How good can they be?

What a difference a year can make! <br><br>Back in June of 2001 Tide fans were frankly scared about their offensive line. And with four out of five new starters, who wouldn't be worried? <br><br>Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione remembers it well. "Last year at this time the offensive line was a concern," he said. "Certainly we didn't have a lot of experience.

"But as the season wore on, we got better and better. The players' confidence grew.

For the season, Alabama averaged more than 400 yards of offense per game. Not bad for team that was supposed to struggle to move the football. "We improved our offense by 100 yards a game from the UCLA game forward," Franchione said. "We ended up having a 500-yard offensive game at the end of the year. And a lot of that had to do with the offensive linemen and their growth."

Shown speaking to his unit on the sidelines during the Arkansas game, Jim Bob Helduser was directly responsible for developing Alabama's fledgling offensive line.

Based on what they saw early on, many so-called experts labeled Alabama an option team. And who could blame them?

Feature the tailbacks, run the option, move the pocket around, and roll Tyler Watts out to pass. There is no arguing that early on the Tide wasn't doing much standard drop-back passing.

But there was method to the madness.

Painfully aware of the inexperience up front, early in the season Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser and the Tide offensive staff emphasized plays and formations that would protect their green linemen. "The younger players that started for us improved from beginning to end," Helduser said. "The two older players, Alonzo (Ephraim) and Marico (Portis), made improvement. Not as much, because they already had some experience. However, they both developed into very solid players."

All year long Ephraim and Portis provided leadership for the unit, and at season's end Bama's center was voted first team All SEC. But the Tide coaches believe the unit has yet to approach its full potential. "I don't think they're as good as they're going to be," Franchione said. "I know that fans and the coaches are going to expect a lot more out of them, because they've got that year behind them.

"But three of them are still just going to be sophomores, so there are good days ahead."

Two of Bama's young guns on the offensive line, Justin Smiley and Evan Mathis have set high goals for themselves before they're finished at Alabama.

With the ‘Big Uglies' up front paving the way, Alabama led the SEC in rushing. And its 226.4 yards per game average was fully 40 yards ahead of second place South Carolina.

The 2002 season will be the last at Alabama for Ephraim and Portis, but Wesley Britt, Evan Mathis and Justin Smiley have barely begun. The three sophomores have set as a goal nothing less than All-SEC and All-America honors before they leave The Capstone.

"They certainly have played enough," Franchione noted. "They've got grit and heart and fight to them. You love it when your linemen say, ‘Let's just run the ball, Coach. Let's run it 12-13 times and kick their tails.' You love that intellect coming out of your offensive linemen."

But just as important as the improvement among Alabama's starters, the Tide coaches are just as happy about their O-Line backups. As Franchione pointed out, "We're developing nice depth at the position."

They may have been inexperienced, but the 2001 offensive line was good enough to help Bama lead the SEC in rushing.

From the moment Franchione and his staff assumed control of the squad, mutual trust and team building have been given top priority. And their efforts are starting to pay off. "We've developed a good chemistry, as has our whole team," Helduser said. "That's part of the foundation that Coach Fran wanted to lay during his first year. Through his leadership with the help of the entire football family, we have developed a real esprit de corps."

But don't think this unit has reached its potential--because that's far from the truth. At times the O-Line struggled last season in pass protection. For the season the Tide gave up 23 sacks, ranking them ninth in the conference. Franchione explained, "They know they've got to pass protect better, and that was one of the big focuses of the spring. They've made some improvement in that area. We've still got work to do, but we're on a nice course to do that.

"We rushed the ball better last season.

"Now we want to throw the ball better."

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