Talented line taking shape

With three of five starters returning and several talented former back-ups vying for playing time, Alabama's offensive line should be very good next year. But new line coach Bobby Connelly has still found plenty to keep him busy this spring, evaluating personnel and re-teaching blocking techniques.

"Opinions were formed by former staff members," he noted, "and for the good or bad for the individual, that's what they were."

"Everybody has had a unique opportunity this spring."

Not meaning to criticize the way things had been done, Connelly was just pointing out that every coach has his own preferred way of doing things. And inevitably certain players become favored--and others less so.

Bama is set at left tackle, as All-SEC Wesley Britt returns to man the position.

As BamaMag.com has highlighted in previous stories, several veteran linemen--that were not really used the past two seasons--have taken advantage of that "unique opportunity." Seniors Dennis Alexander and Matt Lomax had been essentially pigeon-holed as back-ups, but this spring each man has made a strong push to start.

"I've gotten to see who works well together and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each individual," Connelly said of spring drills. "To see who's the best fit for what we're looking to do. The goal is to put the best five guys on the football field."

In line with their option-oriented attack, the previous staff would often flip-flop the linemen, depending on the direction of the formation. But Connelly has gone back to the more traditional (and pass friendly) method of "naming" line positions. He explained, "The former staff had a strong side, weak side. I don't operate that way. We've got a right and left side."

The former staff often claimed that the various positions were not particularly important--that every Tide lineman could handle any position on the offensive line. That philosophy works fairly well with a running team, but Bama's new pass-oriented attack requires specific skills.

Connelly explained. "Our tackles need to protect our quarterback, so we need guys that can handle the speed rush of defensive ends that we're going to play against at this level. Especially with our offensive philosophy and the plays we run, we need that more athletic, ideally taller and rangier kid on the edge."

Juniors Justin Smiley (left) and Evan Mathis (right) return at left guard and right tackle respectively. Mathis has never gotten the recognition he deserves, and Smiley is looking to repeat as All-SEC.

All-America (and now All-Pro) Chris Samuels was the prototype. To effectively protect the passer, offensive tackles must have excellent footwork, above-average height and long arms. "You want long, tall guys that can move at tackle," Connelly said. "Taller is not necessarily better--but it helps. If you have a big wingspan, then you present a bit more surface for that end to run around. It helps create a natural pocket for the quarterback to step up in."

The Tide returns both starters at tackle. Of note was Grant Dickey's recent move from guard to tackle. According to Dickey, in high school he always played on the inside, but obviously Coach Connelly likes his athleticism. Plus, the redshirt freshman is now working with the second unit.

One interesting question remains: how (and where) will the new staff utilize senior Atlas Herrion? Redshirted last year by the previous staff--with the intent of starting him this season--Herrion is still running second string. At one time or another this spring Herrion has worked with the first unit at tackle and with the second unit at tackle and guard. Of course Tide fans will remember that Herrion has played defensive tackle in the past.

Left Tackle

  1. Wesley Britt (6-8, 315, Jr)
  2. Atlas Herrion (6-4, 304, Sr)

Right Tackle

  1. Evan Mathis (6-5, 295, Jr)
  2. Grant Dickey (6-5, 288, Fr)

Alabama returns one starter at guard from last season, but Dennis Alexander started at guard as a redshirt freshman. "We place the more physical kids on the inside," Connelly said. "They can't get pushed around. If our inside guys are getting pushed back into the quarterback's throwing lane, then we're in trouble.

"We find out who are the bigger, stronger run type guys and put them on the inside."

Left Guard

  1. Justin Smiley (6-4, 302, Jr)
  2. Mark Sanders (6-6, 320, So)

Right Guard

  1. Dennis Alexander (6-6, 345, Sr)
  2. Danny Martz (6-4, 294, Jr)

Dennis Alexander

Though there are talented players competing for the job, next year's starting center is still very much up in the air.

"The center is more or less the quarterback of the offensive line," Connelly said. "He's got to be smart enough to see the defense and even-tempered enough to be able to handle things in the heat of battle. Our staff puts a lot on our center. The center will target our play selection.

"More than physically, the center has got to be able to handle the job mentally."

Center (still very close)

Though not set in stone, the current first two units are very close to what we've listed above. Unlike on defense, where the task is finding two or three players per position, Connelly is mainly looking for his five starters, including several players capable of providing minutes off the bench.

J.B. Closner is working hard to start at center.

A definite third string really doesn't exist, but a good guess would have Von Ewing (6-4, 313, So) and Boone Stutz (6-6, 260, So) at the tackles; and Cody Grammer (6-2, 268, Fr) and Andy Harrison (6-1, 275, Fr) at either center or guard.

Last season two-time All-SEC center Alonzo Ephraim was probably the "unelected" leader of the offensive line. But don't expect just one player to handle that role in 2003. Smiley, Mathis and Britt are all very smart and very aggressive players, which means that Bama's leadership quota will be easily met…

And then some.

Connelly commented, "Among the linemen that we've got to work with, I think there are several that are going to be team leaders."

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