Tide O-Line faces biggest challenge

Without relying too much on worn-out sports' cliches, there is no question that the Tide faces a challenge this weekend. The Volunteers are where Alabama wants to be--in the national limelight, legitimate contenders for conference and national honors. And for Alabama to regain that level of success, it will have to go through possibly the best defensive line in the nation to get there.

All five starters along the Tide offensive line are new to their job this season, and the unit includes three redshirt freshmen. "This week would be a gut check for a veteran line," Offensive Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser said. "Our youngsters are continuing to grow up, and this will be another step in the process. For them to have an opportunity to play against individual players of their caliber, for our young guys it will be their first opportunity to see players that are that talented. So it will be part of their maturation process."

Tennessee defensive tackle John Henderson sits with the Outland Trophy, awarded to the outstanding collegiate interior lineman, in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, Jan 10, 2001. Henderson won the Outland trophy, presented to him by the Football Writers Associationof America, for his outstanding defensive performance while playing for Tennessee. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

As Alabama fans well understand, simply signing top-rated talent is no guarantee of success. But there is no question that Tennessee has done an exceptional job of signing gifted D-Line athletes. Helduser explained; "So far this season there's no question they're the most physically talented of all the people we've played. They've got great defensive personnel, a great defensive line and outstanding linebackers. From a physical standpoint, it will be no easy task for us to get our job done on Saturday. Obviously we have to play well up front. But we're going to prepare well and I know our people are going to be ready to play exceptionally hard. We'll play the game and see how it comes out."

The Volunteer depth chart reads like a ‘Who's Who' of former high school All-Americans: tackles John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Kevin Young and Rashad Moore; ends Will Overstreet, Constantin Ritzmann and Omari Hand. And senior end Bernard Jackson is playing as well as anyone.

"They've got a bunch of quality guys," Helduser agreed. "Obviously everybody's focal point is Henderson, but Haynesworth is great inside. They've got great speed at the defensive end position. They've got four guys at defensive end that are great players and can really get off the edge. Overstreet is very good. They are exceptionally talented up front."

Things haven't played out that way so far, but in the pre-season Tennessee was hyping Henderson for the Heisman Trophy. Having already won the Outland Trophy last year as a junior, there is little question that the big tackle is one of the top defensive players in the country. "If we don't contain Henderson, then he'll make every tackle," Helduser said. "And I'm not being facetious. He's a great player with range. If we don't do a good job of blocking him, then he's going to make play after play after play. We have to get it done and play well."

Alabama's young and inexperienced offensive line will face its greatest challenge yet this season when Tennessee comes to town.

There is never a good time to face the best defensive line in the country, but Saturday's sub-par performance at Ole Miss makes Helduser's job this week a little bit harder. "The guys never play the way I want them to--ever," he stated emphatically. "There were some things in the Ole Miss game that we're addressing this week. We had too many assignment errors. We saw a multiplicity of defensive fronts, and that forced us into making some assignment errors that we shouldn't have made, but we did. We're after them to play perfect. We're never going to get that, but that's what our purpose is."

At the mid-point of the season, Tennessee ranks second in the nation in rushing defense, allowing a paltry 47.8 yards per game. And the Volunteer D-Line has played a big role in achieving that ranking. "Part of playing well against these guys will be a matter of how hard we want to play--how hard we want to finish," Helduser said. "These guys are good enough that you can get great initial position on them, but if you don't finish, then they're strong enough and big enough to run through your block. A lesser player you might have had a successful block with the same technique."

There is no doubt that Bama's young line will face its biggest challenge this Saturday, but perhaps surprisingly Helduser isn't changing anything. "I'm saying the same things that I say to them every week, because those things still apply," he related. "We want physical play. We want great effort. We want assignment and technique soundness. Those are the things that will give them a chance against a great player like Henderson.

"If you try to do anything out of the ordinary, you're going to do something that you're not trained to do for however many weeks we've been practicing. Your best chance to have success is to do what you know."

Tennessee's Will Overstreet (90), right pursues Florida State quarterback Marcus Outzen in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl Monday, Jan. 4, 1999, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. Reports out of Knoxville have Overstreet doubtful for the Alabama game, but ‘reports' are not always correct. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

The raw numbers bear out the Vol's ability. None of four opponents have rushed for more than 75 yards or scored a rushing touchdown. Opponents have just one run over 20 yards. Tennessee ranks second nationally, allowing only 1.65 yards per rushing attempt. Tennessee held Arkansas to minus 19 yards of total offense, in the second half. Except for one 40-yard run by Cedric Cobbs, Arkansas was held to five yards or less on the other 25 rushing attempts.

Heading into the game, those statistics, coupled with a six-game losing streak against Tennessee, would certainly work against the Bama players' morale. "I don't know that there is any magic answer to give our players confidence," Helduser said. "They watch the other players constantly on video during the week of preparation. They see their strengths and weaknesses. Every team has them.

"It's our job as coaches to enlighten our players to the things that we may be able to take advantage of. To develop a game plan that will give them the best chance to have success. There is no singular thing that you can say to convince them they can win. It's a combination of preparation and confidence in the game plan--seeing other people have success against them."

Interestingly, even though Tennessee goes as much as three-deep at virtually every D-Line position, the Tide coaches won't necessarily substitute more. Helduser explained; "Our rotation is based more on how the game flows. We don't necessarily have a set plan week to week. It's easier to use a set rotation play on defense than offense, because there doesn't have to be the same continuity of working together in the defensive line that you need in the offensive line. We'll have to play that by ear as the game goes along and see how it goes."


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