The O-line: Are Football's Big Uglies Ready?

The O-line: Are Football's Big Uglies Ready?

The "Big Uglies." They battle in the trenches to protect the quarterback or create holes for a running back. They're the heart of the offense and a critical component in moving the chains. Without an experienced offensive line, a great quarterback can look ordinary and a fast running back can get stuffed. Some BCS teams look set at O-line and some don't. Here's a sampling of what to expect.

LSU

The Tigers return four starters from last year's team -- Will Blackwell, an All-SEC guard, has graduated and Josh Williford will likely be his replacement. Guard Josh Dworaczyk (knee) returns after the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility -- Dworaczyk suffered a knee injury in fall camp last year and missed the entire season. He'll have to compete for the starting left guard spot against La'el Collins, who saw a lot of action on the first team during spring practice.

Center P.J. Lonergan has only missed two games in two years and returns as the anchor of this line. Alex Hurst will return to right tackle and Chris Faulk will protect the quarterback's blind side as the left tackle. Overall, the O-line should be one of the top units in the SEC. Status: Set.


Oklahoma State

The Cowboys lost two All-Big 12 linemen from their 12-1 team last year; center Grant Garner -- he was also named the Big 12's Offensive Lineman of the Year -- and right tackle Levy Adcock. They also lost tackle Nick Martinez. The only real concern is who will play center -- that hasn't been decided just yet -- since everyone else has had starting experience. Senior right guard Lane Taylor is back with 36 starts under his belt while guard Jonathan Rush has 16 starts. Tackles Michael Bowie and Parker Graham also have experience -- Graham and Bowie both started five games last year.

Offensive line coach Joe Wickline is one of the best in the country and has a knack for shuffling players around to find the perfect fit. With so much experience and depth to work with, there is no reason why the Cowboys shouldn't have one of the deepest O-lines in the Big 12. Status: Set.


Alabama

The Tide lose center William Vlachos, a huge loss, but I'm still not worried about this unit. Barrett Jones can probably play any position on the line, so why not move him to center? Left guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker also return, so there are no concerns there. Last year, Cyrus Kouandjio played in seven games as a reserve tackle before suffering a season-ending knee injury -- the No. 1 tackle in Scout.com's class of 2011 should see his name at the top of the depth chart under left tackle this year. Anthony Steen looks like he will play at right guard -- he was a starter in nine games last season.

Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland moves his players around to get them valuable experience and this proactive style of coaching is paying off. Losing Vlachos was tough, but a versatile lineman such as Barrett Jones makes it easier to reload. Status: Set.


Oklahoma

The offensive line is a huge strength for the Sooners -- they return four starters but lost left tackle Donald Stephenson to the NFL Draft. Lane Johnson was solid as right tackle but he may move to the more critical left side. Guards Tyler Evans and Gabe Ikard both return. Ikard was an All-Big 12 first team guard and is a two-season starter while Evans has started at right guard for two-plus seasons. Center Ben Habern has over 30 starts and is the anchor of this very experienced Sooner line.

Because the Sooners lost so much talent in the wide receiver corps, there could be an added emphasis on the running game, especially if back Dominique Whaley is completely rehabbed from a knee injury he suffered last year. With so much experience on the line, the Sooners should have no problem protecting quarterback Landry Jones. Status: Set.


USC

USC returns four starters on the line but the one loss -- left tackle Matt Kalil -- was a big one. Kalil was taken by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round (fourth pick) in the 2012 NFL Draft. Aundrey Walker has emerged as a possible starter at left tackle -- he played in 11 games last year. Marcus Martin adds some veteran experience on the left side as a guard, as he was named to several Freshman All-American first teams. The center position is anchored by Khaled Holmes, a Rimington Trophy candidate and a third-year starter. John Martinez (right guard) and Kevin Graf (right tackle) are returning starters as well.

Lack of depth due to ongoing NCAA sanctions could be a problem. Starting this year through 2014, USC is limited to 15 scholarship offers per year. On the post spring depth chart, guards Cyrus Hobbi and Max Tuerk are listed as reserves. Hobbi has no experience and Tuerk hasn't even enrolled yet. At right tackle, David Garness and Zach Banner are the two reserves. Garness has never played a down in Division 1 football and Banner won't be enrolled until the fall. The left tackle reserves are also green. Redshirt sophomore walk-on Nathan Guertler has no experience while true freshman Chad Wheeler has only been enrolled at the school for about four months. If the starters stay healthy, USC should have no problem. Status: Set.


South Carolina

The Gamecocks return center T.J. Johnson and left guard A.J. Cann, but they lost guard Terrence Campbell and tackles Kyle Nunn and Rokevious Watkins. Brandon Shell, a redshirt freshman, had a great spring and looks like a lock as the starting left tackle. Shell was a five-star prospect and ranked fifth among tackles in Scout's class of 2011. Mike Matulis and Cody Gibson are both battling for the starting right tackle spot with Matulis listed ahead of Gibson on the spring depth chart. Defensive tackle Corey Robinson has moved to left tackle behind Shell and Ronald Patrick is slotted first at right guard.

There's a lot of inexperience on the line. With a dual-threat quarterback like Connor Shaw calling the signals, the pass protection may not be as pressing of a concern as setting up the running game for back Marcus Lattimore, as Shaw has the wheels to avoid a sack. But how will the Gamecocks stack up against LSU's front four in October? Status: Unsettled.


West Virginia

Last year the Mountaineers' offensive line gave up an average of two sacks per game, which equated to a No. 68 ranking of all FBS teams. Naturally, there is room for improvement this year, and they'll have to get better to stay competitive in the Big 12. The Mountaineers lost two linemen in Don Barclay, an All-Big East left tackle, and right tackle Tyler Rader. Returning veterans like guard Josh Jenkins, a two-year starter who missed the entire 2011 season after a spring game knee injury, as well as center Joe Madsen will help cushion the losses.

West Virginia averaged 122.69 rushing yards per game last year, which placed them smack-dab-in-the-middle of the Big East's rushing offense productivity. To put this in perspective, consider this: In the Big 12, they would have been ranked dead last in the conference behind No. 10 Texas Tech, which averaged 125.17 rushing yards per game. While the line may improve this year, they'll also be playing against more elite defenses and that may cancel out any progress made. Status: Unsettled.


Virginia Tech

No one does a better job of rebuilding than head coach Frank Beamer, but he has a daunting task ahead of him -- the Hokies only return three starters on the offense. Both tackles and both guards are gone, leaving center Andrew Miller as the lone returning starter on the offensive line. The Hokies' depth chart lists Nick Becton and Vinston Painter at tackle while David Wang and Georgia-transfer Brent Benedict fill in at guard. Their game-day inexperience is obvious. Wang has had 37 snaps, Painter 49 snaps and Becton 450 snaps. Benedict has had zero snaps due to extensive reconstruction on a knee he tore up in his senior year of high school.

Benedict's health is key -- the four-star tackle was tabbed "one of the best in the country" by Scout's South Recruiting Analyst Chad Simmons. If he can play the entire season at 100 percent then the O-line may not be in as dire shape as it appeared to be prior to spring practice. Quarterback Logan Thomas returns as the team's leading rusher and the onus is on the line to protect him in the pocket. If they can't defend the pass rush, Thomas will be running a lot and risking potential injury. Status: Unsettled.


Michigan

Losing a veteran center is always hard, but when you lose the best center in the country -- like Rimington Trophy winner David Molk -- it becomes a pressing matter. In the Wolverines' annual spring game, three center snap exchanges resulted in fumbles. Left tackle Taylor Lewan (22 starts) is one of the premier tackles in the country -- Mel Kiper has Lewan as the 12th-best overall prospect in next year's NFL Draft. Michael Schofield, who started 10 games last season, has switched from left guard to right tackle. Joey Burzynski, who appeared in 10 games last season as a reserve, is now listed as the starting left guard. Patrick Omamah has started 29 consecutive games at right guard. Finally, center Ricky Barnum has made three starts in nine game appearances.

It appears that offensive line coach Darrell Funk has balanced the line with one experienced lineman and one less-experienced lineman on each side of the center. Robinson throws right-handed, so his blind side should be protected by Lewan. There is experience on the line but the left guard and center have three starts between the two of them. The Wolverines will have faced Alabama, Air Force, UMass and Notre Dame by the end of September. With only UMass as a warm-up game, there isn't a lot of opportunity to grow into the positions. Status: Unsettled.


Ohio State

The conservative pro-style offense of Jim Tressel is out and the spread attack of Urban Meyer is in. Unfortunately, also out are tackles J.B. Shugarts, Mike Adams and center Mike Brewster. Before you jump off the ledge, remember these three were also part of an O-line that gave up an average of over 3.5 sacks per game -- only Miami (OH) and Pitt gave up more last season. Note that quarterback Braxton Miller was only a true freshman and so his decision-making skills probably didn't help much when the pocket collapsed.

Two returning starters, Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell, have 13 starts each while guard Marcus Hall has six. But their start numbers may not matter because Meyer is tweaking the entire offense with a no-huddle, hurry-up offense. The veterans on this line weren't recruited for that type of offense and may look like square pegs in round holes. This same scenario occurred at Michigan in 2008 when then-head coach Rich Rodriguez instilled his spread attack using pro-style offensive players -- it didn't turn out well in Ann Arbor either. Ohio State cannot participate in any post-season games due to NCAA sanctions, and that may factor in how the team's mental fortitude plays out. But the Buckeyes should still be one of the best teams in the Big Ten and thus, are included in this conversation. Status: Unsettled.

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