Outland Trophy history: Offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, Alabama, 2020 recipient

This is the 15th and last in a series on Outland Trophy winners from 2006 to 2020. From 1946 to 2005, Outland Trophy winners were profiled in a book by Gene Duffey, Sixty Years of the Outland Trophy. We have now caught up with the last 15 winners.

(Leatherwood was selected 17th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft by the Las Vegas Raiders. He is playing his rookie season in the NFL this fall.)     

By Gene Duffey, Author

In the 2009 movie, The Blind Side, based on Mississippi left tackle Michael Oher, his position is featured, praised and even glorified, as long as you don’t have to play it. It’s the left tackle who must protect the blind side of a right-handed quarterback in the pocket.

Logically, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood, who helped the Crimson Tide win the 2020 national championship, played left tackle and won the 75th Outland Trophy.

Coaches knew the importance of the position long before fans did. The movie opened with a replay of Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann being crushed from behind by a blitzing linebacker — from The Blind Side.

You better have a good left tackle if you want your quarterback to be able to walk by the fourth quarter.   

Every offensive line needs an anchor, and that anchor is usually the left tackle,” Alabama’s offensive line coach Kyle Flood (at the time) told the audience at Omaha’s Outland Trophy dinner in a video.

“That guy is the security blanket for the offensive line coach, and the entire offensive line. What you don’t see about (Leatherwood) is his consistent preparation, all the reps he takes in practice and the great example he sets for all the young guys on the team.”

Leatherwood offered a simple explanation for his work ethic in practice. “I was trying to be the best player I can be,” he said.

Flood ran the offensive line at Alabama during Leatherwood’s junior and senior seasons, then followed Steve Sarkisian to Texas in January 2021 to become offensive coordinator for the Longhorns.

Alabama’s offense did more than score points. The Tide steamrolled their opponents in 2020. They averaged 48.5 points a game, second best in the country.  

The Alabama offense looked like the All-American team.

Not only did Leatherwood win the Outland Trophy, wide receiver DeVonta Smith won the Heisman Trophy, the first pass catcher to do so since Michigan’s Desmond Howard won it in 1991. Quarterback Mac Jones finished third in the Heisman voting and running Najee Harris finished fifth, giving Nick Saban three of the top five players in the country, in the media’s mind.

Saban held a hand with five aces.

Harris also claimed the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back and Jones the Davey O’Brien Award for being the most outstanding quarterback. Smith doubled up by winning the Biletnikoff Award for the best receiver.Teammate Landon Dickerson received the Rimington Award as the best center in the country. Nebraska’s Dave Rimington was the first (and so far only) player in history to win the Outland Trophy twice, 1981 and ‘82.

2020 Outland Trophy winner Alex Leatherwood of Alabama in action against Notre Dame.

Not surprisingly, Alabama also won the Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line. Try stopping that attack.

Roll Tide Roll summed up the season.

Remember, because of the corona virus, Alabama played all 11 regular season games against SEC opponents. There were no cupcakes, no I-AA teams on the schedule.

The Tide scored 63 points against Mississippi, probably their toughest game of the season. They scored 52 on Ohio State in the national championship game.

It was only the second time in Nick Saban’s 26 years as a head coach that his team finished undefeated, joining the 2009 Alabama team that beat Texas to win the national championship.

For Leatherwood to be elected captain by his teammates, that included such a sensational group of seniors showed the respect he had earned from his teammates.

Alabama’s first Outland Trophy winner was Chris Samuels in 1999. He became the No. 3 player taken in the 2000 NFL Draft

When Nick Saban became coach of the Crimson Tide, the Outland found a regular home in Tuscaloosa.

Andre Smith began the trend in 2008, followed by Barrett Jones in 2011, Cam Robinson in 2016 and Quinnen Williams in 2018 before Leatherwood.

At the start of Leatherwood’s senior season he made a list of items, off the football field that he wanted to accomplish. No. 1 was to graduate on time. He did.

The draftniks projected Leatherwood as a second or third round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Leatherwood didn’t buy it.

A post on Niner Notes questioned Leatherwood’s versatility: Great run blocker, yet he has some issues against more (experienced) pass rushers. The lateral movement isn’t quite there.” 

“It bothered me a little bit, but I’m not a media guy,” Leatherwood   told Mark Inabinett of AOL.com about the draft predictions.

The Las Vegas Raiders didn’t believe the draftniks either. They chose   Leatherwood in the first round with the No. 17 pick.

“By no means was I surprised,” Leatherwood said of his draft position. “The (Raiders) GM and scouts, they knew that as well, so I’m just grateful they watched the film and saw me as good enough to be the 17th overall pick.

“It was not necessarily to prove the haters wrong, or the people who made all the mock drafts, but to prove to myself and the Raiders’ organization right. I’m grateful to them.”

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock knew exactly what he was getting with his first-round pick.

“He’s a power guy,” said Mayock. “We knew it would be a controversial (pick). We want to run the football. He can play inside or outside (guard or tackle). He’s going to start at right tackle for us from day one.”

Although he played left tackle as a junior and senior at Alabama, he started all 15 games his sophomore year at right guard, showing Mayock that he was just what the Raiders needed.

“I will always feel like a left tackle,” said Leatherwood. “But with my skill set, my size, my strength and my length, I feel like I can play anywhere on the O-line.”

Physical is just what Raiders coach Jon Gruden had in mind. “I like Alabama tackles because when I turn on their games, they’re beating the hell out of people.”

Leatherwood impressed former Georgia defensive end and ESPN analyst David Pollack just as much.

“Just watch the athleticism,” said Pollack, who was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 and won the Lombardi Award. He should know a good offensive tackle when he sees one.

“Look at him run,” Pollack said. “He can get to the next level (to block linebackers). He can use his hands. He can use that power. He always played great, always played physical, always played fast.”

Barrett Jones, the 2011 Outland winner, also from Alabama, saw similar traits in Leatherwood.

“He’s got the athleticism,” said Jones. “He has incredible power. He stays in balance and is able to finish guys at will. And he plays with an attitude.”

Leatherwood sounded ready for the NFL at Alabama’s Pro Day.

“The things we go through here to prepare us, we make practice harder than a game will be,” he said. “Me being used to that, knowing how to prepare and things like that is just going to help me that much more.

“I love playing O-line. I feel like it’s the most cerebral and technical position on the field. That chase of perfection is fun.”

Pro Day became extra important in 2021 because the traditional NFL Combine was canceled by the pandemic.      

Would you believe that four Alabama players were chosen ahead of Leatherwood in the first round in 2021, with wide receiver Jaylen Waddle going sixth to Miami, before his Heisman Trophy winning teammate, cornerback Patrick Surtain going ninth to Denver, Smith 10th to Philadelphia and Jones 16th to New England?

Add Leatherwood at 17th and Harris at 24th to Pittsburgh and it put Alabama in a tie with the Miami Hurricanes in 2004 for most first-round picks taken from the same college with six.

Leatherwood attended Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, Florida where he played for a coach named Charlie Ward. Yes, it was the same Charlie Ward who won the Heisman Trophy in 1993 playing quarterback for Florida State. He led Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles to the national championship that year.

“He was a sophomore in my first year (there),” Ward told Levi Edwards, a Digital Team reporter. “He was well-built, had long arms, and was very athletic, He was strong, but he had to mature and continue to grow during his years. He had to be pushed a bit when I first got there, but he was happy to receive the coaching.”

Booker T. suffered through losing seasons when Leatherwood played, but the huge tackle drew plenty of attention.

There were opportunities to transfer to more successful high school programs, but that’s not what Leatherwood wanted. “I didn’t want to give up on my team,” he said. “I started in Washington, so I wanted to stay there and see it through. Thanks to my relationships with my coaches and teammates, I felt it was more valuable than going elsewhere.”

The recruiters all wanted him. Leatherwood also made official visits to Michigan, Texas, Georgia and Auburn before choosing Alabama.

When it was time to make his college decision, Leatherwood knew what he wanted. “I wanted to go to a program where I could compete on the national stage every week,” he said. “Face the best competition and win in the end. That’s all I wanted to do. I just wanted to be part of a winning program and the tradition of winning.”

Alabama proved to be the perfect place for that.

He stood 6-5 and 297 pounds when he enrolled for the second semester in Tuscaloosa in 2017 and participated in spring ball, developing quickly enough to catch the coaches’ eyes. He made it worth leaving high school early. He played in seven games as a true freshman, making his debut in the second game of the season, the home opener, a 41-10 win over Fresno State.

Leatherwood made a name for himself in the National Championship Game at the end of the 2017 season. Starting left tackle Jonah Williams suffered an injury early in the third quarter. Leatherwood replaced him and played the rest of the game against Georgia.

He allowed one sack, but he committed no penalties and helped Alabama beat the Bulldogs, 26-23, in overtime to claim another national championship.

Leatherwood could have left Alabama after his junior year and been taken in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft.

But he wanted more. The 2019 Tide finished 11-2, losing games to eventual national champion LSU and rival Auburn. They missed the four-team playoff for the first time in its six years of existence.

Alabama did come back from a 16-14 half-time deficit to beat Michigan State in the Citrus Bowl. But that wasn’t enough for Leatherwood. He wanted so much more.

He announced he planned to return to Alabama for his senior year, foregoing the NFL Draft. His reason? “Unfinished business to take care of,” he stated.

“I felt like I had a lot more to offer,” Leatherwood said to Brett Hudson of TideSports. “The way the season went last year, it wasn’t how we expected it to go. I wanted to come back and leave on a way better note.”

He did.

The everlasting photo of that championship season appropriately showed Leatherwood standing on makeshift platform, holding the national championship trophy with Nick Saban.

Leatherwood started his last 41 games at Alabama. He     accomplished something else by returning to Alabama for his senior season. He improved his draft stock.

He also made a list of things he wanted to do off the field in his last year at Alabama. No. 1 on the list was graduate on time. Mission accomplished.

“I’m super proud of myself,” he said.

The Black Lives Matter campaign meant more to Leatherwood than just a slogan. He believed it. He embraced it. He wanted to participate in it.

The Alabama athletic department put together a video for Black Lives Matter. Leatherwood contributed a well-written portion of the script.

“Let’s listen,” wrote Leatherwood. “Let’s unite, because all lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”

“I’m not a man of that many words,” Leatherwood told ESPN’s Holly Rowe. “I felt like my voice needed to be heard. I’m more than just a football player.

“I actually care about the things that go on outside this place. It was super important to get my word across because it impacts a lot of people.”