O-Line not set in stone

For most Tide fans the main O-Line concerns this summer have centered around conditioning. Are certain players losing weight? And if so, how much? But though he understands the curiosity, for Offensive Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser, the question is broader. "We've got a long ways to go before we determine who's going to play and who's not going to play."

As part of his effort to improve communication with the fans, Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione released several depth charts during spring drills. But neither fans nor players should assume that listing is permanent. "The depth chart coming out of spring is not set in stone," Helduser stated. "But then it never is. Never is. We're going to play the people that are performing. As our young talent develops and earns more playing time, then that will have an effect on what we look like at any point. We're going to put our best unit on the field at every point."

Though he is taking some time to adjust to the speed of SEC football, junior college transfer Atlas Herrion is expected to challenge for playing time at tackle.

Fan curiosity about which players will trot on the field for the opening series versus UCLA is understandable. But the veteran O-Line coach simply won't be pinned down on the subject. "We've not lined up and played a game yet, so there are still some things floating around out there that may or may not change," Helduser explained. "I'm not trying to be evasive, but if athletes don't play well then it's not fair to the football team to try to force a square peg into a round hole. We're always going to be searching for better answers and better solutions. Who those guys may or may not be is hard to tell at this point."

Alabama came out of spring practice with a relatively established lineup. Alonzo Ephraim held a slight lead over Evan Mathis at center. Dante Ellington and Wesley Britt were first-string at Strong and Quick Tackle respectively, with Atlas Herrion pushing hard. And Dennis Alexander was No. 1 at Strong Guard, with Marico Portis and Justin Smiley virtual co-starters at the Quick Guard slot.

But not one of them feels secure in his role just yet. And according to Helduser, that's precisely the plan. "You want that level of uncertainty," he said. "We're all that way. When you want something like these guys want it, then to have a little bit of insecurity is not a bad thing."

When Coach Franchione first took over the Tide team, one of his first messages was that they would work harder than they ever had in their lives in the weight room. And any athlete that didn't get continually stronger would have to explain himself to his coaches.

Shown working with medicine balls to increase their explosiveness into the block, Wesley Britt (left) and Alonzo Ephraim (right) are both currently listed first-string at Quick Tackle and Center respectively.

So with strength and conditioning a primary concern for the Tide coaches, Helduser has been watching closely the weight-room progress made by his unit. And though he is careful not to embarrass his athletes by releasing too many individual numbers, it's clear that the offensive linemen have been working hard. "We give an award to any player in the program that meets our minimum increase standards," Helduser explained. "After spring 15 of our 16 offensive linemen received the 4x4 Award, and the only one that did not was unable to test on the upper-body lifts because of injury. Everybody in the group achieved the minimal level we expected."

But beyond minimum expectations, several O-Line athletes wound up getting their names on the weight-room wall. "Three players set individual lift records for the program for the offensive line," Helduser related. "Marico (Portis) did 500 pounds on the bench press. Keith Stephens did 440 on the incline (bench press), and Justin (Smiley) did 380 on the clean."

Responding to his head coach's mandate, Helduser has closely monitored the offensive line's progress in the weight room. And the improvement can be counted athlete by athlete. "From January testing through May testing there was an average increase per athlete on the four lifts of 240 pounds," Helduser said. "Dennis (Alexander) had the biggest individual overall increase at 355 pounds, which means on average he added almost 89 pounds per lift."

Shown performing dumbbell raises in the weight room, Evan Mathis is one of the young athletes whose development in coming months could prompt Coach Helduser to juggle his starting lineup.

Like Alexander, many of the Tide linemen simply hadn't worked that hard in the weight room prior to Franchione's arrival, so there was obviously a lot of room for improvement. But under the direction of Ben Pollard, the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Football, the entire unit is learning to take pride in their efforts. "They did what they should have done from January to May," Helduser said. "Of course where they were in January we know was not very good. As a unit they put themselves in a position from January to May to have a chance to be decent by August."

"Of course no matter how much progress they make between now and August they won't be where we want them to be," Helduser added. "That's physically impossible to do in that short a period of time. But what the numbers say to us is that we're not behind where we should be now. And I don't think we'll be behind in August either."

But for Tide fans hoping for an immediate turnaround, that's a sobering point to consider. Like ancient Rome, quality offensive lines capable of dominating in the fourth quarter are simply not built ‘in a day.' "Based on where we started, we've made really good progress," Helduser said. "If we continue to work like we need to work the rest of the summer and as we get into fall, then we'll have a chance."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Coach Helduser also provided specific numbers to prove his unit's progress on the four individual lifts (squat, bench press, hang clean and incline bench), while also discussing how long he thinks it will take before the Tide line develops close to the level he requires. Check back with BamaMag.com this week for that story.

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