"We're improving. We're holding plays well. I think we're going to be real good this year--real good."
Obviously a team that returns only two starters from a 3-8 season has reason for concern. And the recent replacement of Dennis Alexander by redshirt freshman Justin Smiley in the starting lineup only adds to that inexperience. "Yeah, we understand that people worry, but I think people are looking at it wrong," Ephraim continued. "As far as reps are concerned we've also got Marico Portis who has played. He played a lot his redshirt freshman year and some his sophomore year. Then you've got Dennis (Alexander) who played all last season and of course Dante (Ellington).
"We've got some experience on the line, and I think there's more of a maturity level. Across the front line, we have three juniors and two redshirt freshman, and Wesley (Britt) has matured a lot since spring. Plus, the linemen are working hard together."
Though the unit definitely has work ahead of it before it can hope to dominate in the brutally tough SEC, the Tide coaches are not disappointed. The recent elevation of Smiley over Alexander was simply a case of superior talent winning out--not a knock on Alexander or his effort.
The idea is simple. Get the best group of athletes on the field. And then allow them time to mature and develop cohesion.
Said Ephraim, "It's like Coach Fran says, accountability and trust. I trust the guy next to me. Our motto for this year is ‘Hold the rope.' I trust and feel like every guy on the offensive line can hold that rope. If I'm hanging off a cliff, I trust any one of them to hold it. It's just about trust. I trust the man next to me to do his job, and he trusts the man next to him. That's what we're building out here. Every day we come out here and practice, we build that trust."
If Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser had his way, the Tide would be a solid two-deep at every position. But while the group is not to that point yet, he does feel reasonably confident in tackles Ellington, Britt and Atlas Herrion; guards Smiley, Alexander and Portis; and centers Ephraim and Mathis. And guards Keith Stephens and Danny Martz are improving.
Though Mathis would still likely play center if needed, the coaches are now giving him some work at tackle to keep future options open. "Competition just pushes us to go harder; that's all," Ephraim said. "That's what it's all about: competing. I feel like Evan (Mathis) has come a long way, and Justin Smiley has also. They're very strong; they're very physical and athletic guys. They may have a little growing up to do, but they can play. I believe they both can help us this year."
Having turned in possibly the best all-around performance this fall by any offensive lineman, Ephraim is settling into his role as one of the unit leaders. And he scoffs at the suggestion that his running mates are somehow the squad's ‘weakest link.' "I kind of laugh about it--I laugh because actually there is a big question mark around our whole team," Ephraim said. "For people to question the offensive line, that's not that big of a deal. I feel like we're trying to get to play offense together--with a capital ‘O.' We feel like if all of us are playing our best--together as one, then we'll be unstoppable."
Certainly the unit has its share of athleticism, which is clearly shown by their relative success against Bama's stellar D-Line in the running game. But there is also no question that pass protection needs to improve. "We're going in that direction," Ephraim stated. "It's simple. Nobody touches the quarterback. Nobody. Sometimes we don't even like our own guys to pat them on the shoulder. Nobody touches the quarterback.
"You know how your mama may have a special vase in the house, that nobody can touch. Right now our attitude is building and building to the point where it's like we want to dominate. When we all play together, then you can't touch the quarterback."
If the bad news is that the Tide line is inexperienced, then the other side of that coin is that the unit can only get better as the season progresses. Ephraim explains. "It's starting to gel. This offensive system is really very basic. We can run so many different plays out of different formations that it's exciting.
"A lot of people question our offense, but I think the offense as a whole is going to improve rapidly. When the season comes the people will see the different sides of it, because the offense is so diverse. I like it personally. We're so wide open that we can do anything."
Though solidly entrenched as the first-team center, Ephraim refuses to take anything for granted. "It's like Coach (Franchione) always says, at each position, the best player is going to play. It's all about the level of competition. I feel like I want to do the best I can to help my team. Whether or not that is starting or just leading from the sideline. It's all about putting the team first. I put the team first and then I come somewhere in there, but the team is first.
"Whether or not I start, Evan starts or Marico. I believe as long as I'm giving everything I have to help the team, then everybody will be all right."