A shared conversation with Mathis, Britt & Smiley

Like the rest of the Alabama team, the 2001 offensive line is still very much a work in progress. But sporting five new starters in most games, including three redshirt freshmen, there is no question the group has overachieved. <br><br>And having watched and learned from the sideline last season, they're also determined to avoid previous mistakes. Quick guard Justin Smiley explained; "No nicknames for us--not yet. We want somebody else to name us."

"We don't think we deserve a name," agreed strong tackle Evan Mathis.

"Like Coach Fran says," Smiley continued. "We're not going to call ourselves good. We're going to wait for somebody outside."

The players watched last season as Bama's supposed ‘Pancake Posse' struggled to live up to its clever though ill-conceived nickname. But this year's starting redshirt freshmen spent all of 2000 learning from last year's seniors. "They got too much criticism," Mathis stated flatly. "All those players are great guys. Some things just didn't go their way. Those are still guys we look up to, Griff (Redmill), Paul (Hogan) and Will (Cuthbert). We'll still look up to them."

Currently the starter at strongside tackle, Evan Mathis (#51) is also Bama's backup to Alonzo Ephraim at center.

"Look at what they did in 1999, winning the SEC championship," Smiley added.

Of course along with Redmill, Hogan, Cuthbert and then true freshman Dante Ellington, that '99 unit featured Chris Samuels, probably the greatest offensive tackle in Crimson Tide history. And the next year with Samuels departed for the NFL, the season went downhill quickly. "Things won't always go our way either," Smiley said. "I came to Alabama to win championships, and when I got here things were not going well.

"I've seen a side of Alabama that most people have never seen. Us losing and going through a season like that with eight losses. We learned from that. I think we've got an awesome future in front of us."

Right now that future would have to be labeled ‘inexperienced.' Besides Smiley and Mathis, fellow redshirt freshman Wesley Britt starts at quick tackle for the Tide. And prior to 2001 juniors Marico Portis (strong guard) and Alonzo Ephraim (center) had been little-used in their careers. "That first game we had never played together," Britt said. "We're gaining confidence from watching film and learning the system and every day we play together."

Mathis agreed; "It starts in the meeting room with the linemen and Coach Helduser (Alabama's Offensive Line Coach). As a team we're a big family, but even more so we're a small family in that meeting room. We're all there for each other."

"The great thing is the guys are fun to coach," Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione said of his young linemen. "They are getting better. They're having fun. They're carrying a physical mentality into the game. From a coach's standpoint, it's a big pleasure to watch them developing."

Wesley Britt (#70) waits with Smiley (#78) for their turn at practice. Weighing more than 300 pounds and standing all of 6-8, Britt has the ideal frame for an offensive tackle.

"Our coaches speak to us, not at us," Smiley said. "Coach Helduser is going to tell us more than just what plays to perform. He's going to tell us the way we need to act, the way we need to approach practice. He's going to tell us the mental frame of mind we need to be in. Our practices are just as hard now as they were in two-a-days. With hard practices we're going to get better."

"You've got to develop that comfort level with your teammates," Mathis added. "I wasn't nervous when I was out there playing my first snaps against UCLA. You go out there with the same frame of mind as practice. Just do what you're supposed to do. You don't have to do any more or any less. Do what you're supposed to do and you're going to be fine."

Mathis came off the bench to see action versus the Bruins, but Smiley and Britt actually started in their first game wearing the Crimson jersey. "The UCLA game is just a blur to me," Smiley said laughing. "It happened too quickly, being out there and being excited. Now it's more like practice."

The three second-year freshmen all arrived on campus in the fall of 2000. And since that time they've worked out together, practiced together and even hung out together away from football. "During games we'll set each other up," Smiley related. "I'll post my guy and Wesley will come across and hit him. We're not selfish, and that's what makes a good offensive line."

Of course even though the three are friends, don't think that competitive spirit doesn't play out among them as well. "I've always been trying to catch up to (Wesley and Justin)," Mathis explained. "So there is always competition among all of us. We're going to compete for the Offensive Lineman of the Week award. We're proud when our teammate gets it, but we're going to compete.

"I graded 1 percent worse than Wes did one week and he got the award. Then I graded a half point better than Smiley, and he was disappointed."

A power-lifting champion in high school, Justin Smiley (#78) is said to have NFL potential, so long as he continues to develop.

Ordinarily competition is only a good thing on a football team, but Coach Helduser is on hand to make sure it doesn't get out of hand. "That's good now, because they all are making a strong contribution to our unit. But there's a very fine line between confidence and arrogance for a football player. They're starting to gain some confidence, but they can't assume that they'll be good every week."

Maybe so, but like three brothers constantly trying to one-up the other, Bama's young O-Linemen compete all the time. Mathis explained; "Ever since we all first got here last year, I told them my goal was to start. I wasn't trying to be cocky, but I shared my goals with my friends."

Both Britt and Smiley started together versus UCLA, but Britt had beaten his friend to No. 1 on the depth chart, having been elevated to that position back in the spring. "Wesley did motivate me," Smiley admitted. "He and I being in the same class, I didn't want to be left out. It made me work even harder."

Generally described by his teammates and coaches as the lineman most likely to ‘knock your head off,' Bama's starting strong guard brings a constant competitive fire to the football field. "Smiley gives us all a lot of motivation and competition, even amongst ourselves," Mathis explained. "He got 20 knockdown blocks in one game, but he was angry because he wasn't the best. Which is a good thing."

Without question, Smiley's drive to be the No. 1 all the time--no matter what has helped him develop as a football player. But it can occasionally be inconvenient as well.

Landing a good-natured jab at his friend's expense, Britt laughs as he remembers last spring. "Shoot, Justin wouldn't talk to me for two weeks after I was named starter before him."

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