Justin Smiley may have elected to turn pro with a year of eligibility remaining anyway. He was drafted in the second round, and that's about as good as it gets for a guard.
Alabama's experience at guard is a mixed bag. Evan Mathis is a three-year starter, but his first three years were at right tackle. The 6-5, 308-pound senior will be moving into the left guard position vacated by Smiley. Mathis said that he and his coaches have long believed he is better suited to the more physical guard position than he was for tackle. Although the guard does pull and provide a blocking escort for running backs, it is mostly a position of straight-ahead battles in the trenches.
Mathis, the nephew of former Tide and Miami Dolphins star Bob Baumhower, has proved his toughness as in his first two years he played with stress fractures in his legs. After redshirting in 2000, he took over the starting job in the fourth game of the 2001 season and has 35 consecutive starts.
Unless he has to move to center, Taylor Britt–the 6-4, 278-pound junior who was formerly a defensive tackle–is expected to back up Mathis at left guard. Britt, who started his career as a redshirt at UAB in 2001, saw only limited action as a defensive tackle last year. He had to sit out 2002 as a transfer.
Although the graduated Dennis Alexander got the majority of work at right guard last season, Danny Martz, had two starts late in the season (Mississippi State and LSU) and played in nine games. Martz, a 6-4, 291-pound senior, enters the 2004 season as the favorite to start at right guard. He had limited game experience in 2002 and 2003 after redshirting in 2001. He was winner of the spring award as the most improved offensive lineman.
There had been some talk of a third Britt being on the offensive line this year. Incoming freshman Justin Britt was a star defensive player at Cullman High School, but had indicated he might be used on the offensive line at Alabama. With academic difficulties for several defensive line signees, Britt, 6-4, 270 (or perhaps bigger after a spring and summer of workouts), is expected to be across the line from his brothers, at defensive tackle.
Justin Moon, 6-4, 304, takes a back seat to almost no one when it comes to work ethic. The former Guntersville star lineman came to Bama as an offensive tackle, but will likely be a back-up to Martz at right guard this fall as a redshirt freshman.
Von Ewing came to Alabama as an offensive tackle, but the 6-5, 304-pound junior has made his headlines on the stage rather than on the football field. Ewing, a theater major, has been critically aclaimed for his stage roles, but has yet to be a football hit. He has made the switch to guard and could back up on both the left and right sides.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a series of essays on what Alabama might reasonably expect from each position in order to have a successful 2004 season.