Bryant era, Chris Samuels in the 90s, Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and DJ Fluker more recently.
But no collective has done quite what this line has in 2020.
“I tell people that I think we have the best O-line in the country,” said Harris, the running back who’s averaged more than 6 yards every time he’s touched the ball this season. “They and Coach (Kyle) Flood and everyone in that room doing an amazing job, progressing each game, each week, each day in practice. They don’t get enough attention.”
After his team got blasted 52-3, Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said Alabama’s starting offensive line should win the Heisman Trophy.
That honor, of course, went to wideout DeVonta Smith, one of three candidates for whom Leatherwood, Dickerson and Co. have paved the way.
They’re more than content with the program’s second annual Joe Moore Award, doled out to FBS’ top movers.
“It means the world to us, because that’s one of our goals that we’ve had as a group going into every season,” said Leatherwood, who received the Outland Award for best lineman Thursday. “It’s just a testament to the work we put in to get it and just how hard we worked for it. We’re extremely grateful.”
With Leatherwood, left guard Deonte Brown, center Chris Owens (who replaced Dickerson), right guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. and right tackle Evan Neal manning the trenches, Alabama is on pace for the most yards per game (535), passing yards per game (349) and points per game (48.2) in school history. A robust showing against Ohio State, and it can add yards per play — currently at a ridiculous 7.84 clip — to that list.
Jones leads the nation in passing efficiency and has been sacked 9 times in 379 drop backs. Harris’ 24 rushing touchdowns lead FBS.
“I think we’ve set a pretty good standard of how to play, and it’s not just this year,” said Dickerson, who’s out for the playoffs with a season-ending knee injury. “There’s always been a standard of excellence when it comes to play, no matter what position you’re at.”
Leatherwood is the most seasoned of the bunch, having started Alabama’s past 39 games. Rated the No. 11 offensive lineman on CBS Sports’ 2021 NFL Draft board, the 6-6, 312-pound man child came back for his redshirt senior season despite plenty of juice surrounding his name a year ago.
He also wanted to complete his business finance degree, which he earned last spring.
The fact it’ll all culminate in Leatherwood’s home state of Florida makes it even sweeter for the Pensacola native.
“It’s great, me being a Floridian,” Leatherwood said. “To be honest, I love Florida. I think it’s the best state ever. I’m obviously extremely grateful to be able to play in the national championship, of course, but it also being at home in the crib is a great feeling. I’m super excited for it.”
Dickerson won’t play Monday, but he has Florida ties, too. After a string of injuries at Florida State, the 6-6, 325-pound North Carolina native came to Alabama as a graduate transfer with 2 years of remaining eligibility.
He’s used them to cement his name among the great centers in Tide annals and win the Rimington Trophy, given annually to the nation’s top center. His defensive-lineman trolling, flopping antics against rival LSU this year also certified him as one of college football’s most endearing goofballs.
“A lot of people can say this is a business, and it is really,” Dickerson said, providing a small window into the behind-the-scenes enjoyment that comes from playing for Saban, whose reputation as a hard-nosed stickler is sometimes overblown. “It can be a business at times, but I really think that I enjoy football in every aspect when it comes to playing, being around teammates, just the comradery and anything that goes with it. I enjoy every day that I’m here, every second that I’m around my teammates and coaches and everybody here.”
Even after being carted off the field during an emotional SEC championship scene, Dickerson was in the mix of the Crimson Tide’s 31-14 Rose Bowl victory over Notre Dame last weekend. Leatherwood said Dickerson’s encouragement and pointers, combined with Owens’ play in relief, made it seem like big No. 69 had never left the fold.
Multiple players, including Harris, now have added motivation to win for Dickerson. Not that they needed any extra oomph.
“Landon is one of my best friends, and if Landon is going to stay on the ground then you know something’s wrong,” Harris said. “He tried to get up, but I think our trainers were like, ‘Stay down, stay down.’
“It just goes to show, that guy will put his whole life on the line for Alabama football.”
Owens, a redshirt senior and career backup who started one game earlier this year right tackle, plays with the same mentality. You won’t find a more selfless contributor than the 6-3, 315-pounder from Arlington Texas. Owens has moved all over the line during his 5-year career.
Every championship team has at least one surprise who pops up late and helps seal the deal. So far, that’s been Owens.
Left guard Deonte Brown doesn’t get as many press clippings, but he may possess the most raw talent of the unit. The Decatur, Alabama, native made a decision similar to Leatherwood after pondering his NFL prospects a year ago.
CBS Sports ranks him the No. 9 offensive lineman and 38th overall prospect in this year’s draft class.
The right side of the line is younger, with Ekiyor in his first year as a starter out of Indianapolis. Sophomore right tackle Evan Neal started all of his true freshman season at left guard, so he’s in line to continue the trend of top-tier linemen under Saban.
Perhaps frighteningly, there are more waiting in the wings. Per 247Sports, Alabama’s 2021 recruiting crop contains the top 2 offensive tackles. Pierce Quick was ranked No. 7 in the 2019 class and appeared in three games this season.
“For new offensive linemen coming in, just be ready, because we’re gonna expect a lot out of you,” Dickerson said. “The standard that we play to and the standard that we’re expected to meet every day is really above and beyond what a lot of people really realize. I think that’s what makes us a quality team full of good players, is every day you’re challenged to be the best player you can be.”
What will change is who orchestrates this group moving forward. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian reportedly nabbed Flood, the O-line coach the past 2 seasons, to join his staff at Texas after the season.
But all that can wait. Besides, there’s something simplistically intricate about finding what longtime announcer Keith Jackson called “The Big Uglies” and building around them the way Bama has. It goes far beyond any coordinator or position coach, reaching into the depths of football’s most basic concept.
Cream the guy across from you.
That’s the plan for Alabama as it prepares for its final stop on this interstate trip.
“We still got a lot of business to take care of,” Leatherwood said.