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Jones the line's clear leader

TUSCALOOSA _ It’s sort of like the University of Alabama football team’s version of the shell game: If fans can find under which helmet is Barrett Jones they should win a prize.

By moving over to center, Barrett Jones is helping Alabama get Cyrus Kouandjio on the field at left tackle.

The first two years he was at right guard, where he made 25 starts. Last season Jones moved to left tackle, but also took a few snaps at every other spot except his former position and handful of times even lined up next to right tackle D.J. Fluker to form an unbalanced line.

This spring, of course, he’s going to center, which has to be the first time in college football history that the reigning Outland Trophy winner as best interior lineman will be the leading candidate for the Rimington Trophy. In many ways, though, the move seems to natural, and more than fitting.

“I think that Barrett Jones has been a very good leader for us because of who he is,” Coach Nick Saban said. “He has leadership qualities. He's got tremendous character. I think he cares about other people, sets a good example for them.

“Because he's a senior, and he is playing a position now that sort of enhances his leadership ability, he'll make a lot of line calls and is very involved with what's going on. Sometimes a guy is put into a role that maybe requires a little more leadership, which he's certainly capable of assuming because of the character and quality and leadership that he has. I just think he'll just flourish in the role he's in now because of the intangibles he has and the kind of character he has.”

Although he hasn’t complained, don’t believe for a moment that Jones considers the move to be ideal, especially to that position. Getting left tackle down was difficult enough even though he made it look easy while winning the Jacobs Awards as the SEC’s best blocker, being named an unanimous All-American and brought home the position’s most prestigious national award.

According to his bio for the national championship game Jones graded out 90 percent or better in four games, which is considered exceptional for a left tackle. He missed just nine assignments in 587 snaps (98.5 percent), was 100 percent on assignments in four games, and perhaps most importantly didn’t get his first-year quarterback killed while protecting his blind side (three sacks).

Yet during the few times he relieved William Vlachos, the 6-foot-5, 311-pound standout (now down to 302) developed a greater appreciation for what the job entailed – or as he described it, it’s a lot easier to second-guess calls than to make them.

Besides, he’s never been one to back down from a challenge, and can’t ignore the obvious benefits to his team:

William Vlachos leaves the Crimson Tide after starting three seasons at center.

First, it puts Alabama’s best lineman in the middle, making all the initial reads. Since he’s played all the spots, he knows what to look for across the board and there’s probably nothing Jones hasn’t seen.

"I watched a lot of film,” Jones explained. “Playing all those positions gave me a greater understanding of the schemes and concepts of the entire offensive line. It helped me understand the big picture better."

Consequently, his impact will be felt throughout the whole line on every play, instead of with just those on either side of him.

“He does his job,” Fluker said. “He explains the things he sees on the field. Like we’re on the field playing a guy and he sees it and explains it. I’ll see it on my side. So we communicate pretty good.”

Second, the position jumps have increased the likelihood that Alabama can have its best five linemen on the field, and Jones will can still serve as the key backup for either tackle should someone get hurt.

“You just can’t realize how important that is to a coach, to be able to have a good football player who can play more than one spot,” former Alabama coach Gene Stallings said.

That essentially makes the offensive line’s top priorities this spring: Getting everyone used to playing alongside one other in the current configuration, finding someone to be the sixth man like Alfred McCullough (perhaps Ryan Kelly), and incorporating the new left tackle, mega-prospect Cyrus Kounadjio.

“We think he can be a very, very good player,” Saban said about Kouandjio.

“There's no experiment involved in Barrett playing center. That experiment was all done last year. He got a lot of reps and played some in games. I don't think there's any question about the fact he'll do a really good job there for us.”

Of that, everyone appears to be sure of, even though Jones will go up against some bigger defensive linemen/nose tackles, and a lot of times will be snapping the ball to a quarterback in shotgun formation. His predecessor was also known for occasionally pulling and getting out in front of screen passes.

“You have Vlachos for so long and so you get used to one way. Then you have Barrett come in who is a little taller and who is a little more … not that Vlachos isn’t smart, but Barrett is a genius almost,” tight end Michael Williams said last week. “You’ve got someone coming in who can play any position on the offensive line is always helpful.”

Two things that Vlachos excelled at were technique and recognition, which were only aided by his 40 games of experience and three years starting.

As a senior he graded out first or second on the Alabama offensive line in all 12 games leading up to the championship, and better than 90 percent in half of them. Overall, he had just eight missed assignments in 733 snaps (99.0 percent), and was 100 percent in six games.

Like Jones, Vlachos also did his homework and the two spent countless hours in film room together going over opponents. To give an idea of the detail involved, they studied the tendencies of every opposing player and for the 2009 national championship game against Texas watched every snap of that season at least two or three times, even more of the critical situations (third downs, etc.).

“I loved playing next to him because I knew he was going to give everything he had and I knew I could trust him,” Jones said.

Only now Vlachos has moved on and the job falls to Jones, who might be the biggest center in Alabama history, and on its biggest line (in comparison Dwight Stephenson was listed as 6-2, 255 pounds, and according to the Houston Texans roster Antoine Caldwell is 6-3, 311 pounds).

And it’s his to lead, no matter where everyone lines up.

“It’s not weird to me at all,” Williams said about the move(s). “He can play all five of the offensive line positions. For Barrett it’s probably easier than for most people. We have utmost faith in Barrett to do that.”

This is part two of a five-part series that will appear on BOL this week.

The Barrett Jones Chronicles
Day 1, Charity/academics:
Day 2, Leadership

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