- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's note: From now until the start of spring camp March 16, TideNation will count down the 12 most intriguing players to watch on the Alabama football roster. Today we look at center Ryan Kelly.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For the Alabama Crimson Tide to have the season they hope for, the offensive line must come together -- and in a hurry. With a season-opening date against Virginia Tech in Atlanta, followed by a trip to College Station, Texas, to visit the Texas A&M Aggies, time is of the essence. There are just two offensive linemen returning from last season, and without a strong front five it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Alabama to repeat as national champion.
Chemistry will be vital. Without it, talent means nothing. It's what made last season's line so good. The players weren't just skilled, they worked well together. Rediscovering that delicate composition of guard, tackle and center will begin in a few weeks when spring practice starts and new offensive line coach Mario Cristobal takes over the reins from the departed Jeff Stoutland.
Cristobal will rely on aid from Ryan Kelly. The rising redshirt sophomore is a shoo-in to replace Barrett Jones at center. Kelly, who signed with Alabama in 2011 as the No. 4 center in the country, was with the second team for the last two springs and spent several weeks running with the first unit during bowl practice, while Jones sat out with an injury. During that time, Kelly gained the respect of many of his teammates.
Jones has called Kelly a more talented center than he'd ever hope to become. Chance Warmack chimed in later, adding that Kelly was an "exceptional young player" who catches on well to the schemes.
"He's keen on carrying me and taking control in terms of making the right calls," Warmack said of Kelly on Dec. 27. "Knowing the scheme, what it takes to be a starter at center on the offensive line. He's doing a really good job."
Though he has yet to start a game in his career, Kelly understands the responsibility of the playing center. While he enjoys the recognition his teammates have already given him, he said he's trying not to get a big head about it and continues to work hard to improve. As the one calling protections, he's the captain of the line, though Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen are senior to him in status. Ultimately, the success of the entire line rests with him.
"When I make a call, that’s what everyone else makes his call off of," Kelly told reporters before the BCS National Championship. "So if I’m wrong, everyone else is wrong."
And if everyone else on the line is wrong, nothing will work. The ball starts off in the center's hands, not the quarterback and not the running back. While other flashier positions might gather more attention when spring camp opens March 16, at the end of the day there might not be a more important person to the health of the offense as a whole than Kelly.