Center spot up in the air

Determined to give every one of his athletes an equal chance, new Tide Offensive Line Coach Bobby Connelly has his work cut out for him during spring practice. One of his most important tasks will be finding a replacement for two-time All-SEC center Alonzo Ephraim. <br><br>"Our center is more or less the quarterback of the offensive line," Connelly said.

Alabama returns three starters from last year: tackles Evan Mathis and Wesley Britt and guard Justin Smiley. Dennis Alexander and J.B. Closner have significant playing experience. And senior Atlas Herrion, who redshirted last season, is an excellent all-around athlete. Other scholarshipped O-Linemen include Mark Sanders, Matt Lomax, Grant Dickey and Von Ewing.

Evan Mathis has started the past two seasons at tackle, but he has center experience (photo courtesy of Barry Fikes)

Connelly will have plenty of players to choose from, in assembling his starting five. But his center will require more than raw athleticism alone.

"Because of what we try to do as an offense, there are a lot of variables that go into selecting that center position," Connelly said. "Our center sets our targeting on every play at the line of scrimmage, so he's got to be able to handle that. If we've got a certain run play on, he's going to identify a certain individual on the defense to get us going in the right direction.

"And it's the same with a pass. The center is going to target our run and pass schemes, according to the defensive fronts we'll be seeing."

Before Alonzo Ephraim, current graduate assistant Paul Hogan handled snaps, giving Alabama the last four All-SEC centers. Of course Hogan and Ephraim were good athletes, but they were also both excellent students. Connelly commented, "Our center has got to be smart enough to read the defense and even-tempered enough to be able to handle things in the heat of battle."

The other four starters can get away with emotional play, but Bama's center must be able to maintain a cool head. Connelly explained, "He may have just gotten his bell rung, or he's got his temper up from a previous play and he's so flustered he wants to get after that guy the next play.

"If a center is too angry to make sure we're doing what we need to do for that down, then he's not a good fit."

Shown on the sidelines last year with his line mates, Justin Smiley (#78) has the ability to handle either guard or center.

Many fans simply assume that last year's back-up (J.B. Closner) will move up to the starting role. That could happen, but before slotting anyone to a specific position Connelly will first determine his best five players.

If Closner is one of that "best five," then he could start at center--or guard, whichever position he's best suited for. "You've got J.B. Closner who played a little bit last year at the center position," Connelly said. "J.B. has been here two years now and worked solely at the center position last year."

But Closner is not the only Tide lineman with center experience. For the past two years guard Justin Smiley also served as Bama's emergency long-snapper on road trips, and the powerful junior is a definite possibility at center.

"We could move a guard to center," Connelly revealed. "Justin has a great build and body makeup for a center. He's very athletic. He's got good footwork, and he can move around very well. So he might be a guy that could move.

"If we need someone to move to center, then Justin would definitely be a candidate."

He's started the last two years at strong (right) tackle for Alabama, but junior Evan Mathis spent his entire true freshman year at center. "Evan Mathis is another candidate," Connelly said. "He's been playing tackle, but he has worked at center here at Alabama."

Sophomore J.B. Closner was the back-up center last year, but he would be just as effective at guard.

"Justin worked at center last year in practice situations," Connelly said. "So both Justin and Evan have snapping experience."

Standing 6-3 or so with excellent feet and the strength of a power lifter, Smiley believes that center could be his ideal NFL position. So he would be happy to make the move.

Since his true freshman year Mathis has bulked up significantly, which makes him wonder if he's gotten too big for center. But some Tide coaches have told him that center may be his best pro position as well. Plus, as an Academic All-American, Mathis is plenty smart for the position.

As for Coach Connelly, difficult choices are actually very good news. Plenty of D-1 schools would love to have Alabama's talent on the offensive line.

"Basically I've got to find the best fit," Connelly said. "The players come into my office daily to talk to me and ask questions. The nice thing is I've talked with several guys that have come in and talked about different situations and their willingness to move to help the team. The players are aware of what we're doing."

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