Ellington battles back

Heading into the season Dante Ellington, a starter from his first game as a true freshman, was supposed to anchor the Alabama offensive line. But inconsistent play exemplified by bonehead penalties dropped the junior tackle to second string. <br><br>And Ellington frankly admits the demotion was hard to take. "I was mad. Sad. Everything you feel when a person is devastated."

"All those things crossed my mind. I knew I could play.

Standing 6-6 and 300+ pounds even as a true freshman, from the moment Ellington stepped on campus he was touted by many as Bama's next great offensive tackle. But his 27-game streak atop the depth chart ended when redshirt freshman Evan Mathis started ahead of him versus South Carolina.

"It was very, very hard to adjust," Ellington admitted. "I can't really explain the things that were going through my head at the time. I was confused. I didn't know really what I was doing wrong. I thought I had a great off season working out and lifting weights and losing my weight. But now I know I should have also been thinking about other things."

Touted as the ‘next Chris Samuels' coming out of high school, Ellington was considered one of the crown jewels of the 1999 signing class.

In the Tide's first three games this season, a continuing battle with conditioning kept Ellington from being a dominating blocker. But his principal problem was too many yellow flags. At one point, the issue prompted Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione to remark that Ellington seemed to be "good for at least one or two penalties a game."

"It was tough hearing that at the beginning," Ellington acknowledged. "Penalties were a problem early in the season. That was a part of my not playing as much."

In explaining the decision to bench the three-year starter, Franchione commented that "if there is one player that has heard the same sermon over and over again, it's Dante."

Ellington explained his reaction when he heard the quote. "I'm not going to lie. It was hard to hear that coming from a guy that you know is trying to lead this team in the right direction. I took heed to it. The sermons started sinking in. I tried to correct those mistakes, and I did. I focused on not getting as many penalties in practice, and it carried over to the field."

"I really admire Dante and respect him," Franchione said this week. "When you lose your position, you have a choice of which way you're going to go. You can get down about it. You can sulk about it. You can feel sorry for yourself. Dante didn't do any of those things. He kept preparing well."

As Ellington explained, at first he was discouraged and hurt. But after some time for reflection--including multiple ‘counseling sessions' with people he trusted--he determined to turn things around. "I talked to a lot of people," Ellington related. "I talked to family members, friends and teammates. They told me not to go in the tank. I listened to them. I didn't want to completely fall off the map, so I just stuck at it."

That was good advice for the young man, and it also helped that their words echoed the message Ellington was hearing from the Tide staff. "The coaches were saying the same thing," Ellington said. "I think that was used as a motivation tool. It helped me a whole lot. If this had happened last year, then I don't know that I could have come back. But these coaches make you want to do it."

Offensive Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser walks among his troops during warmups with Ellington just behind. Along with the rest of his teammates, Ellington had to adjust to the new expectations enforced by this coaching staff.

Ellington's good work over the past several weeks paid off. Though he still isn't starting, the Leighton native actually played more snaps than Mathis last Saturday, earning recognition as Offensive Lineman of the Week from the Tide coaches. "Dante played much better against LSU," said Offensive Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser. "He really did a pretty good job in that game. He's improved over practice time in the last three weeks. He rose to the challenge that was in front of him, and that was great to see. I'm real proud for him that he was able to make some progress."

Elected to the Leadership Council last summer, Ellington was determined not to let his demotion affect the way he interacted with his teammates. He explained; "Amidst all of this--of my not playing, I still try to be a leader out there. There's no excuse. Just because I'm not playing, I can still help lead the team in the right direction. I still try to give the young guys encouragement."

At this point Coach Helduser is able to rotate eight men at five different positions. But his ultimate goal is to be at least two-deep at every offensive line spot. "We need as many as we can have up there to play," Helduser said. "Two guys pressing each other for the same job--that's a good luxury to have. To have two athletes that we can play with and be successful with is a good situation."

However it ultimately turns out, the competition between Ellington and Mathis for the starting job at strong tackle can only be good for the team. "It's great to have a guy like Evan to battle with," Ellington explained. "My first year in '99 we had two lines, but we didn't have two guys that could play at each position. It's great to have backup. If one falls off, then you don't miss a beat when you put the next guy in. I love the situation."

Having rediscovered the competitive fire inside, Ellington is proud of his progress over the last several weeks. "I just kept at it. I think I proved that a person--even if he's not playing--can still bounce back."


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