Big 'Zo makes it look easy

For senior center Alonzo Ephraim, kickoff can't get here soon enough. He's determined to make his final season in Crimson his best, and it doesn't bother him one bit that his team is being overlooked in the early polls. <br><br>"To be honest I'd rather be the underdog," Ephraim said. "They're the ones that can sneak in the back door. They're the one you're not looking for."

Continuing the thought, Ephraim believes the situation will provide extra motivation for his teammates. "Personally I've always loved being the underdog," he added. "They always believe in each other. Underdogs believe that they can do it, and they love to prove the world wrong.

One of the smartest (and friendliest) players on the squad, Ephraim is recognized as a leader by his teammates.

"That's what I think we're going to do this year."

Having witnessed both an SEC championship season in 1999--and the 3-8 debacle that followed it, Ephraim knows how fickle pollsters can be. He explained, "We're so underrated this season that we have to block that stuff out, because we know we're better than what people are saying. The only way to prove it is by showing it on the field."

Despite coming off a perfectly awful losing season and adjusting to a brand new coaching staff at the same time, last year's team started off 2001 ranked in the Top 25. This time around the Tide is working on a four-game winning streak, including an Independence Bowl victory over Iowa State--but Bama has gone mostly unranked in the various pre-season polls.

"That's just life," was Ephraim's response. "Sometimes you have ups and sometimes you have downs, but we're not really looking at that. We're looking at how hard we've got to work this summer to prepare for the season."

"I think the off-the-field stuff is overshadowing how good the team can be," Ephraim continued. "Everybody keeps talking about the NCAA, but that's everybody else. We're not talking about it. That's behind us. We're not worried about it.

"All we're trying to do is play our role, and everything else will take care of itself."

Ephraim (#58) and fellow starter Marico Portis (#71) talk after practice. The two seniors play next to each other on the line, and both athletes want their final season to be their best.

Unlike Alabama, Ephraim himself is receiving plenty of respect. After being named first-team All-SEC last season, experts are predicting a repeat performance for the Birmingham native in 2002. "We're starting a little dynasty here," said graduate assistant Paul Hogan, who earned All-SEC honors himself at center in '99 and 2000. "Alonzo has got the tools. He's a big guy and he's fast. He played defensive end in high school. Actually, both of us played defensive end in high school, and we used that athleticism.

"Offensive line isn't considered a very athletic position. But Alonzo is such a great athlete that he makes it look easy."

Last season the Tide led the Southeastern Conference in rushing, averaging 226.4 yards per game. And as the senior leader of Bama's offensive line, Ephraim is taking his role seriously. Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser commented, "(Alonzo) did a nice job on the practice field last spring of helping our younger players out. That let our focus change from learning the system to becoming better technicians, developing our fundamentals and those type things."

Helduser and the Tide linemen worked especially hard on pass protection, looking to become a more complete unit. And Ephraim understands that the 2002 offense must become more balanced if it hopes to achieve its goals. "We've got a real tough schedule," Ephraim explained. "Any team on our schedule can beat us on any given day. All of them are real good."

Once again, virtually every team on Alabama's schedule participated in a bowl game last season. Plus, Oklahoma, Tennessee, LSU and Georgia are all being touted as potential championship contenders.

Ephraim works on the incline bench press at last spring's Night of Champions. Recruited by Florida to play defensive tackle, he's one of the most gifted linemen on the Bama roster.

"Everybody keeps talking about us as an underdog," Ephraim said. "But we know what we can do. We've played together, we've practiced together, we've sweated together. We know what we're capable of. I trust these guys, and they trust me. It's all about that accountability."

The Tide kicks off its season at home against a dangerous MTSU team. Then the following week Ephraim and his teammates will journey to Oklahoma, where they'll face a Sooner squad that many experts are touting for this year's national championship.

Ephraim loves the challenge. "If we can play Oklahoma with them ranked No. 1, that would be awesome," he said. "It's going to be a good season. We know what we can do. But first we've got to take care of Middle Tennessee.

"We're going to take it one step at a time."

As one of the most talented senior athletes on the squad, Bama's All-SEC center will be watched closely by NFL scouts all year. But right now Ephraim's entire focus is on his team. "Alonzo is taking a lot of personal pride in stepping up and leading the unit," Helduser said. "That's a real credit to the type of person and young man he is. He's taken on leadership of the group as a personal challenge, and we're pleased with what he has done in that regard."


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