A junior-college All-American, Herrion's recruitment last winter was an important story. His ultimate decision to sign with Alabama (‘shrugging off' Auburn in the process) was seen as a recruiting coup for Franchione. And many expected the big linemen to step in immediately and start at offensive tackle.
But things haven't yet worked out that way. "I was a little disappointed," Herrion admitted, speaking of his failure to earn a starting role. "Everybody wants to play more. I'm just looking for a chance. And when you get your chance, you've got to make what you can of the opportunity. If you're a real competitor, then you're going to be upset about your playing time. But I just used that as fuel to work harder."
Herrion had graduated a semester early from junior college, allowing him the luxury of entering The University in January and participating in spring practice. "That was a big help with Atlas," Franchione said. "Going through spring practice is good for junior-college guys. He was new to the offense in the spring just like everybody else. Then he had a good summer, and came in for the fall with a much better foundation under him. And he has built on that."
Like every athlete new to SEC football, Herrion had adjustments to make. Run blocking was no problem, but unfortunately pass blocking was another matter entirely. "The No. 1 thing that we've worked really hard with Atlas all year is his pass protection," said Offensive Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser. "That was his big deficiency coming out of spring. He's done a good job to work and clean his technique up. He's gotten better as we've gone along as far as pass protection is concerned."
Franchione added; "The learning part has been a real process for him in terms of the complexity of our offense. It's been a building process for him. He's done very well at times, and at times you can see he just needs more reps."
For Herrion, feedback from his position coach has been important. "Every day Coach Helduser makes sure he comes and says something to me," Herrion said. "He tells me to work hard, keep my head up, don't let down and push. Coach (Helduser) told me that if I keep working hard, then I'll get more reps. The more I improve, the more playing time I'll get. I try and come out every day and work hard."
The first five games of the season Herrion played in a reserve role at Quick Tackle. Versus UCLA, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and South Carolina, the Daphne native played 11, 17, 10, and four snaps respectively. Then in the Tide's blowout victory over UTEP, Herrion was in on 44 plays. But in hard-fought losses to Ole Miss and Tennessee, starter Wesley Britt played the entire way.
For a game or two that kind of iron-man duty is acceptable, but ideally the rotation would work differently. Helduser explained; "We'd like to have a minimum of eight that we can play with and win with. The more athletes we get after that, the better off we're going to be. The more guys we have an opportunity to play and be successful with, then the fresher they're all going to be. That should allow them to play better at the end of ball games."
So, with an open date last weekend, the Tide coaches worked both Herrion and Dante Ellington extensively with the first-team. "He and Dante both have shown improvement over the last couple of weeks," Helduser said. "We're trying to get those guys a few more plays in the game. With Atlas it's a matter of just doing everything better. During the course of time he's getting more comfortable with the offense."
"In the last month Atlas has made progress," Franchione agreed. "With his learning curve, he doesn't staircase up steadily. It's a little bit like the stock exchange (up and down). But basically he's continued to improve. If he gets down a day or two, then he bounces right back."
Whatever the reason, Herrion was happy to work with the first team. "I think the coaches were trying to put me in the fire and see how it turned out," he explained. "They wanted to test me out a little bit. I hadn't gone with the ones in practice in awhile, so they wanted to see where I was at."
Herrion's situation illustrates why, given a choice, coaches prefer to sign players immediately out of high school. Despite the fact that he starred at Dodge City Community College, the competition level simply wasn't the same. "The game is faster," Herrion said. "That's the main difference. The other players aren't faster than me, but on this level guys tend to read more. You've got more film work and film study, so you can know what you're going to do. That lets you react faster. They're going to react faster to whatever block you're trying to perform on them."
"It's a lot faster, and you've got more fans," Herrion continued. "Plus, there's more pressure. You've got more of your family there, and you've got a lot of people sitting there watching you. You're usually on television, so you've got a lot of eyes on you."
Even for gifted athletes like Herrion, adjusting to SEC football is not an easy process. But he's willing to put in the hours to make things work. "I worked hard in the weight room, so that helped," Herrion related. "Every day at practice I try to work on all my techniques. I try and get the team going to make sure that everybody has a positive attitude. We're working on team chemistry and attitude.
"There really isn't that much difference between me now and when I first got to Alabama. I guess I've adjusted to the speed. I think I've learned more and gotten a little better."
Unlike many O-Line coaches, Helduser doesn't draw a distinct line between guard and tackle. In his system offensive linemen are almost interchangeable. But there is no question that Herrion's quick feet serve him well on the outside. "When you're at guard, you've got a little bit more help," Herrion explained. "Because you're on the inside. At tackle you're out on an island. You've basically got to be independent in your state of mind."
Listed at 6-4, 299 pounds, Herrion has always run well for an athlete his size--so well in fact that last winter there was talk that he might be tried at defensive tackle. But whatever his specific position, Helduser thinks the offensive line is where he belongs. "Athletically, Atlas can play guard or tackle. That just depends on how things go and how he keeps developing.
"However, those decisions will be off in the future. Right now we're focusing on this week."
Herrion agreed; "As a team we know we're right there, getting ready to cross that threshold. We've just got to take that step. Just keep playing hard and keep doing what we've been doing. The time is going to come for a win."