Closner and Lomax move front and center

The night ended in a comfortable win, but late in the third quarter the Tide was only ahead by ten points over Arkansas. At the time the Razorbacks were very much in the game, when one of Alabama's senior leaders went down. <br><br>All-SEC center Alonzo Ephraim sat on the turf, holding his knee. And untested redshirt freshman J.B. Closner trotted onto the field.

To that point Closner had been only a little-used backup, and both fans and teammates expected he'd be nervous. "(My teammates) were mainly telling me to relax; calm down; take a deep breath; you know what to do; you'll do fine," Closner related. "It seemed like everyone was more nervous than me. It really happened so fast. The next thing I knew I was in the huddle calling out the defense.

"But we practice for that all year long."

As cool as the other side of the pillow, Closner took over for Ephraim--and the Alabama offense didn't miss a beat. "I looked into his eyes when he came into the huddle," quick guard Justin Smiley related. "Everybody was telling him to calm down, but I really didn't see him nervous. He came in there cooler than I did coming into that game, and I've got a couple of games under my belt."

Veteran lineman Matt Lomax is practicing this week at center.

On the sideline watching the redshirt freshman perform calmly, the Tide coaches breathed a sigh of relief. "J.B. did a great job," Head Coach Dennis Franchione said. "I was really impressed with the way he came in and how he handled the situation. We didn't have any bad snaps. He handled some shotgun snaps. And we did not seem to slow down offensively."

Unless the injury ends an athlete's season, Alabama policy is to release no information about a player's status. But from watching the game on television, it's obvious that Ephraim suffered a strained knee at best. Such injuries can take from a few days to a few weeks to heal, depending on the severity of the damage. It's possible that Ephraim could return by Saturday's game with Georgia, but the Tide coaches are also getting back-up players ready in case he can't.

Both Closner and junior Matt Lomax got snaps at center Tuesday, each getting work with the first and second units. Line Coach Jim Bob Helduser explained, "We look at multiple guys at every position, so this is nothing new. If you don't practice well, if you don't prepare well, then you're not going to get to play. What happens Saturday--whether Alonzo or J.B. or Matt plays--will just depend on how the week progresses."

Originally signed as an offensive tackle, Lomax is a veteran player who has learned every position on the offensive line. "Other than snapping the ball to the quarterbacks, center is not really an adjustment for him," Helduser said. "Matt is playing every position on the line right now, so he knows from an assignment standpoint what everybody does. That's a real benefit having a guy that is so flexible and intelligent and has learned as much as he has. He knows what both tackles, both guards and the center do. He's very valuable in that regard, because we've been able to pencil him in as a backup at several positions."

For Lomax, it's just another day at the office. "Coach (Helduser) told me Sunday when we came back that he was going to try me there. I pretty much know every position out there, so I'm pretty confident about what to do. I just need to get some snaps under me at center. It's just one position over from where I've been working. I think back to what I did at guard and center just happens."

With a reputation for physical play, redshirt freshman J.B. Closner finished up the Arkansas game and is the leading candidate to fill in for Alonzo Ephraim against Georgia if the senior starter can't go.

Fifth-year senior Marico Portis practiced next to Lomax Tuesday, and he was impressed. "Matt has been around for awhile, going on his fourth year," Portis said. "He knows what he's doing. I was surprised at how well he picked up the position. Nobody has to whisper over to him what to call. He already knows what to do. He knew all the blocking calls to make."

Evan Mathis, Bama's starter at strongside tackle, worked all his freshman season at center and would be a viable possibility if a long-term solution were needed. But Lomax's versatility has allowed Helduser the luxury of not juggling his lineup. "Matt being able to practice at center this week gives us the ability to leave other guys at their normal positions," Helduser explained. "We don't have to move Evan (Mathis) in and out of there. That prevents us having to shuffle, which would happen otherwise."

The Tide coaches are hopeful that Ephraim will return quickly, and in the meantime they have a great deal of confidence in his backups. Franchione explained, "We have been fortunate as a football team in that when players have been called upon, people have stepped up. J.B. is another example of that."

If Ephraim's rehab progresses fast enough, then he'll start this Saturday. Otherwise, it'll be either Matt Lomax or J.B. Closner. And based on his performance last Saturday, Closner probably holds a slight edge.

"J.B. always plays with a mean streak," was how Smiley described him. "That's his style of play. Sometimes he even gets a little too physical in pass protection, but he's getting better every week.

"He comes off the ball trying to maul somebody, and I have a lot of respect for that."


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