Young line facing baptism by fire

When it comes to the biggest question mark surrounding the Tide offense this Saturday, despite months of grueling effort and intense coaching, nothing has really changed. Which quarterback will start and how much he'll play remain open questions, but both leading candidates are seasoned veterans. <br><br>Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Bama offensive line.

"Anytime you go into a situation with as many young and inexperienced people as we have, you have to have some level of concern," acknowledged Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser. "I do believe, however, that the five guys that will start the ball game are going to give us their very best effort. They're going to play as hard as they can play. We'll just have to take it from there and see how it goes."

That group of five includes only one returning starter (Dante Ellington at Strong Tackle), two former backups (center Alonzo Ephraim and Strong Guard Marico Portis) and two redshirt freshmen (tackle Wesley Britt and guard Justin Smiley on the quick side). Ellington has started for both his two years in college while juniors Ephraim and Portis have been barely used backups for most of their careers.

As Bama's Offensive Line Coach, Helduser has the responsibility of developing inexperienced but talented players into a cohesive unit.

With precious little game experience among them, the group will have to learn as they go. But from spring to Fall Camp Helduser has consistently judged them to be ahead of where he would expect. "I think that is still an accurate statement," he commented Wednesday.

"Any coach with a new group--a new team--we're all very anxious to play an opponent other than ourselves," Helduser continued. "You learn so much about the team and your unit when you play against different folks. We're really anxious to get on the field and see how it all looks."

Having first coached together in 1990 at Southwest Texas State, Helduser and Dennis Franchione have developed a close working relationship. "I just wish I could reach into my pocket and hand them some experience," Franchione said of his inexperienced line. "If we can get through that first series, then I think we'll be fine. We may have to just go on the first sound to keep from jumping offsides."

But it's precisely that shared experience--the knowledge that the staff has been through this before and been successful--that gives Helduser confidence this time around. "When we started at TCU we were close to having this level of inexperience," he related. "Back in '98 when we started the season we had only one kid on the line with any kind of playing experience, similar to Dante. Just like this year's group, that was a work in progress.

"We actually went through a good portion of that season before we really got settled as far as who the five guys were going to be. I feel more secure in that part of it here than in that year at TCU. But it's a similar deal. It's going to grow as we go along and improve as we go along."

Unlike in previous seasons, the Tide squad will treat Friday night before the game as a learning session, watching film and narrowing their focus to the job ahead. "I'll talk to them about the fundamental things that we've got to get done to give ourselves a chance to win," Helduser explained. "I'll talk about playing exceptionally hard, about trying to play as physically as we are able.

Having worked hard in the off-season, Dante Ellington is a quicker and stronger athlete than last season. But the junior tackle is the only returning starter for the Tide.

"We want to get to the point where we're concerned about 0:00 on the clock versus the score. We want to keep a positive frame of mind and our enthusiasm regardless of what the situation in the game is."

As Franchione noted, Saturday's season-opener versus UCLA brings will bring with it an almost overwhelming excitement. And Bama's green linemen can't help but be a bit wide-eyed. "When I see that, I'll remind them to focus back on the things that are important," Helduser said. "Assignment and technique--those kind of things. That's a process that we've already started on with them, so hopefully they'll be able to draw from our trying to train on that for several days."

Besides those starting five, the Tide coaches have confidence in three back-up linemen who will probably see action versus the Bruins. Junior-college transfer Atlas Herrion would work at tackle, former starter Dennis Alexander can rest the starters at guard, and redshirt-freshman Evan Mathis can play at either center or tackle.

But again inexperience is the norm, as two of the three have never played a down of college football. So it's probably a very good thing that Helduser will down on the field during the game rather than spotting from the press box. "I'll be on the sideline," he related. "I've not ever been involved when the line coach wasn't on the sideline, having an opportunity to visit with the guys during the course of the ball game.

"We'll adjust what needs adjusting."


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