Fresh Meat for the Grinder – The New Offensive Linemen in the Big Ten

The career of the college football player is tragically short, with most seeing regular playing time for half of their eligibility, if they are lucky. This, of course, means there is a massive turnover of starters almost yearly. For the best teams, this usually doesn’t mean a whole lot, with the next batch of four and five-star recruits ready to jump in and carry on the school legacy. For the rest, it can be a matter of hoping seasoned backups or hotshot freshmen can jump in and fulfill their potential from day 1, or even an unrated recruit showing the recruiters that sometimes, one gets away.

It is time to address the big boys on offense. It’s a sad fact that linemen tend to remain unknown until they make a mistake. The big guys have no fantasy value; they don’t make the big runs; they don’t throw or catch the ball. So what they do, the new fan may ask? They make everything else happen. Faceless though they are, the front five are as important as the star quarterback or running back, and enhance their better-known teammate’s value. Just ask anyone on Alabama’s offense. Even more importantly, the line may only be as strong as its weakest link, and that is what makes the offensive line in college football such a challenge. Turnover has teams rebuilding almost on a yearly basis. So, who are the new faces this season, and can they carry on, or improve, their unit’s standing? Let it also be noted, that for the purpose of this article, any player with 6 or more starts in a season is considered a “starter”. As always, leave your opinions, objections and abuse in the comments section, or find me on Twitter.

 

Illinois:

Returning Starters: 3

Rushing: 127.83 ypg (97th)

Sacks Allowed: 39 (111th)

Apr 14, 2012; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini offensive lineman Ted Karras (69) during the second half of the spring game at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Returning three starters is usually a boon for most offenses, but the Illinois returnees didn’t provide a lot of pop in the running attack, and struggled to protect QB Nate Scheelhaase. It’s not all doom and gloom as they were young, with Ted Karras and Simon Cvijanovic first-year starters, and Micheal Heitz switching positions. Cvijanovic is switching to LT, where he has enough ability to be solid, while Heitz and Karras will remain at LG and RG respectively. The new RT looks to be Corey Lewis, who hasn’t played much in a couple of years due to a succession of knee surgeries, but he has the size and strength for the job. Alex Hill is pencilled in at the new center and brings some nastiness to the role.

 

Keep an eye on: Freshman Austin Schmidt – he’s a fine athlete who could probably play tight end if needed. Watch him take the starting LT job in 2014.

November 24, 2012; West Lafayette, IN, USA; Purdue Boilermakers defensive tackle Kawann Short (93) moves through the block of Indiana Hoosiers offensive linesman Dan Feeney (67) at Ross Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana:

Returning Starters: 5

Rushing: 130.83 ypg (94th)

Sacks Allowed: 17 (33rd)

 

To say the Hoosiers have five starters back doesn’t mean their whole line is back. Will Matte has graduated, but Bernard Taylor and Collin Rahrig each started six games at LG. Taylor is back from the injury that cost him the second half of the his season, while Rahrig will slide over to center, where he started three games in 2011, so it won’t be completely new to him. The rest of the line returns intact. LT Jason Spriggs was a freshman all-American as was RG Dan Feeney, while RT Peyton Eckert is a rock solid blocking for run or pass. This could be one of the best lines in the B1G in 2013.

 

Keep an eye on: Sophomore Jake Reed – defensive end-turned tight end-turned center. Give him a year to get acclimated and he should push for a starting spot.

Nov 10, 2012; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley (11) follows the block of guard Austin Blythe (63) on a pass play during the second quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Byron Hetzler-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa:

Returning Starters: 3

Rushing: 123.00 ypg (101th)

Sacks Allowed: 22 (55th)

 

The Hawkeye offensive line wasn’t bad last season, but a couple of injuries hurt it down the stretch. Despite losing two starters, including C James Ferentz, the potential is there to be stronger in 2013. LT Brandon Scherff and RT Brett Van Sloten will continue in last year’s spots, and both are pretty good. Scherff was a key injury loss. Austin Blythe started nine games at RG last year, but will move over to center. He may make people forget coach’s son Ferentz in a hurry. Conor Boffeli started the last three games at LG, and shouldn’t be giving up the job any time soon. His versatility will serve him well. Andrew Donnal took over the RG job five games into the season, but only lasted three games due to injury. He’s back, but he’ll get competition for the spot from sophomore Jordan Walsh.

 

Keep an eye on: Mitch Keppy – the redshirt freshman is “country strong” and will be a powerful run blocker sooner rather than later. It’s just a matter of when.

January 1,2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Michigan Wolverines offensive linesman Taylor Lewan (77) blocks South Carolina Gamecocks defensive end Chaz Sutton (90) during the second half of the 2013 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Michigan Wolverines 33-28. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan:

Returning Starters: 2

Rushing: 183.77 ypg (41st)

Sacks Allowed: 18 (28th)

 

The Wolverine offensive line was a good unit last season, but only the tackles return this year. Luckily, the LT is Taylor Lewan who, barring injury, is on course for a big NFL payday next year. Opposite him is Michael Schofield, a fifth year senior who has started at both guard and tackle, and has been good at both. The interior could be an issue with the three new guys lacking starting experience. New RG Joey Burzinski is the most experienced, having played in 12 games over the last couple of years. C Jack Miller saw action in six games last year, and is strong and athletic. He could all-conference down the road. At LG will be redshirt freshman Ben Braden, who was recruited as a tackle, but is good enough to fill in at guard for the time being. At least, that is the hope.

 

Keep an eye on: OGs David Dawson/Patrick Kugler – the Wolverines may need an upgrade at guard sooner rather than later, and Dawson and Kugler are two of best high school recruits. Give them a year.

Nov 12, 2011; Iowa City, IA, USA; Michigan State Spartans tackle Dan France (59) defends against Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end Lebron Daniel (58) at Kinnick Stadium. Michigan State defeated Iowa 37-21. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State:

Returning Starters: 4

Rushing: 149.38 ypg (75th)

Sacks Allowed: 22 (49th)

 

There are two things everyone knows about the Spartan offense last season – Le’Veon Bell was really good and the passing attack was really bad. But did you know, despite a rash of injuries, the offensive line was also really good? Even better, the line only loses one starter, Chris McDonald, and will bring back a number of experienced reserves, courtesy of said injuries. Dan France remains at LT, while a fully healthy Blake Treadwell will be back at LG. Travis Jackson returns at C after missing most of the season, as does Fou Fonoti at RT. Jack Allen stepped in for Jackson last season, and takes over at RG for the 2013 season. The only possible change is at LT, where sophomore Donavon Clark is still in with a shot. He started two games there in 2012.

 

Keep an eye on: Freshman Dennis Finley – the only lineman signed this year, he has the makings of a great tackle..

Oct 20, 2012; Madison, WI, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers offensive lineman Josh Campion (65) during the game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin defeated Minnesota 38-13. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota:

Returning Starters: 5

Rushing: 151.92 ypg (67th)

Sacks Allowed: 21 (45th)

 

The Golden Gophers had their fair share of injuries on the offensive line last season, but still managed to do okay. The good news is, every single player who started last season returns, and the unit should be better for it. So, while the faces remain the same, who will start where this season? Some of these position battles could continue into fall. One sure thing is LT Ed Olson, although he has had injury concerns. His brother Tommy will line up beside him after starting six games there in 2012. Zach Epping did a good job at center last season, but he will receive a push from Ohio State-transfer Brian Bobek, who’s now eligible. Former walk-on Caleb Bak started the last 11 games at RG, and should keep his job, as should Josh Campion, who played well as a redshirt freshman.

 

Keep an eye on: Nate Wozniak – the high school TE needs some work, but he has great potential as a future tackle with a massive wingspan courtesy of his 6’8 height. .

November 23, 2012; Iowa City, IA, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers right guard Spencer Long (61) high fives the fans after their game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. Nebraska beat Iowa 13-7. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-US PRESS WIRE

Nebraska:

Returning Starters: 3

Rushing: 253.36 ypg (8th)

Sacks Allowed: 35 (90th)

 

It was a tale of two lines last season, as they were outstanding blocking in the run game, but struggled at times protecting QB Taylor Martinez. This was in part due to Martinez’s mobility, but sometimes they just failed to get the job done. Two starters, LG Seung Hoon Choi and C Justin Jackson, are gone, although only RG Spencer Long looks assured of his spot going into fall among the returnees. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on their play, but the depth the Cornhuskers have at this crucial position. Both tackles, Brent Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles, have done a good job, but have to hold off behemoth Andrew Rodriguez, who can play either. Right tackle would be the most likely destination at present. Cole Pensick is the frontrunner at center, having started the last two games of 2012 there, but will get a push from heir apparent Mark Pelini. Pensick missed spring camp due to injury, but will get his chance in the fall. Jake Cotton is the favorite at LG. He possibly would have won the job earlier in his career, but has played sparingly to date due to injury.

 

Keep an eye on: JUCOs – Matt Finnin and Chongo Kondolo are among the tops in their class, and weren’t brought in to bump up the numbers.

Jan 01, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats offensive lineman Jack Konopka (75) celebrates after defeating the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern:

Returning Starters: 2

Rushing: 225.54 ypg (19th)

Sacks Allowed: 16 (22nd)

 

With the Wildcats recruiting restrictions, they are usually fighting an uphill battle against the rest of the B1G, and nowhere is this more true than the offensive line. When they have a great season like 2012, the boys up front play a big part in it. Now, they have to replace three, including all-conference honorable mention Patrick Ward at LT. The returnees, C Brandon Vitabile and Shane Konopka, who’s switching from right to left tackle, will take on the leadership roles, as the new starters lack much experience. Replacing Konopka at RT will be either Shane Mertz, who has yet to play, and Paul Jorgensen, who has been a reserve the last couple of years and has shown he can handle the job. Geoff Mogus was a reserve last season and should be solid, if unspectacular, as a starter at LG. At RG, 2012 reserve Matt Frazier will try and hold off redshirt freshman Adam DiPietro.

 

Keep an eye on: Freshman Brad North – a versatile player who could potentially play anywhere along the line, but likely fits best at guard or center. Probably wouldn’t hurt to redshirt this year.

Nov 17, 2012; Madison, WI, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes offensive lineman Jack Mewhort (74) celebrates with fans following the game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Ohio State defeated Wisconsin 21-14 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State:

Returning Starters: 4

Rushing: 242.25 ypg (10th)

Sacks Allowed: 30 (90th)

 

The Buckeyes offense took their time getting going last season, but thanks to a monster season from Heisman candidate Braxton Miller at QB, they kept ticking over. The offensive line played a major role, leading for one of the better running attacks in the country, but as is often the case with mobile QBs, they gave up too many sacks. The good news for the offense is four returning starters on the line, with only former TE Reid Fragel gone at right tackle. His replacement will be sophomore Taylor Decker, who did his apprenticeship last season, albeit mostly on special teams. He has the frame to be a star though.

 

Keep an eye on: Freshman Evan Lisle – the Buckeyes top OL recruit, he has all the tools required to be a star, he just needs to add a few pounds first.

April 21, 2012; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions guard John Urschel (64) and center Matt Stankwitch (54) pass block in the first half during the spring game at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Christy-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State:

Returning Starters: 3

Rushing: 143.92 ypg (83rd)

Sacks Allowed: 21 (51st)

 

The Nittany Lions weren’t a great team up front last season, despite boasting two all-conference players in C Matt Stankiewitch and RG John Urschel. Despite the loss of Stankiewitch and RT Mike Farrell to graduation, they have a chance to be better this year, even if it takes some time to gel. LT Donovan Smith did a good job last season as a redshirt freshman and returns, as do Urschel and LG Miles Dieffenbach. The new starters are senior C Ty Howle, who makes up for technique what he lacks in size, and senior RT Adam Gress, who finally gets his chance to show what he can do.

 

Keep at eye on: Freshman Brendan Mahon – a versatile blocker who can play anywhere, but probably fits best at guard; he’s physically ready to compete when he arrives in fall.

Jan 1, 2013; Dallas, TX, USA; Purdue Boilermakers center Robert Kugler (57) on the sidelines against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at the Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue:

Returning Starters: 5

Rushing: 164.23 ypg (58th)

Sacks Allowed: 25 (60th)

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before – the Boilermakers did a good job blocking for the running backs, but had issues in pass protection. With the quarterbacks lacking the mobility of their B1G peers, this made it difficult to get the ball down the field consistently, and the offense struggled to maintain lengthy drives and ground to a halt too often. Five players return who saw significant action (at three positions) last season, and four will start the season, some at different positions. LT Kevin Pamphile spent his first couple of years in West Lafayette on defense, and he took some hard lessons last season before showing late improvement. He has the ability for the job. So does RT Justin Kitchens, who played some LT early before making his home on the right. Devin Smith will take over at left guard after starting 2012 on the right. Robert Kugler, who replaced Smith midseason, will move to the center. He’s more technique than talent, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sophomore Cody Davis is the only first-time starter, stepping in at RG. He is similar in style to Kugler, and could play center in a pinch.

 

Keep an eye on: The class of 2012 – Purdue signed 7 OLs last season, and only JUCO Devin Smith has played so far. Watch them compete for playing time this season, then form a potentially outstanding unit in 2014.

Sept. 8, 2012; Corvallis, OR, USA; Oregon State Beavers defensive tackle Joe Lopez (79) is blocked by Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Ryan Groy (79) during the second half at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin:

Returning Starters: 3

Rushing: 236.36 ypg (13th)

Sacks Allowed: 28 (66th)

 

The Badgers seem to churn out decent offensive lines on a yearly basis, so there aren’t many reasons to think otherwise this year. However, the two guys they lost this season are LT Ricky Wagner, an all-conference pick, and C Travis Frederick, a first round pick by Dallas. Both were multi-year starters and the new group will need some time to gel. Last year’s LG, Ryan Groy, will move to LT this season. He’s good enough to start anywhere on the line. RG Kyle Costigan and RT Rob Havenstein will keep their old jobs. The new additions will be junior Dallas Lewallen stepping on for Groy, and redshirt freshman Dan Voltz at center. Lewallen is a big guy who could also play tackle, while Voltz has looked like an all-star in camp.

 

Keep an eye on: Freshman Matt Miller – he’s not anywhere near ready to go this year, and needs to bulk up and improve his technique, but he’s got the ability to be a top-notch lineman.

Topics: B1G, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers

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