Chasing loftier goals

With All-SEC and pre-season All-America honors under his belt, you might think Justin Smiley would want to talk about his own accomplishments--at least a little bit. But he has other things on his mind. <br><br>"My No. 1 goal is for Alabama to be the best it can be," Smiley said. "I want Alabama to win 13 games."

The NCAA in its "infinite wisdom" has decreed that Smiley and his teammates (through no fault of their own) cannot compete in the post-season this year, which takes them out of any chance at the Bowl Championship Series. But a 13-game regular season schedule against some of the top teams in college football--together with a chance to impress the writers that vote in the Associated Press poll--is motivation enough.

Smiley commented, "We have an amazing schedule, amazing. We start with South Florida. Their athletic director basically told us what we could do with it (this past summer). Then Oklahoma, that game last year speaks for itself. To have those early shots at home in front of your fans..."

Justin Smiley (#78) and Wesley Britt (#70) have developed into the best one-two blocking punch in college football. (UA photo)

The best athletes always have a higher goal set to achieve. But Smiley was named Freshman All American after his first season and All-SEC after his second. Now, heading into his third season at Alabama, the fourth-year junior has been designated a pre-season All America by multiple organizations.

How does he stay motivated?

"For me it's easy," he explained. "When my career is over I want to be known as one of the best guards to play here at Alabama--one of the best offensive linemen. I want people to remember me and remember my play. And I want to be a post-season All-American. Those are things that keep me running."

Smiley also has two secret weapons that keep him on track. Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis are more than just teammates his same age that have started with him on the offensive line for two years. They also just happen to be two of the most competitive people on campus.

With Britt and Mathis around, Smiley couldn't get the big head even if he wanted to.

"They wouldn't let me slack off for a second," Smiley said of his friends and line mates. "Wes and Evan are amazing teammates. They're both awesome friends, but don't for a second think that they'd let me get big-headed. They bring me down to earth. There might have been a time when I might have said something (after the awards), but now I know that I'm blessed."

Two years ago when then line coach Jim Bob Helduser was assembling his offensive unit, he purposefully placed Smiley and Britt together on the left side, knowing the two would push each other harder than any coach ever could.

"Everything that I've achieved is because of Wesley playing beside me," Smiley said. "He makes me better. You've got to bust your rear end to keep up with those two."

Smiley gets ready to crush an unlucky Volunteer DB. He says the Tide squad enters the season chasing an undefeated year.

As an on-the-field competitor Smiley goes way beyond intense, setting the tone for the offensive line. But this season he has taken on more of a leadership role. "I suppose it's a natural transition," he said. "I've learned some things. I've always tried to play with tenacity and try to be an explosive player. I've tried to have a nasty demeanor on the field. But you can be ruthless on the field but also be under control. The game is a lot about patience also."

Smiley's fiery playing disposition hasn't cooled one bit, but off the field he now goes out of his way to mentor Bama's younger linemen. He explained, "Once I figured things out, being a team leader followed. You don't have to run around like a Tasmanian devil. There are other was to approach the game."

During summer workouts Smiley often took a moment to talk to the incoming freshmen. Dominic Lee may play on the opposite side of the football--even going against Smiley on a regular basis in practice, but the veteran provided advice to the rookie every chance he got.

"There are plenty of times to abuse the freshmen," Smiley said with a laugh. "But you have to build those guys up. They are your teammates. These guys are going to be playing beside you, playing for you and giving it all they've got on the field."

Most linemen redshirt their first year, but Lee (and Alabama) will benefit immediately from Smiley's private tutoring, as the frosh tackle is set to play this season. "They're your brothers," Smiley said. "You want to build them up. If you get a chance, you want to let them know what's up."

Though now his blood runs Crimson, Smiley is a native of Georgia, and he grew up following several college teams. However, during recruiting he quickly fell in love with Alabama and its storied tradition, committing to the Tide in 2000.

Since then he's watched as blow after blow has bloodied his beloved program. Though upperclassmen could have transferred without penalty the past two years (seniors and juniors in 2002 and seniors this year), not one veteran player did.

Why not? The big lineman paused for a moment, reflecting on the question before he answered.

"I wish people would sit back and think about this for a second when they read it. I didn't come to Alabama for a coach. I didn't come here because of any one person. I came here because of Alabama--the all-time greats that have played here--Denny Chimes. One of my main goals is to possibly put my handprints at the base of Denny Chimes. It makes me emotional, because some of the best football players that have ever played the game have done that.

"Those things--this university--that's the reason I stayed. That's why everyone stayed. Just for the love of this university. Not for any person or coach."

A student of football history, Smiley says it's an honor just to have his name mentioned in the same sentence as men like John Hannah and Chris Samuels.

Heading into the season, Alabama's offense will be learning new schemes and adding extra plays as they go. But Smiley thinks Bama's "Big Uglies" up front will give it an edge. "Our line is amazing," he said. "We've got good athletes across the board. Our offense is high-powered, but it starts with the line.

"We complement each other. Wes' weakness might be my strength and vice versa. We balance each other out."

Both Smiley and Britt are All-America quality. If the pundits are to be believed, there isn't a better side-by-side blocking tandem in the nation.

"On game days me and Wes stand next to each other before we come out of the tunnel," Smiley related. "As our names are being announced over the loudspeakers, I look at him and say ‘You're the best offensive tackle in the country!' He looks at me and says ‘You're the best offensive guard in the country!' We talk about how we're going to work together that game in our double-teams. How we're going to destroy our opponent. We don't ever talk about ‘me.'"

"Our team is so tight," Smiley concluded. "That's one thing these coaching changes have done. It's all made us stronger."


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