Offensive Line a Tenuous Surprise

In March, the Alabama offensive line was on red-alert, a weakness that would doom the Tide offense if not improved. Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula said that the line improved as much as any group over the course of the spring, but still needed work in the fall.

All that was true. Bama's offensive line is still paper thin behind the first-stringers who have led the offense to 248.5 rushing yards per game, good enough to be second-best in the Southeastern Conference.

"I think everybody on the team has confidence that we can run the ball and move it," fifth-year senior and starter at left guard Evan Mathis said. "When a run play is called everybody's ready to go out there and hit somebody in the mouth. The backs are ready to hit the holes and they're expecting to make some yardage.

"Coach Connelly has done a tremendous job with us since he's got here. He's a technician when it comes to coaching blocking. The way he teaches the run game it's broken down to the steps you take on each play.

"You can make a real good block on a play and you go see Coach Connelly and he's talking about the steps you took and how it would've been better if you took the right steps. All those things are very important and when you bring it all together it means big things in the run game."

Behind the starters, junior Von Ewing is the only offensive lineman to have seen meaningful playing time. Shula has flirted with the idea of inserting true freshman Antoine Caldwell into the lineup, but has not done so through four games.

This play wasn't a good experience for one Arkansas defender last Saturday

The Tide's pass protection is the area highlighted by Shula as needing improvement nearly every day since fall camp began. The line has allowed only four sacks on the year, but has also charted some costly holding penalties. And with one quarterback already down, protecting Marc Guillon has become a necessity.

Continuing to be effective run-blockers will help as Guillon develops better timing and feel with his receivers without having to rely on a heavy-passing attack, but Mathis and his line mates have to do their part to help the passing-game be a threat. Through four games, Alabama has had almost a two-to-one run-pass ratio, 179 pass plays to 93 rushes.

"It's good to have a balance," Mathis said. "I think Marc's going to get better and better and we'll get back to an even balance again."

The offensive line is creating holes, but Tide tailback Ray Hudson also deserves credit for scampering through them better than many would have thought. Hudson has always possessed the speed and strength to be a top-flight back in the SEC, but in 2004 his field vision and patience, along with a new attitude, has allowed him to live up to his potential.

"Ray's a lot more hungry this year than he was last year," Mathis said. "Ray's a great back anyway – he ran the ball good last year and this year you just see it in his eye. He wants it a lot more and he's trying to do big things."

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