"The coaches started hinting about it Thursday and Friday, but I really didn't find out I was starting until Saturday when I was getting my ankles taped before the game," Herrion related. "That's when they came in and gave me the news."
With no time for butterflies, Herrion stepped easily into his starting role. "In a way it made sure I didn't get too nervous or over-anxious," he said. "I kept myself cool. Of course when you hear those words, you're going to get a tingly feeling in your body.
"When you find out the night before, a lot of guys will stay up all night and worry. They just told me a couple of minutes before the game. I got plenty of sleep Friday night."
Herrion's earlier game action had been at right tackle, but the switch to guard was no problem. He explained, "I was ready to play any position. Of course I've been working at all of them during the week. It wasn't a big surprise. They told me that if anybody went down I would be the next man to go in anywhere. I was ready."
Offensive Line Coach Bobby Connelly was proud of the way Herrion responded. "Obviously Justin is a very good player, and we miss him when he's not in there. But I feel good about those guys that are behind him. I feel good about our depth."
Smiley and left tackle Wesley Britt have been starting together (and next to each other) since the first game of their redshirt freshman year. Were there any problems Saturday with mistaken identity?
"Yeah, Wesley recognized me; there's a big difference between me and Smiley," Herrion said with a laugh. "I'm a little taller than Smiley. Wesley recognized me."
"Athletically, I don't think there is that much difference," Herrion continued. "Smiley's a little smaller than am, of course he's also a little quicker than I am. After that, there's not too much difference."
"Atlas did a spectacular job," Britt said after the game. "I wasn't worried, but I never thought he'd play as well as he did. He did a great job. We had a few communication errors, but that was just because me and Smiley have been playing together for so long. We'll fix those, but we played good together."
Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader agreed. "I think Atlas played well. Justin Smiley is our best player at that position, but those guys did a nice job."
So, Atlas, what if Smiley's foot is still sore and he decides to take another week off?
"I'm fine with it," Herrion quickly replied. "Whatever I can do to help the team."
Though the final 10-point margin was hardly a blowout, Alabama dominated the Wildcats statistically, gaining almost three times as many yards on offense.
"You don't expect to rush for 266 net yards per game, but I felt like we could run the ball against them," Connelly said.
Herrion gave his assessment. "The game wasn't bad. I get snaps in practice with everybody. It took me a couple of snaps to adapt to the guard position, but other than that it was fine. Kentucky was everything we expected them to be. Their defensive line was quick, fast and all that. I actually thought they would be a little bit bigger, but they were tough players. They were fighters."
Saturday Herrion was needed at left guard, but Connelly says he could play anywhere. "Atlas is the guy I can plug in anywhere along the line. He can play it all. He'll play center before it's all done. He played guard Saturday night. He's played tackle. He's played both tackles. He's played both guards. And he's practiced at center. He's a versatile kid.
"He understands the offense and can be put in a game situation at any of those positions."
Herrion is obviously one of the brighter football players around, and being a fifth-year senior helps as well. "Once you get our game plan down, you can play any position on the line," Herrion said. "If you play any one position, you've got to know what the next guy is doing, because of teamwork blocks. The only thing you've got to remember is which side you're on, so you'll know whether they're coming toward you or going away from you. That's the hardest part."
He's played tackle and guard, what about center?
"I'd do it," Herrion said. "I'd just get ready. Get my mind focused and get ready for the task ahead."
When Smiley returns, Herrion will again be relegated to designated sixth man on the offensive line. But both Le'Ron McClain and Tim Castille are nursing injuries, making fullback the real "need" position this week.
Without missing a beat, Herrion quickly said, "If they want me to play fullback, I'll play it. I've just got to learn all the schemes. But I will play it."