They are the unsung heroes of a football team – the guys that never get their names in the news unless something goes wrong, and the guys that spend more of their time at practice pushing sleds rather than scoring touchdowns. It all begins up front for a lot of teams with offensive linemen ranking as important as quarterbacks and wide receivers to most.
Clemson knows how important an offensive line is as the experience up front heading into a season has been a tell tale sign for the Tigers of their success rate for the next season. Since 1972, Clemson has won an average of nine games per year when it returns at least four offensive line starters from the previous year.
Welcome to the first in an eight-part position-ranking series. Florida State should boast one of the country’s best offensive lines, with Boston College and Clemson holding their own up front as well. The news will likely not be good at Wake Forest and N.C. State where offensive line depth and experience has been a source of constant headaches for their respective coaching staffs in the preseason.
In order of potential here is how the ACC offensive lines rank.
FLORIDA STATE – There are many reasons for optimism in Tallahassee with new head coach Jimbo Fisher at the helm, but it does not stop there. The Seminoles return every starter on their offensive line from a year ago and the unit has 142 combined starts between them.
The gloating starts at left guard with preseason all-ACC selection and senior Rodney Hudson who led the group with an average grade of 87 over 11 starts. At left tackle, Andrew Datko returns for his junior season after allowing just two sacks across 14 starts, including shutting down all-ACC standouts Robert Quinn (North Carolina) and Willie Young (N.C. State).
Center Ryan McMahon will carry a streak of 39 consecutive starts into his senior season with FSU, while right guard David Spurlock will start his 21st consecutive game when the ‘Noles meet Samford in the season opener. Right tackle Zebrie Sanders started 12 of Florida State’s 13 games last season, and led the unit with 43 knockdown blocks.
BOSTON COLLEGE– With a pair of preseason all-ACC selections on the offensive line, the message has been sent to the rest of the conference that the guys up front for the Eagles will be a monster to deal with.
Left tackle Anthony Castonzo has started every game for Boston College since 2007, while right guard Thomas Clairborne returns as well after being penciled into the starting lineup 11 times last season. After starting 10 games at left guard for the Eagles in 2009, Nathan Richman will make the move to center in hopes of filling the gap left by all-American Matt Tennant. Emmett Cleary will likely settle into the left guard position after playing in 12 games last year as a freshman, while 11-game starter Rich Lapham returns to his starting role at right tackle.
CLEMSON – The Tigers lost one of the most prolific runners in school history when the Buffalo Bills drafted C.J. Spiller in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, but that does not mean the optimism for the running game is gone.
Clemson returns four starters off of a very productive offensive line from last season to pave the way for a pair of runners who combined to eclipse Spiller’s yards-per-carry numbers from last season. Third-year starter Chris Hairston, an all-America candidate and preseason all-ACC honoree, will lead the way at left tackle, while Landon Walker returns at right tackle with 22 starts over the last two seasons to his credit.
Antoine McClain, a 14-game starter with 60 knock down blocks in 2009, will join Walker in holding down the right side of the line, while Dalton Walker is the incumbent starter at center for the Tigers.
The only concern Clemson will have is replacing all-everything guard Thomas Austin at left guard, but the shoes will be hard to fill both literally and figuratively. Austin, an all-American selection, tallied more than 300 knockdown blocks during his career, but Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney looks to have an answer to the gap in a pair of 300-pounders, David Smith and Mason Cloy. Cloy tallied 52 knockdown blocks last year, but missed the Music City Bowl after breaking his leg against Georgia Tech. Smith should figure into the lineup at either guard or tackle after playing a big role at both positions in 2009.
GEORGIA TECH – The Yellow Jackets possessed the most glaring stat line of any among Atlantic Coast Conference team leaders last year in that it outgained any other team in the league on the ground by 87.5 yards.
Sure, Georgia Tech possessed a bevy of talent in the backfield, but the offensive line opened holes big enough to accommodate rush hour traffic in Atlanta. Although bidding adieu to a couple of key starters up front – namely all-conference guard Cord Howard – the Jackets remain deep at the position and should dominate the team leader boards once again.
Preseason all-conference tackle Austin Barrick will lead the way up front along with center and preseason all-ACC selection Sean Bedford who started all 14-games for Tech’s dominant rushing attack in 2009. The news is not all golden for Georgia Tech, however, as the Ramblin’ Wreck must replace the entire right side of its line with the departures of every day starters Brad Sellers at guard and tackle Joseph Gilbert who was forced to transfer because he was not accepted into graduate school.
Barrick has already made the switch to right tackle and will be joined on that side by Omoregie Uzzi who will, no doubt, settle in smoothly after making a name for himself as one of Tech’s top reserves last year. Nick Claytor played in all 12 games last season as well and will likely fill the void at left tackle, while Nick McRae is the top candidate for the left guard spot, although he could see time at center as well. Phil Smith, a top reserve and part time starter in the trenches a year ago, could thrust himself into the job at left tackle, although the jury is still out to see if Smith will fully recover from knee surgery that kept him out of spring practice.
NORTH CAROLINA– Despite dealing with a slew of off-the-field problems in the preseason, the Tar Heels depth up front should fall to the bottom of the list of issues. North Carolina will return three starters to its still-extremely inexperienced offensive line, most notably 10-game starter Jonathan Cooper who will make the move to center who was named to the freshman all-ACC team last year after grading out at 73 percent.
Mike Ingersoll will return to his starting role at right tackle after starting 12 games in 2009, while Alan Pelc will enter the campaign as an Outland Trophy candidate after registering a standout junior season in which he graded out at 78 percent with 38 knockdown blocks. Cam Holland – who boasts a team-best 500-pound bench press – will likely be sent to a backup role despite starting seven games at center last year.
Travis Bond played in every game for the Tar Heels last year at left guard, including a start in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and went into spring at the top of the list at that position. Sophomore Carl Gaskins, who saw limited game action in 2009 both on special teams and as a reserve tackle and was injured for much of the spring, is the man to beat at left tackle, but the position is expected to shuffle with the addition of top freshmen James Hurst and T.J. Leifheit – both of whom enrolled in school in time for spring drills.
VIRGINIA TECH- A team loaded at skill positions could find itself staring in the face of a problem of the past. Although the Hokies’ offensive line returns players with ample experience, spring injuries, and offseason surgeries have left the unit thin.
Ed Wang and Sergio Render started all 13 games for the Hokies on the left side last season, but both have moved on to the National Football League, leaving the faithful in Blacksburg with plenty of wanting on that side. Center Beau Warren is a healthy incumbent at center, while the right side of the trench should provide plenty of running room for a Hokie rushing attack that is expected to rank among the nation’s best this season.
Right tackle Blake DeChristopher and right guard Jaymes Brooks combined for 25 starts last season and both are expected to settle into those same roles when Virginia Tech battles Boise State in the season opener.
Greg Nosal played in 12 games for the Hokies last season and is the leading candidate at left guard, but Virginia Tech’s weakest position up front could cause the most problems with any play action calls as quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s blind side will be protected by redshirt sophomore Nick Becton who won the starting job with a standout performance in spring drills. Becton has seen just 46 snaps in his still-young career in Blacksburg.
Backup center Michael Via has the most potential and could crack the starting lineup again as well, as VT coaches have worked the redshirt sophomore at both center and tackle in preseason drills.
DUKE- The Blue Devils will head into the 2010 campaign with one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, with its only blemish coming at right tackle with the loss of Jarrod Holt to graduation.
However, if any position on the field has head coach David Cutcliffe beaming, it definitely is this one because of the void of question marks. True, the biggest question mark with this group is going to be how it will respond to registering the worst rushing attack in the country, but experience breeds confidence and the Blue Devils are bound to go into the season with a “glass half-full” attitude.
Three players – left tackle Kyle Hill, center Bryan Morgan and right guard Brian Moore – started all 12 games for the Blue Devils last season, while the combo play of returners Brandon Harper and Mitchell Lederman accounted for all 12 starts at left guard. The experienced players returning should allow the unit to get a handful of breather opportunities for the regulars during the season, as the Blue Devils also boast talented redshirt freshmen Perry Simmons, Dave Harding and John Coleman. All are expected to gain valuable playing time behind an upper-classmen dominated group.
MARYLAND– Heading into last season, the Terrapins were extremely thin up front, but should be better off this season despite the loss of two starters, including left tackle Bruce Campbell’s early departure for the NFL. T
he most experienced of the returners, Paul Pinegar, started 12 games for the Terps in 2009, but those appearances came at three different positions. Pinegar made the transition to center in the spring and should capably fill in the role left by Phil Costa. R.J. Dill made eight starts at right tackle last year as a redshirt freshman and will give Maryland an experienced player at that position, while Andrew Gonnella played in 11 games at right guard, including eight starts, but found a home at left guard in the offseason and will likely see most of his time in that role this season.
Bennett Fulper, who started four times at two different positions last year, as well as Justin Lewis, who earned three starts, will battle throughout preseason drills for the right guard spot. Sophomore Justin Gilbert, who played in 11 games as a reserve player, is expected to get the job at left tackle.
MIAMI(FL) – The Hurricanes took a huge hit up front due to graduation, saying goodbye to first team all-ACC tackle Jason Fox, as well as 13-game starters A.J. Trump (center) and right tackle Matt Pipho.
Orlando Franklin, who joined the trio in starting every game last season for The U at left guard, returns to lead a depleted, but experienced offensive line. Franklin should make the move to left tackle to protect quarterback Jacory Harris’s blind side, while Joel Figueroa – a nine-game starter at right guard last season – is expected to return to the starting lineup at right tackle. Weight room beast Harland Gunn – who now ranks second on the team with a 425-pound bench press – is penciled in first on the depth chart at right guard, which leaves the ‘Canes with question marks at both center and left guard.
Tyler Horn, who played in seven games for Miami last season, is expected to be the starting center heading into the 2010 campaign, while redshirt freshman Jared Wheeler (6-5, 315) will get thrown into the fire at left guard. True freshman Seantrel Henderson – a 6-8, 330-pound teenager from St. Paul, Minn. – is currently behind Figueroa at right tackle, but could find himself in the starting lineup which would push Wheeler out.
VIRGINIA– Looking at the numbers, one would not expect a whole lot of production from the offensive line at Virginia, even with the return of any starters, as the Cavaliers allowed a league-high 40 sacks last season and ranked second-worst in both rushing and passing offense.
However, the experiences of a tumultuous 2009 under a lame duck coach could prove to breed optimism under a new coaching staff. The Cavaliers will return three starters and a slew of reserve guys to bring confidence to an otherwise stagnant running and protection game for the Wahoos. The left side of the line should be solid with the return of both left tackle Landon Bradley and left guard Austin Pasztor who blocked side by side with each other for all 12 games last year. Right guard B.J. Cabbell played in all 12 games, including 11 starts, thereby leaving the question marks at center and right tackle.
Despite his lack of playing time, junior Anthony Mihota (two games played in 2009) looks to have nailed down the starting spot at center, while sophomore Oday Aboushi, who saw action in six games as a true freshman last season, will go into the 2010 season as the starter at right tackle. Both tackle positions and right guard, however, will have redshirt freshmen listed second on the depth chart, while center and left guard will have backups with very little game experience as well.
WAKE FOREST– The Demon Deacons got hit with the punishing fists of graduation from all angles as they not only lost three starters up front, but also five guys that had served significant reserve roles over the last two seasons.
Center Russell Nenon will not only be the leader up front, but he will take a streak of 25-straight starts into the season as well. Junior Joe Looney was an 11-game starter at left guard last season and has played more than 1,300 snaps over the course of the last two years, including 18-straight starts.
After that, the picture gets kind of shady. The right side will possess extreme inexperience as the leading candidate at tackle, Doug Weaver, saw just 64 snaps last season while Gabe Irby, the top choice at guard, will see the first official action of his collegiate career in 2010. Redshirt freshman Steven Chase is the likely choice at left tackle leaving the Deacons extremely vulnerable to any kind of decent pass rushes. Reserve Michael Hoag (right guard) saw more than 100 snaps last season as a reserve for Wake Forest, but none of the other four backups on the depth chart have seen any kind of considerable game action.
N.C. STATE– N.C. State’s inexperience on the offensive line heading into the campaign could further be exposed by the weaknesses in the running game, with preseason experiences leaving the position even thinner and more critiqued.
The Wolfpack was hit hard by graduation as it parted ways with tackle Jerraill McCuller, guard Julian Williams and center Ted Larsen who combined for 35 starts last season, and the news gets just slightly better with the return of Jake Vermiglio and R.J. Mattes who combined to start just 17 games on the line in 2009. Vermiglio, who has at least one start in each of the last three seasons for N.C. State, is expected to hammer down the starting job at left tackle, while Mattes, who started the first eight games of the season before suffering a torn ACL and could miss the first half of the season.
In a world of inexperience, right tackle will boast the most seasoned player in junior Mikel Overgaard who was an all-conference performer at Snow College (J.C.) in Utah. Left guard will likely go to Andrew Wallace who saw action in every game for the ‘Pack last year, including a season-high 72 snaps against Maryland, while 314-pound redshirt sophomore Zach Allen should begin the season as the starter at right guard. Camden Wentz will go into the season as the starter at center, despite only five games of collegiate experience. The depth could not get much weaker as three of the five positions have redshirt freshmen listed as backups, while Henry Lawson (left guard) and Wayne Crawford (center) have only seen collegiate action on special teams.
This CSM original content was written by Todd Anderson