Dennis Alexander is listed on the roster at 6-6, 345 pounds. But just months ago when the new staff first arrived the mammoth lineman was edging toward the 400-pound mark. Connelly recalls that first meeting.
"When I got here I saw a big fellow in the hallway and found out he was an offensive lineman, so I pulled him in the office and we talked," Connelly related. "Dennis expressed that he wanted to be one of ‘the guys,' and to play. I told him I'd give a senior the benefit of the doubt. If he's as good or better than the next guy, then he'd start. But I also let him know that he wasn't going to be able to do it at the weight he was weighing at the time.
"We set up a plan. He's down from 376 pounds to 344 pounds as of last week. I'm very pleased."
For athletes like Alexander losing weight is easier said than done, but he's made real progress the past few months. "My main goal is to lose weight," Alexander acknowledged. "I started off very heavy this winter, and I've been working to lose the weight. I believe getting the weight down is the key to my conditioning. As I lose weight, I won't have a problem with running around."
It wasn't that long ago when overweight--even fat--offensive linemen were in vogue. But Connelly sees it differently. "At 370 pounds, those guys have a tendency to be top-heavy," he explained. "Top-heavy guys play on the ground, and guys that are on the ground can't play for me.
"But Dennis has worked really hard at it, and he's doing a good job. If he continues like he's doing, I have no doubt that he'll be a contributor for us and play a lot of downs."
A top-rated offensive line prospect out of Memphis, Alexander redshirted his first season at Alabama. He battled injuries in 2000, but still managed to start seven of the final eight games for the Tide. Following that year he received both Freshman All-SEC and All-America recognition.
But even then his weight was a problem, and after the coaching change Alexander dropped down the depth chart. As a back-up to Marico Portis in 2001 and 2002, Alexander got 139 snaps as a sophomore and 115 last season as a junior.
But Portis has now graduated, and Alexander is frankly hoping the latest coaching change will work in his favor. "Since high school I've changed coaches three times, so it's really not a big deal now," Alexander said. "When it first happened two years ago, when Coach (Neal) Callaway left, it was a big change. But once it happens a couple of times you get used to it. You learn to adjust."
Because of his height and wing span, when Alexander first arrived on campus there was a lot of talk about playing him at tackle. But Connelly believes guard is his natural position.
"The kids that are a little bigger, stronger, more physical we move inside," Connelly said. "That's dictated by the defenses. Nose guards and defensive tackles are 300-pounds or more, so your inside guys have got to be stronger and more physical. They can't get pushed around. No matter how good your edge guys are, if the (guards and centers) are getting pushed back into the quarterback's throwing lane, then we're in trouble."
Under Connelly's tutelage Alexander has worked exclusively at right guard. And so far at least he's been running with the first string. "Spring is going good," Alexander said. "It's been awhile since I've worked with the first team. It's a little bit different conditioning-wise. You're running from drill to drill. But it feels good to be back rotating with the first team."
"He'll play guard on the inside," Connelly said. "Whether right or left, that's not set in stone. But Dennis will play guard for us."
Assuming he doesn't move to another position, junior Justin Smiley is a likely lock to start at left guard. But reserve guards Danny Martz and Mark Sanders are battling Alexander for the remaining slot. And senior Atlas Herrion, who has spent most of his career at tackle, could provide the strongest challenge.
"I've got good competition with Danny Martz and Mark Sanders at guard," Alexander admitted. "With guys behind you have to keep pushing yourself and remember that those guys are only a play away from being in front of you. You have to play your best every day."
Entering his fifth season at Alabama, Alexander knows time is short. If he hopes to impress the NFL scouts, he has to come up big in 2003. "If I want to have any success playing pro ball this will have to be my year," he said. "If I continue to do what I'm doing now I think I'll have a good chance for a good senior year and getting a shot at the NFL."
The Tide coaches are still searching for that "Best Five" group of linemen that they will utilize as starters. But every pound that Alexander drops--and every day that he works with the first unit--puts him another step closer to his goal.
"As long as he can get his weight down to be in shape, Dennis has got the ability to play and help us," Connelly said. "He understands he can't do it at his current weight, but so long as he continues to work and keep his work ethic and attitude, I have every confidence he'll be at his goal weight next fall. I look forward to having him a part of the offensive line and producing for us."