Depth chart be damned, Mathis was determined to make his mark at Alabama--the sooner the better. "I had the goals to play, and I worked to reach them. I knew deep inside that things would work out. I definitely had the goal."
At the start of the season, Mathis was slated to back up at either center or tackle. But after essentially sharing the reps at strong tackle last week versus Arkansas, the 6-5, 280-pound athlete finds himself a virtual co-starter. "Evan is gaining the coaches' confidence more every day," said Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione. "As a redshirt freshman, every game and snap he gets under his belt he's getting better. He is pushing very hard to be a starter."
It's true that several unacceptable penalties committed by his main competition, Dante Ellington, prompted his early play. Since getting his chance Mathis has proven he belongs. Offensive Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser explained; "The increased competition at that spot is more relative to Evan's improvement than Dante's demise."
"Evan has got a lot of good attributes," Helduser continued. "Athletically he's gifted with great flexibility, great speed and quickness. He's the kind of athlete that would be a defensive guy in a lot of programs from the speed standpoint. He's a 500-pound bench presser, so he's got great strength."
Though he is still working to gain (and maintain) the bulk needed to compete every down in the SEC, working out in the weight room has never been a problem for Mathis. Unlike many college athletes, he was a late bloomer in high school, who worked hard to even get on the football field. "I was a nobody when I started playing football," Mathis explained. "I didn't even start on my ninth grade team. In tenth grade I was junior varsity, playing a little offense and defense. My uncle gave me a few pointers. In eleventh grade I moved to offensive tackle, and in twelfth grade I started to develop more, playing both ways."
Of course as most Tide fans know, Mathis' uncle wasn't just another relative. Bob Baumhower starred at defensive tackle for Alabama, playing on some of Coach Bryant's best teams in the mid-70s. "I got my size from my Mom's side, the Baumhower side," Mathis related. "My uncle was 275 in the pros. (Having a famous uncle) was somewhat pressure. But I got more motivated than anything.
"Bob always gave me some pointers. He's a really good motivator--a good supporter. He's a great uncle, a great person to have in the family. He helps me see what a D-Lineman has to do. That's good for me, because I can react to what they're thinking, knowing what's going through their head."
His crimson bloodlines were as good as they get, so Mathis was better prepared than most for the pageantry that is Alabama football. But it was Coach Fran's legendary practices that had him ready to play versus UCLA. "I wasn't (nervous); I really wasn't," Mathis claimed. "Coach Fran said in an interview that being nervous comes from not knowing what to do. He's made sure we know what we're doing.
"I'll go out there and act like there's nobody else out there. The crowd, the fluff--it doesn't mean anything. I'm on the line. There are people in front of me, but if I do my job, my 1/11--that's all I'm worried about. No matter what people are yelling from the stands or anything like that, I block that all out and just play."
Mathis admits that he was a little "shaky" in his first collegiate action versus the Bruins, but since that point he's improved week-by-week. And fans should expect a continuing battle between him and Ellington for the starting job at strong tackle.
As his position coach, Helduser believes that competition will make everyone better. And he especially likes the combative attitude that Mathis brings to the football field. "He's like our other two young guys (Justin Smiley and Wesley Britt)," Helduser explained. "Evan's got a great mindset for playing physically. All those guys want to hit somebody. That's the mentality that they have, which is something that we like. Those three kids are real focused on that, and that's important."
But for Mathis, the principal focus hasn't changed one iota from when he first arrived on campus--find a way to help the team.
He explained; "A year ago I came in here moving from the tackle position in high school to center. I did it because Coach Callaway (his previous position coach) wanted me to do it, and I thought I'd do anything--whatever was best for the team.
"(Playing two positions) is kind of frustrating sometimes, because you've got to change your whole frame of mind. But whatever they want me to play, that's OK. If they put me at receiver… I'll do anything for the team."