"It wasn't tough as far as conditioning," he continued. "I was in decent shape, and I got in better shape as camp went along. But fighting through the injury definitely made it a tough camp."
Last season for the second year in a row Mathis suffered a stress fracture to his leg. For the second year in a row he refused to sit out any games, putting off surgery until the off-season. For the second year in a row he traveled to HealthSouth in Birmingham to have a hole drilled in his tibia and a titanium rod inserted into the bone to "fix" the fracture. But unfortunately, this time around the lingering pain has proved even more intense, interfering with summer conditioning and making him vulnerable during fall camp.
Since taking over as a starter four games into his redshirt freshman season, Mathis has trotted out to begin the game 22 times in a row. But this fall the pain and Atlas Herrion combined to place that starting streak in serious jeopardy.
"The coaches didn't really say anything to me," Mathis said. "I had heard that Atlas was pushing me for my job. I started working even harder when I heard that. I was already working hard, but when I heard that I was a little concerned about whether I was doing things right or not."
Not one to waste time, Mathis immediately sought out line coach Bobby Connelly. "I went directly to the coaches, asking about it," he related. "They said it was mainly that they needed someone prepared to help the (playing) rotation, especially with my leg.
"Atlas has been playing great, working just as hard as all of us. He definitely deserves to be out there."
A former wrestling champion in high school, at Alabama Mathis holds the position record for both vertical jump and the 40-yard dash. He's obviously an excellent athlete, but injuries have plagued him throughout his college career.
Recently he's wondered how good he could be if he could manage to play free of pain. "Right now it's still pretty high," Mathis acknowledged of his pain level. "After each practice, it's going to be pretty intense. Of course all my interviews happen after practice, so I'm going to tell you it's hurting a lot. But if you ask me before practice, it would be a lot better.
"The pain is at its peak after practice, after all the pounding. It's throbbing pretty good right now."
Pain killers like novocaine are really not an option. There is really no way to shield a lineman's legs. Plus, if enough drugs were administered to actually deaden the area, then the athlete would be at risk for more serious injury.
But don't expect Mathis to miss any game action.
"I don't think taking a series off during games would be much help to me," he explained. "Just a few minutes won't make the swelling go down. But I'm not going to stop during a game anyway. In the scrimmages I've been going as hard as I could to simulate games as best I could. I think it'll work out fine, just go every play that I can. Then the natural playing rotation as it occurs will help."
Most athletes dealing with serious pain take time off. A row of exercise bikes sit next to the practice fields every day, and not a session goes by that several players aren't on them.
"During two-a-days I would take the second practice of the day off and ride the bike," Mathis said. "That helped me. The first couple of two-a-days I was going through both (sessions), and the wear was really showing. Practices would overlap. I'd come out for the second practice and not be up to par.
"Taking the second practice off, I'd come out the next morning much better. The swelling had gone down. I was so much better. The time off was good."
But those brief respites are now finished. With the end of two-a-days, Mathis no longer allows himself the luxury. "When it's one practice a day, there's no time for the bike," he stated flatly. "I've got to get my work in."
There's no question the pain affected him. Several times during fall camp the Tide coaches identified the battle between Mathis and Atlas Herrion as one of the most intense on the squad. Was he ever worried that Herrion was ahead?
"I never really thought about it that way," Mathis replied. "I'm not thinking about Atlas beating me out. I'm thinking about how good I can play."
Last Thursday Head Coach Mike Shula declared a winner. "Evan is our starter," Shula said.
More than anyone else on the team--player or coach--Mathis appreciates Herrion's talent. "Atlas is a great player; I've known that since he first got here," Mathis said. "Two years ago he was our sixth man, rotating in the game a lot. He showed good things then.
"Last year Atlas took one for the team by redshirting. That was an amazing thing, him doing that. He was only out there for the team. This year he's coming back, pushing me for my job, making me get better and everybody else. He's just a great asset to the offense."
His starting job now in hand, Mathis can turn his attention to the season. In Alonzo Ephraim and Marico Portis, the Tide offensive line lost two starters to the NFL. But Mathis likes what he's seen from center J.B. Closner and right guard Dennis Alexander.
"We definitely can be better than last year," Mathis said. "Since we've been here, all the offensive linemen's mentality is that we're going to get better. J.B. and Dennis want nothing more than to get better every single day. They're out there striving and thriving. They're doing great.
"With our rotation, I think we've got good things to look forward to."