The Crimson Tide returns the entire line, minus Ellington, even though it was Evan Mathis who started over Ellington as a redshirt freshman. Losing Ellington will hurt in terms of depth, but it doesn't mean this line can't be good.
"We can be as good as we want to be," sophomore guard Justin Smiley said. "Last year we were the question mark of the team. Coach Fran put Tyler (Watts) in the shotgun because he didn't know how well we would protect. But we proved last year that we can play at this level."
The offensive line includes three redshirt sophomores: Mathis, Smiley, and quick tackle Wesley Britt. Britt and Smiley started all of the Tide's contests, while Mathis started all but the first three. Strong guard Marico Portis and center Alonzo Ephraim return for their senior seasons after starting every game last season.
But what Smiley feels is that last year the line as a whole was talented--just young. The starters had very little experience prior to the 2001 season, but grew as the season went along.
"I don't think we were a question point (last year)," Smiley said. "We were just unproven. The Arkansas game, individually, felt like things were starting to come together. Blocking linebackers became second nature. The games before that were a blur to me."
The line also started to get more respect, especially when Santonio Beard (199 yards on 20 carries) and Ahmaad Galloway (127 yards on 14 carries) plunged through gaping holes left by the line against Auburn.
But while Smiley is confident they can create some running room, he also knows what they struggled with. "Our running game is the strength," Smiley said. "Last year we led the SEC in rushing but also led in sacks. It had a lot to do with being young. The main emphasis (in the spring) was pass protection, and we really improved on that. The plan is to cut that in half this year, and I think we can do that."
Ellington's departure does leave a hole, but head coach Dennis Franchione said that some positives can come out of it, especially since Ellington has not used a redshirt year. He started as a true freshman in 1999 and started in 2000, while seeing significant action in 2001.
"He does have a redshirt year, and he will be in the 105," Franchione said. "Hopefully, Dante will use this to his benefit both academically and athletically. I'm disappointed for him, but for some regards, this is a positive."
"I've talked to Dante at length about it," he added. "This is what he wants to do. He feels like there is an upside for him. He has to do it this year."
There are youngsters who can step up and replace Ellington as a backup tackle.
"We have numerous guys," Smiley said. "Von Ewing has come a long way from where he was last year. His footwork has gotten better and technique has gotten better. He'll definitely be able to contribute. Also, Atlas (Herrion) moved over from defense. That's definitely a plus, because Atlas is an awesome athlete."
The other tackles in the 105 who reported for two-a-days include senior Lannis Baxley and redshirt freshman walk-on Boone Stutz, who is also the backup long snapper.
Backup guards who will compete for playing time include juniors Dennis Alexander and Matt Lomax, sophomore Danny Martz, redshirt freshman Mark Sanders, and true freshmen Grant Dickey and Cody Grammer.
Redshirt freshman J.B. Closner is currently the backup for Ephraim at center, while redshirt freshman Montre Walker also works at the position.
One thing is for sure, though. This offensive line won't back down from any challenge.
"We know we can run the ball," Smiley said. "We're physical. We like to take the fight to people, we don't like people to bring the fight to us."