"That's really the only kind of recognition you get on the offensive line," Tide guard Justin Smiley explained. "You take pride in being able to run." ">
"That's really the only kind of recognition you get on the offensive line," Tide guard Justin Smiley explained. "You take pride in being able to run." ">

O-Line coming into its own

It may have long since become a football cliche', but that doesn't mean it's not true. When it comes to offensive linemen, publicity is often difficult to come by. So for the "Big Uglies" up front, rushing yardage is the stat they most often point to. <br><br>"That's really the only kind of recognition you get on the offensive line," Tide guard Justin Smiley explained. "You take pride in being able to run."

If that's the case, then Alabama linemen have plenty of reason to be proud. After four games, the Tide is averaging 244.25 yards per game.

Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione appreciates the effort. "The offensive line has played pretty well so far this season," he said. "They're playing with a nice confidence. They still feel a hunger. And they continue to get better. Some of them now have played 15 football games, so they should be in the process of getting better."

Evan Mathis (#51, left) and Justin Smiley (#78, center) on the sideline.

"Our offense is accepting the challenge," said senior center Alonzo Ephraim. "We know that every week we're going to go against a good defense. Southern Miss was another good defense, and Arkansas is next. It's just a matter of executing and us taking care of our job."

Week after week the Tide has faced tough defenses. Last Saturday Southern Miss came into the game yielding only 124 yards per game on the ground, but that number is bigger now. "When I found out after the game that we got 351 yards rushing, it made me very happy," Smiley said. "As an offensive lineman you can get credited with ‘pancakes' or grade out high on your assignments, but when you see those rushing stats it makes you feel very good.

"We prepare like we do every week, to play physical football, blowing people up."

Ranked second in the conference and ninth in the nation, Alabama can run the football on anybody. "You always want to run the ball more," Ephraim said of Bama's play calling. "But our coaches are in charge. Whatever decision they make---whatever call that they make---we're going to go with it."

Interestingly, though the Tide is among the nation's best rushing teams, Bama's first individual runner listed comes in 90th best in the country. In (the now injured) Ahmaad Galloway, Shaud Williams, Santonio Beard, and Ray Hudson, Alabama's offense spreads the wealth running the football. Franchione commented, "The big thing about our offense this year is we don't have to utilize just one key player. We can talk about the multiplicity of our skill guys a great deal, but when those five guys up front play well, it makes it a lot easier to spread the wealth around."

At quick tackle, Wesley Britt is just beginning to realize his potential.

After four games the Tide is also averaging 34:55 minutes a contest in time of possession. Improvement can still be made, but the Bama offense is putting together long drives---keeping its defense off the field and fresh. "Sustaining drives is important," Ephraim said. "We talk about going out and helping our defense, and the defense tries to help us."

The Tide finished 2001 tops in the SEC in running the football, so this season's prowess on the ground is hardly a surprise. However last year's sack total (21) was a sore point for the offensive line. Strong tackle Evan Mathis explained. "We're still working on our pass blocking, but we're doing a lot better this year than last. It was one of our main focuses to be better at protecting the quarterback. It's a key on the line. Every game we tell each other ‘No sacks this game, no sacks.'"

"We made a big step in improving last year to the spring and from spring to now," Ephraim agreed, "but we still have to improve week by week. We've given up a few sacks, so we still have to get better."

So far the offensive line has given up only six sacks, and that total came against some pretty fair defensive units. "Even against a front as good as Oklahoma's, most of the time they protected our quarterback pretty well," Franchione said. "We had a blitz or two that we didn't pick up correctly with a back or with the quarterback picking up his hot read, but for the most part our line did a good job. And in the second half at Norman, our line was taking the fight to them very physically."

Friends (and roommates) Marico Portis (#71, left) and Alonzo Ephraim (#58, center) check out the action on the JumboTron during the game.

Exemplified by Mathis playing all last season on a broken leg, the current Tide offensive line has nothing to prove in terms of toughness. "There was a play in the North Texas game when the defender came down on my (same hurt) leg, and I thought I was hurt," Mathis related. "But I stayed with him. I had it drilled into my mind, ‘No sacks, no sacks!' So I stayed with my man. I didn't fall down until after the play was over.

Ephraim pointed out the key to Bama's improvement pass blocking. "We're communicating better and getting our eyes and our bodies in the right place. Last year we didn't have that much communication, because everybody was trying to focus on what they had to do individually. Now we know our assignments. Everybody knows each other's position. Now we know where everybody is supposed to be. Knowing that you've got help to the inside, which is a part of communication. Being aware when the blitzes are coming and where they're coming from, so you can be in the right position to pick up your man."

When it comes to running the football at least, it's hard to argue with Bama's talent on the offensive line. But don't expect them to acknowledge it. "Last week is over," Mathis said. "We learn from it, but then we move on. We're not going to ever look at our performance and say that we're as good as we need to be. Just continue to work hard."

With Jim Bob "Hellraiser" Helduser coaching the unit, Ephraim doesn't see anyone letting up any time soon. "Coach Helduser prepares us very well, watching film. We go into the game prepared. As long as we stay close and keep fighting--which Coach Helduser is going to make sure that we do that--there's no limit."

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