After taking their lumps over the last two seasons, the talent on the offensive line for the Auburn football team is finally growing up in spring practice under its new tutor, offensive line coach J.B. Grimes.
Since losing all but one starter on the offensive line from the national championship team in 2010, the Tigers began rebuilding the pivotal position group on the recruiting trail as former head coach Gene Chizik made recruiting offensive linemen a priority in his last two recruiting classes.
Combined, Auburn added 11 highly touted offensive linemen in the 2011 and 2012 signing classes. Nine of those players are still on the team. The seven prospects that signed in 2012 were arguably the best group of offensive linemen signed in the country for that year. All but two were rated as a 4-star, according to Rivals.com.
Thrust into early playing time and going up against some of the best defenses in the country while playing in the SEC, the Auburn offensive linemen struggled mightily over the last two years, especially last fall. At times last season, the Tigers started as many as three freshmen along the offensive front.
The inexperience showed.
Auburn allowed an average of 3.08 sacks per game and an average of 7.75 tackles for loss per game last year, both near the bottom of the SEC.
With the recent struggles behind them, the offensive line is out to prove that the performance over the last two years was a fluke. Early indications out of spring practice show that the offensive line will no longer be a liability in 2013.
It will be an asset.
"The offensive line, I don't see why they're not getting a lot of the praise. Those guys are really getting after it with protections, and just setting up pace," Auburn QB Jonathan Wallace told the media after Saturday's scrimmage (h/t/ Charles Goldberg, auburntigers.com).
A lot of it may have to do with the different style of coaching under Grimes, who shares the last name of his predecessor, Jeff.
This version of coach Grimes has already made a name for himself as being loud on the practice field.
The unit has responded very well to the fiery, vocal style of their new tutor, who followed head coach Gus Malzahn from Arkansas State. Like the other coaches on the staff, Grimes is a stickler for the details (h/t Joel Erickson, al.com):
"He tries to keep it lighthearted and he's trying to establish relationships with all of us. He's also trying to ... well, he's also teaching us is the best way to put it," center Alex Kozan said. "You could see it even at the start of practice when we're on that blocking sled -- very detailed, hands, elbows, making sure they're in, and footwork more than anything."
The first-team offensive line has remained very consistent from last year with regards to personnel. Patrick Miller and Greg Robinson are tackles, Alex Kozan is new to the first team; he moved over from second-string right guard to left guard, Chad Slade remains at right guard and Reese Dismukes will be the starting center for the third consecutive year. Slade is the only member of that group to not be a part of the 2011 or 2012 recruiting class. He came on board in 2010.
It doesn't matter if a team has Cam Newton or Tom Brady under center. It doesn't matter if a team has Adrian Peterson or Cadillac Williams running the ball. A successful offense begins by winning the battle in the trenches. The offensive line can shoulder as much blame if not more than any other group for the offensive struggles in recent years.
It's been two years since Auburn had an elite offensive line, but that feels like a lifetime in college football. As hard as it was to watch the offensive line at times the past two seasons, it was necessary.
Those struggles are part of growing up.