1. Baylor Bears
Cyril Richardson’s surprising decision to return to Waco for another season was Art Briles’ belated Christmas gift. An anchor of the Bears’ 44.5 point and 231.7 rushing yard per game offense, Richardson is a likely top 10 pick in next spring’s NFL draft. He won’t be the only Bear taken from this line with a first round selection, either.
Spencer Drango has had pro scouts’ attention for some time. Drango and Richardson could be a powerful two-man foundation in the same vein as Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. The Bears also have seniors Stefan Huber and Kelvin Palmer manning center and right tackle.
Football Study Hall has an excellent examination of the Power-O blocking scheme Baylor employs to produce points with such effortless efficiency. With talented players implementing a great system, BU is going to be one of the most difficultly contained offenses in the nation once again.
2. Texas Longhorns
Perhaps the best interior line in college football calls Austin home. The Longhorns feature the trio of Dominic Espinosa, Mason Walters and Trey Hopkins, ready to pave the way for a deep and talented rushing corps. At right tackle is Josh Cochran, and Donald Hawkins mans the left side. Both were starters in 2012, though Cochran missed spring practice after fracturing his leg.
This unit was largely responsible for Texas putting up 35.7 points per game, and with the Longhorns returning a bevy of talent on that side of the ball, even bigger things could lie ahead.
3. Kansas State Wildcats
The Wildcat line provided outstanding protection for quarterback Collin Klein last season, allowing just 14 sacks all year. Only OSU surrendered fewer among Big 12 teams.
Center BJ Finney evolved from walk-on to All-Big 12 performer and team captain. He is one of five Wildcat linemen on the depth chart with starting experience. The others are Tavon Rooks, Keenan Taylor, Cornelius Lucas and Cody Whitehair.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners lost first round offensive tackle Lane Johnson, but retain a considerably experienced and talented front with Gabe Ikard back in the fold. Ikard is cut from the same cloth as former Alabama star lineman Barrett Jones, playing virtually every position along the Sooner front.
Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin join Ikard. Shead started all 13 games in 2012, though injuries are of concern for him. Guerin Emig reports Andrew Tony Feo, a JUCO transfer, is an important addition.
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys
When the Cowboys finished 12-1 and won both the Big 12 and Fiesta Bowl in 2011, they featured arguably the best offensive line in college football. The 2012 version wasn’t half-bad either. It allowed just 12 sacks all year and kept Oklahoma State scoring at a 45.7 per game clip.
Gone from that unit are Evan Epstein and Lane Taylor. Parker Graham is back though, countered at the other tackle position by Daniel Koenig. Senior Brandon Webb also returns from last year’s outstanding group. It only ranks fifth now — more a testament to the league’s overall quality than a criticism of the Cowboys — but a Joe Wickline-coached unit is certainly capable of finishing stronger than anticipated.
6. Iowa State Cyclones
In the conference where points flow like wine, ISU was a rare offensively deficient team. Shaky quarterback play contributed to the issue, though Cyclone play callers were afforded some of the best protection in the conference. The ISU front gave up just 19 sacks. Four starters from that unit return in 2013, with Kyle Lichtenberg leading.
This group can improve its rush blocking. Last year, Cyclone ball carriers averaged just 4.2 yards per attempt. That should be top priority for new Cyclone line coach Chris Klenakis.
7. West Virginia Mountaineers
Turnover on the Mountaineer front, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette‘s Jenn Menendez reports, was a high priority for West Virginia entering the spring practice season. Not only does Dana Holgorsen’s team lose all three starting interior linemen, but also its positions coach.
Ron Crook was hired to replace Bill Bedenbaugh, who left for Oklahoma. Crook may have to work with new starters on the interior, but does have Curtis Feigt and Quinton Spain to work with at tackle. Spain is a Phil Steele All-Big 12 preseason selection.
Whether as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State or in his two seasons as head coach in Morgantown, Holgorsen’s teams have featured strong offensive lines. The Mountaineers are not without talent to replace the outgoing starters, though shoring up the middle in order to establish a consistent run game is critical.
8. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Among the first points of emphasis new head coach Kliff Kingsbury addressed during Red Raider spring practice. “We’re going to have to get real creative with the rotations to get two bodies of lines out there,” he told a local radio station in March.
Rashad Fortenberry is the lone senior projected for first time via the Red Raiders’ spring depth chart, and he appeared in just three games last season. The learning curve is steep for Tech to continue its prolific scoring ways.
9. TCU Horned Frogs
TCU struggled with inconsistency on the line last season, after high turnover from Gary Patterson’s 2011 Mountain West champions. The Horned Frogs sustained another loss this year, Blaize Foltz. His brother, Brady, is among the Frogs jockeying for reps on the starting line entering preseason camp per Frogs of War.
Tackle Tayo Fabuluje is the rock for this group. Otherwise, TCU faces some uncertainty in the decided weakest area of its otherwise strong offense.
10. Kansas Jayhawks
Charlie Weis is relying on an influx of JUCO transfers to patch the holes losing most of last year’s starting unit left. USA Today‘s Paul Myerberg reports KU lost over 100 career starts from a line that last season facilitated a potent ground attack. With the well documented struggles the Jayhawks had throwing the ball, thinness up front only exacerbates the problem.