A lot of athletes feign an almost reflexive modesty when talking to reporters, but with Ephraim (6-3, 292) it's no act. "It was an honor just to be nominated by The University," he said. "I take it as a blessing. I'm glad for my teammates. It's not so much what I have done, it's what others have done around me. I'll accept this honor for them in their name."
Awards and publicity are nice--especially for offensive linemen accustomed to laboring away from the spotlight. But there's a downside to everything. Ephraim explained; "Every honor and every award is basically putting you on somebody else's hit list. A good defensive lineman will say, ‘Hey, if I beat him up, then I've just made a name for myself.' That makes our job harder, but we have to go out and take care of it."
An all-state selection at center and defensive tackle from Birmingham's Wenonah High School, Ephraim brings a powerful frame and catlike quickness to his position. "I think I've been blessed with speed and also knowledge of the game," he said. "When I see things or the coaches tell me once or twice, then I can pick up on it. That's important at the center position. My high-school coach prepared me for the transition. He told me I'd have better facilities, but I have to work twice as hard. Everything he's said has proved true."
Back in spring training Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione was frankly worried. With only two starters back, Alabama was certain to be green in the offensive line--precisely a position where too much youth is a problem. And by mid-season every line position was manned by a new starter.
Despite being a first-year starter himself, Ephraim (pronounce with a long ‘e,' please, rhymes with ‘me and him') was called on for leadership. "As he got going, Alonzo became our leader," Franchione said. "I thought he was somebody we could rally around and build around. I don't think he's as good as he's going to be. We probably expected a lot out of him, and he delivered. He's done a good job for us and has been reliable all year long."
"Somebody has to step up and lead," Ephraim said. "Through spring and fall camp the coaches felt like I was being vocal and showing it. That's a role that somebody has to assume, and I thank God he put me in a place to assume it."
Careful to avoid pitfalls suffered by last year's O-Line, Ephraim and his running mates are steering clear of any nicknames. But reputation is another matter. "I'd like people to think that we're hard workers," Ephraim said. "That no matter what's going on, you can depend on this offensive line. We want the game to be put on our shoulders. We want to be known as the strongest line--not just in the SEC but in the nation. That takes a lot of hard work, and that's what we're trying to do."
Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser knows that normally it takes two seasons or more for an offensive line unit to mesh properly. But with Alabama a firm No. 1 in the conference in rushing offense, this starting five is ahead of schedule. "It's not just gelling on the field," Ephraim related. "It takes off-the-field time for that to happen. We take a lot of time together. We're always chillin' and kickin' and hanging out with each other. That just molds us together tighter.
"You don't want to let the guy down next to you, because you know how he feels about you. That carries forward on and off the field. The more we do together off the field, it will have an effect in games."
For the season, Alabama is averaging more than 226 yards rushing per game--40 yards more than second place South Carolina. And three different backs (Ahmaad Galloway, Santonio Beard and Tyler Watts) have 600 yards or more to their credit. "As a lineman, you have to take personal pride in their accomplishments," Ephraim said. "It makes you want to go out and block harder. Seeing the stats and hear people praise you for your work, that makes you want to do more. We're young, but the offensive line as a whole knows that when you work hard it pays off. That's been shown this year."
In most games this season, Helduser has been able to rely on eight athletes to fill out his playing rotation. Dante Ellington and Atlas Herrion are frequent substitutes at tackle, while Dennis Alexander is often utilized at guard. But playing the critical center position, Ephraim almost never comes out of the game. "I like to play the whole time," he stated. "The coaches have confidence in me. They feel like they can move everybody else around, but during a game it's something else to switch the center in and out. That can mess up the rhythm of the game and the flow of the snap to the quarterback. Our coaches are confident that they can leave the center in and rotate other spots, then we can still be as effective as a starting line."
"Alonzo is a warrior in the middle and brings outstanding leadership to the offensive line unit," Helduser said. "He has developed into one of our best linemen."
In game after game, it's not uncommon for Ephraim to take 70 snaps and more. But fatigue has not been a problem. He explained; "Coach Helduser was telling me in the early part of the season about getting into a zone. Once you get into that zone, you don't get tired. You don't feel winded. It's almost like you don't feel anything. You're just going. I get into a zone. I try to conserve my energy and do what I've got to do."
"Playing offense is different," Ephraim continued. "On defense you can get hyped up. You can use up all that energy. But on offense you have to conserve that energy, because your drives are longer. You have more plays. You can focus more, because you have to make the right call and block the right way.
"Practice prepares you for the game field. It's just going out in practice every day getting those reps. So long as you go full speed every rep in practice, then when you get into the games it's not going to be as hard."
He may have gotten a slow start, but with an all-conference designation to his credit as a junior, things are finally going his way. But Ephraim isn't ready to rest just yet. "I think I need to improve more on helping out my teammates (blocking). I can help out a lot more, besides just doing my assignment. You have to be careful. Coach tells us you want to help out but not do too much. But I think I'm still below that point.
"I need to be helping out more. I need to get the blocking calls out quicker. I need to come off the ball harder. There are a lot of things I can improve. A lot of things."
For now, Alabama's leader on the offensive line is seeking steady progress. "The next goal is to stay strong--not just to stay in one spot, but to get even stronger," Ephraim said "Everybody around me is going to improve as well. I want to keep my head about me and be a stronger leader. We'll need leadership next year and for the coming up bowl game. I want to do whatever I can to help keep our team together and keep it strong."