In Alabama spring practice, the main man at right tackle was Austin Shepherd, a 6-6, 315-pound junior who played as D.J. Fluker’s back-up the past two years, seeing action in 17 games.
Shepherd, who came to Bama from North Gwinnett High in Buford, Ga., had a wiating period before he got his chance. “I had a great guy in front of me,” he said. It’s not too bad, because you can learn a lot of things from a first round draft pick. I think I did learn a lot from D.J.”
In those three years of not being a regular – he was redshirted in 2010, and then played in seven games in 2011 and 10 in 2012 – he got some comfort from his roommate, Chance Warmack (who was drafted right in front of Fluker this year). “I lived with Chance for a year or two, and he helped me through the process, because sometimes it was tough,” Shepherd said. “I got a lot of things from him. He told me to just stay with what I was doing and everything would be okay.
“Of course I wanted to be on the field playing, but I got to learn from one of the best.
“Now I’ve got the opportunity and I’m excited about it. I’ve dreamed about it since I was a little kid, having the chance to play with the best running backs in the nation, pancake some people. I’m just trying to have some fun.”
One part of that opportunity, he said, has already come true. The running backs, he said, “are all dang good. It’s amazing the yards per carry they average, six, seven.”
Shepherd moved into the position on the first day of spring practice and held it through the A-Day Game. He said he spent the spring “just working my tail off, trying to make the best of it.”
Shepherd is one of three men who came out of spring practice as new number one players at offensive line positions. He’s joined by left guard Arie Kouandjio and center Ryan Kelly. The returning starters are Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle and Anthony Steen at right guard.
“It’s a great opportunity for all of us (newcomers to the starting offensive line),” Shepherd said. “All of us are great players and everybody is doing a great job.” Although he doesn’t have those 22 1/2s that Fluker had, Shepherd said one of the strengths he brings to right tackle are “my feet.” He said he also has good quickness and is “overall, a good football player.”
Last year as a member of the second offense, Shepherd was part of the “Touchdown Twos,” a name given to the unit by former Crimson Tide offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. “That was something we joked around about when we went in because it was our chance to shine,” Shepherd said. “When we’d go in in the fourth quarter, we’d joke around that the Touchdown Twos were trying to score. And we did sometimes.”
Alabama has a new offensive line coach this year with Stoutland having going to the NFL. Mario Cristobal, the former Miami All-America tackle and head coach at Florida International, brought a fiery personality to Bama practices in the spring. “He has a different style, a different terminology, but they are kind of the same, both great guys,” Shepherd said. “I’m happy for Coach Stoutland and I love having Coach Cristobal.”
Some things don’t change in Alabama football.
“Everything is power,” Shepherd said. “Outside zone, trying to run the ball as much as we can. I like both run blocking and pass blocking. Honestly, I just love playing football.”
Although Alabama brought in a junior college transfer, Leon Brown, at mid-term to compete for the position, Shepherd wasn’t concerned about the competition. “I just try to focus on what I’m doing and how I play,.” he said. “If I do that, everything will work out.”
Shepherd hopes that he can fill the leadership role held by Fluker. “He was one of the biggest leaders on the team,” Shepherd said. “I’ve just got to try and fill that position, try to be vocal, try to get guys going every day like he did.”
There’s one way Shepherd and the clean-shaven Fluker are different. Shepherd began growing a beard following Bama’s 42-14 BCS National Championship Game win over Notre Dame on Jan. 7.
“I don’t know how much longer it will be there,” he said. “My mom and my girlfriend hate it.”