By Joseph Santoliquito

Philadelphia, PA (CBS)—He looks like a bearded human fire hydrant. And though he’s 6-foot-5, 298 pounds, he has kind of a stubby appearance, with seemingly short arms and squat, thick legs. Ever run into a fire hydrant? It doesn’t move. It’s solid, reliable.

Much like Evan Mathis.

The Eagles’ left guard was one of the few—and possibly only—shining lights in a dismal 4-12 season in 2012. He was the Eagles’ lone wolf, the only offensive lineman to start every game for the Birds last year. Over the last two years, he’s started 31 games for the Eagles and has developed into one of the best guards in football.

He did it with the likes of King Dunlap and Demetress Bell to his left, and Dallas Reynolds, a practice squad player, on his right most of last year.

“I think what helped me the most was staying focused on what my job was each week,” Mathis said. “The toughest part was going 4-12. Losing can affect you. You just have to keep moving forward with blinders on and that’s what I tried to do last year.”

In his two years with the Eagles, Mathis, who previously had just 22 starts in his first six years, has allowed only one sack, 24 hurries and 10 quarterback hits. He’s been a moving granite wall in run blocking.

And though the Eagles went 4-12 last year, and the pieces were falling down all around him, Mathis may have gained quite a bit from the experience. Week after week, the media routinely gathered around the veteran guard’s locker, and each week Mathis faced the unpleasant task in discussing yet another loss.

He never backed away. He always stood up to the mics and jutting tape recorders. He never hid. He bore through. He defined “stand-up guy.”

“You find out a lot of things about yourself in situations like last year,” Mathis said. “I found out how important it is to be a leader and to step up and keep encouraging the guys around you, and staying as positive as you can, despite the situation.”

With a healthy Jason Peters back at left tackle, and the recovered Jason Kelce at center, Todd Herremans at right guard and rookie first-round pick Lane Johnson at right tackle, Mathis and the Eagles’ offensive line could be one of the positives in what will be a rebuilding year.

“The focus is to continue to improve and build,” said Mathis, who if he stays healthy, will merit All-Pro consideration this year. “I think we have a chance to have a very good [offensive line], if everyone stays healthy. We just have to get used to playing with each other again. The potential is there to be good.”

Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.

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