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NFL Draft: Nick Saban confident Alabama’s Jedrick Wills can make shift to left tackle

Alabama’s Jedrick Wills is athletic, physical, smart and a national champion.

He has the attributes the Browns are looking for in a left tackle, except for an important one: experience at the position.

The Browns have a gaping hole at the line’s premier spot, and the assumption is they’ll use the No. 10 pick to fill it. The draft is rich in candidates, with Wills ranking among the best offensive linemen.

As the Browns consider their options, they must decide if Wills can make the switch to the left side. Alabama coach Nick Saban is confident Wills can, saying he would have no trouble physically.

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“I think that what people don’t realize is he played right tackle for us because we had a left-handed quarterback,” Saban told The Chronicle-Telegram in a phone interview this week. “So that was the left tackle for us.

“But he’s athletic enough to do it. He’s really smart, he’s got power, he can move, he’s got good range. He’s really a good player.”

The southpaw quarterback was Tua Tagovailoa, who could join Wills as top-10 picks April 23. Saban used Wills to protect Tagovailoa’s blindside. It worked, as Wills was a second-team All-American in 2019, allowing one sack and 3.5 quarterback hurries.

The Browns signed free agent Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million contract last month to play right tackle, so the focus is on finding a left tackle to make sure Baker Mayfield is safe on the front and back sides.

Wills (6-foot-4, 312 pounds) grew up playing right tackle and acknowledges he is more comfortable there. But he said he’d play wherever a team wants him and believes he can change sides and excel.

“I do. That’s something I’ve been practicing on during this predraft process leading up to April,” he said on the “Stick to Football” podcast March 27. “I’m just trying to feel comfortable in both. And I also feel with the right coaching I will be able to do whichever one they need me to do.”

New Browns coach Kevin Stefanski hired respected veteran Bill Callahan to coach the line and would likely believe in him to lead Wills’ transition. Saban admits the lack of experience on the left side is a legitimate concern.

“We never, ever tried him there,” he said. “But we were kinda satisfied with him playing the right side because he was a good pass blocker and that was the back side of our quarterback, at least in that timeframe.

“I don’t think he has any physical problems with him, now the guy’s never done it, you never know can he get in a left-hand stance and how long is it going to take him to adapt to all that. I can’t answer that.”

That doesn’t change Saban’s opinion of Wills, who played in the Crimson Tide’s wide zone scheme and should have no trouble adapting to Stefanski’s version.

“Look, he’s one of the better guys that we’ve had here all the way around,” Saban said. “The guy can get moving in the run game, he’s smart, he’s got really good athletic ability, lateral quickness, open his hips in pass pro, he’s got good hands.

“And the guy’s really smart. He takes it to the field, too. So he’s got a little toughness about him, too. I think he’s a really good player.”

Wills said at the scouting combine one of the reasons he chose Alabama was its history producing NFL linemen. He also credited Saban with teaching him how to be a professional.

“Once you start getting older and being a leader of the team, everybody starts to look at you,” Wills said. “Being a pro is one of the main things, coming in every day at practice, on or off the field. Just treat yourself like you’re going to the next level.”

Saban has been an NFL head coach, won six national titles in college and knows how to prepare his players.

“What we try to tell our guys here is you’ve got to learn how to be responsible for your own self-determination,” he said. “So there’s a lot of accountability, somebody’s going to define that expectation and standard and you’ve got to be accountable to it.

“But that’s what being a professional is. So I don’t care if it’s a professional working for Apple Computer or for the Cleveland Browns, I mean, that’s what being a professional is. Being responsible and accountable and do your job.”

Saban said Wills did a good job walking the emotional line.

“He can be emotional. I’ve always talked to him about, look, you want to play the game with great emotion but you don’t want to be emotional,” Saban said. “Because when you’re emotional you’re going to make bad decisions. And he’s always bought into that, tried to play that way.”

Wills was a two-year starter at right tackle and left Alabama after his junior season. He ran a 5.05-second 40-yard dash at the combine, vertical jumped 34.5 inches and broad jumped 9-5. The numbers were solid even if they fell short of some posted by the other tackle prospects.

He’s training back home in Kentucky and ranks himself as the best lineman in a draft class that includes Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas.

“You’re going to get a competitor,” Wills said. “A good offensive lineman who’s smart. I have a high football IQ. A mauler in the run and pass game. I try to put people on the ground as much as I can.”

He places his intelligence at the top of the list.

“I feel like I have a really good football IQ,” he said. “It’s something I take pride in. I try to keep the (missed assignments) to a minimum. I’m an athletic player and I like to dominate people.”

If the Browns draft him, he’ll be asked to do that from the left side. He said the hardest part of the switch would be the lack of muscle memory.

“Being on the right side for so long, it’s something that feels a little bit different,” he said. “You switch your feet up, using your right hand, your punch time is going to be different. It’s small things.”

 

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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