1. Stanford Cardinal
The calling card of the Harbaugh-Shaw era is its proven ability to replace talent up front. The Cardinal didn’t miss much of a beat last season, despite losing first round draft picks Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. That’s because players like David Yankey picked up the slack.
Joining Yankey is Cameron Fleming, and a host of talented linemen from the Cardinal’s stellar 2012 recruiting. Josh Garnett and Kyle Murphy are breakout stars in the same mold as Martin and DeCastro. Last year’s unit allowed just 20 sacks while replacing those two, and paved holes for a 174.3 yard per game rushing attack. With more experience, this group could be among the best in college football.
2. Oregon Ducks
The foundation of Oregon’s prolific offensive attack is its front five. While first round NFL draft pick Kyle Long is gone, the Ducks welcome back four starters from last year’s unit that paved 315.2 rushing yards per game.
Included among that corps is Jake Fisher, the unit’s anchor. Fisher is an elite, athletic tackle and probably another future first rounder. Tyler Johnstone is an effective rush blocker on the opposite end, giving the Ducks their line stability from the outside on in. The head coach might be new, but the potency of the Oregon offense should remain the same with this outstanding group fronting it.
3. Arizona Wildcats
Rich Rodriguez inherited a veteran offensive line in his first season at Arizona. Numerous combined starts in 2011 translated to the nation’s No. 16 ranked scoring offense in 2012. Most of that same group returns for 2013, including Fabbians Ebbele and Mickey Baucus. Both have been key contributors each of the last two seasons, and are All-Conference caliber performers this coming season.
UA rushers, including national leader Ka’Deem Carey, averaged better than 5.4 yards per carry operating behind this unit. UA quarterback Matt Scott was also afforded plenty of time to work Rodriguez’s zone-read to perfect, while showing off the added wrinkle of a potent pass attack.
4. USC Trojans
Despite the loss of all-world tackle Matt Kalil, the Trojan offensive line was a strength last season. It’s faced once again with replacing a premiere talent though, as versatile blocker and all-around good guy Khaled Holmes departed for the NFL. However, veteran interior lineman John Martinez provides veteran savvy, while as-good-as-advertised youngster Max Tuerk should progress into the next great Trojan. The middle of the USC line is a definite strength, evident in the five yards per carry Trojan ball carriers averaged last season.
Replacing a four-year starter quarterback is difficult, but whether it’s Max Wittek, Max Browne or Cody Kessler, he will have adequate protection.
5. Washington Huskies
One reason to anticipate Washington bringing back some of the offensive firepower it exhibited in 2011 but lacked in 2012 is depth on the line. The Huskies’ only loss up front is Drew Schaefer. Otherwise, last season’s unit is in tact, with a year of experience and a new, uptempo system in place. A No. 5 ranking for a line that allowed 38 sacks just a season ago might seem generous, but I liken the Huskies’ growing pains to those of conference foe Arizona between 2011 and 2012. The starts youngsters garnered was a baptism by fire, better preparing them for the following campaign.
Steve Sarkisian’s spring depth chart had the same five on the first string throughout, a good sign for their collective development. Left tackle Micah Hatchie’s progress is paramount to the anticipated return to upper tier status for quarterback Keith Price. Price needs time to operate; he should get more of it in 2013.
6. UCLA Bruins
Brett Hundley met the turf plenty last season — he was the third most sacked quarterback in the nation. This was partially due to Hundley growing accustomed to the speed of the game while operating as a dual-threat play maker. Make no mistake, there’s quality up front for UCLA, evident in its more-than-190 rushing yards per game.
The starting line the Bruins return for 2013 is more experienced. Xavier Su’a-Filo was one of the conference’s best blockers as a sophomore, and will only be better in his junior campaign. Freshman Jake Brendel also played a significant role in the Bruins’ No. 31 ranked scoring offense. He’s a Rimington preseason watch list target.
7. Arizona State Sun Devils
Arizona State was the nation’s No. 14 overall scoring offense, and No. 25 ranked total offense. Like UCLA, the Sun Devils surrendered sacks en masse — 38 all year — though that was a byproduct of the offense; a necessary sacrifice for scoring big points. Taylor Kelly operated in much the same fashion as Brett Hundley, learning the dual-threat nuances of the system by trial and error. One cannot argue with the results.
Nor can one argue that Evan Finkenberg is a solid anchor among the Devils’ three returning linemen. Jamil Douglas is also back after starting all 13 games in 2012.
8. Oregon State Beavers
The resurgence of Oregon State’s offense — from 21.8 points per game in 2011 to 32.5 — started with improved line play. OSU boasted the nation’s No. 20 ranked passing offense at 307.1 yards per game. But quarterbacks Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz were sacked a combined 38 times. Meanwhile, the rush game showed vast improvement from 2011 but still had its struggles. Despite Storm Woods’ emergence, the Beavers averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.
A positive for the 2012 unit is that four starters return, including Grant Enger. Michael Philipp ranks among the conference’s most experienced players. He told The Statesman Journal during spring workouts that the Beaver front is “hungrier” this year.
9. Utah Utes
The Utah line was adequate protecting the quarterback, allowing 25 sacks all season. Freshman Jeremiah Poutasi was excellent in his debut campaign at right tackle. He’ll man the left tackle position this season. Where the Utes need important is opening holes for ball carriers, which in 2013 will include both running back Melvin York and quarterback Travis Wilson. The Utes were ranked No. 91 in rushing offense last season, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry.
10. Colorado Buffaloes
Good news: Colorado returns for of its five starters from a season ago. Bad news: David Bakhtiari left early for the NFL, accounting for the one departure. Bakhtiari was the best blocker the Buffs had up front. Even worse news: the best blocker from a line that allowed 50 sacks, ranked No. 109 in rushing offense with only 3.1 yards per carry on average and the No. 96 passing offense.
There are two talented Buffs back, though, in Alex Lewis and Daniel Munyer.
11. Cal Golden Bears
Deficiencies up front compounded Cal’s quarterback problems in 2012. Zach Maynard was sacked 41 times. The Golden Bears were solid in the run game, averaging a very impressive 4.9 yards per carry with the rushing triumvirate of Brendan Bigelow, C.J. Anderson and Isi Sofele. However, two of the three are gone — and most of the Golden Bear starters up front are as well.
Cal returns two starting linemen, the fewest of any unit in the conference.
12. Washington State Cougars
A primary contributor to Washington State’s inability to fully unleash the spread offense was its porous line. The Cougars ranked No. 120 among FBS teams when it came to protecting the quarterback, giving up an astounding 57 sacks. Washington State was also the worst rushing offense in college football.
Now, in Mike Leach’s pass-heavy, carries are relatively rare. Indeed, Cougars combined for a national low 252 yards. But Wazzu averaged just 1.4 yards an attempt. Let that sink in — one-point-four yards per rush.