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Oklahoma's offensive line should be one of the best in the nation this year.
Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is still two months away, but it's never too early to project how the year might play out. Athlon will be taking a look at how each position stacks up in the BCS conferences and nationally until the start of the season.
Each unit ranking was evaluated based upon how it will perform in 2012 - not how the team played in 2011.
Ranking the Big 12's Offensive Lines for 2012
1. Oklahoma – Despite the departure of left tackle Donald Stephenson, the Sooners should have the No. 1 offensive line in the Big 12. Guard Gabe Ikard is one of the best in college football, while guard Tyler Evans and tackle Lane Johnson will be in the mix for all-conference honors. Center Ben Habern missed most of last season with an arm injury and was expected to return at full strength for 2012. However, he decided to end his career in August. Ikard could take Habern's place at center. Daryl Williams is expected to start at right tackle, while Adam Shead will likely slide into one of the guard spots. This group allowed only 11 sacks last season and should be strong once again in 2012.
2. Texas – The Longhorns certainly aren’t devoid of talent. In fact, there is more talent along the Burnt Orange line of scrimmage than nearly every team in the nation. Developing that talent has been the issue of late, however. Enter Stacy Searels. The offensive line coach enters his second season on the 40 Acres charged with toughening up a unit that has underachieved. His first order of business was signing junior college stud Donald Hawkins, who is penciled in as the starting left tackle. The rest of the line returns intact as two extremely highly touted juniors, Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters, need to develop into leaders while two sophomores - Dominic Espinosa and Josh Cochran - should only continue to improve. The talent and depth is obvious, but for Texas to challenge in the Big 12 race, this group has to protect the quarterback better (73rd nationally in sacks allowed, including eight to Oklahoma).
3. Oklahoma State – The Cowboys suffered some heavy losses up front, including first-team All-Big 12 tackle Levy Adcock and center Grant Garner – the Big 12’s 2011 Offensive Lineman of the Year. Only one starter returns for 2012, but Oklahoma State is expected to still own one of the conference’s best lines. Much of the credit for this group’s success has to go to line coach Joe Wickline, who consistently replaces players and keeps the front five performing at a high level. Guard Lane Taylor is the unit’s only returning starter, but he should contend for first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2012. Parker Graham and Michael Bowie are expected to man the tackle spots after combining for 11 starts last year. Guard Jonathan Rush suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4 last year but all signs point to a return to full strength by the opener in 2012. Center Evan Epstein enters his final year of eligibility, but doesn’t have much experience. Considering how important Garner was to this offense, much of the focus up front will rest with Epstein and how well he will perform in 2012.
4. West Virginia – Three starters are back along an offensive front that should feature three seniors, one junior and a sophomore. Joe Madsen has been praised by the coaches as one of the best on the roster and will be the unit's leader at center. Guard Jeff Braun and tackle Pat Eger showed improvement last fall and should hold down the right side of the line. Big soph Quinton Spain (6-5, 335) looks to be the top choice at left tackle but will have to hold off a host of up veterans to keep that starting spot. The real kicker for the Mountaineers will be fifth-year senior Josh Jenkins. One of the most highly-touted prospects to ever sign with WVU, Jenkins returns after missing all of 2011 with a knee injury. His return to form could transform an average group of blockers into an area of strength for Dana Holgorsen.
5. Baylor – Improving the offensive line has been a priority for coach Art Briles since he came to Waco. The Bears have had five offensive linemen drafted since 2009, including two in the first round – Jason Smith and Danny Watkins. This group must replace two All-Big 12 performers – Philip Blake and Robert T. Griffin – but three proven starters are back. Junior Cyril Richardson is a mammoth guard at 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds and will be in the mix for first-team All-Big 12 honors. Senior Ivory Wade enters 2012 with 33 consecutive starts and will shift from tackle to replace Blake at center. Guard Cameron Kaufhold is back after starting all 13 games last season. Redshirt freshman Spencer Drango is expected to get the nod at left tackle, while sophomore Troy Baker finished spring as the No. 1 option on the right side. Despite the losses, there’s plenty to like about this group heading into 2012.
6. Kansas State – For a team with a quarterback who recorded 27 touchdowns and 1,141 yards on the ground, KSU finished only fifth in the Big 12 in rushing. The Wildcats also finished dead last in sacks allowed (3.31) and 115th nationally. So Bill Snyder might not be sure if replacing three starters with younger players is a good or bad thing just yet. B.J. Finney returns to the center position, while Nick Puetz returns as the lone senior returner. Manase Foketi was expected to be in the mix at left tackle, but he requested a transfer following spring practice. With Foketi's status in doubt, junior Cornelius Lucas could be in line to start on the left side. Tomasi Mariner, Cody Whitehair and Boston Stiverson are all youngsters who will battle for time along the right side of the line. This team would like to throw the ball more in 2012, but the O-Line has to prove it can protect Collin Klein if it expects to win the Big 12.
7. Kansas – After finishing last in the Big 12 in scoring offense in 2011, there’s some hope for a turnaround at Kansas for 2012. The quarterback position has stabilized with Dayne Crist arriving from Notre Dame, while the Jayhawks have capable running backs in James Sims, Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon. The line loses two starters, including All-Big 12 center Jeremiah Hatch, but three key players are back for 2012. Left tackle Tanner Hawkinson is drawing the interest of NFL scouts, while guard Duane Zlatnik earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in 2011. Trevor Marrongelli started all 12 games at guard last season but will shift to center to replace Hatch. Junior college recruit Aslam Sterling is penciled in at right guard, and junior Riley Spencer is expected to get the nod at right tackle. This unit allowed 31 sacks last year but should be able to improve upon that total with three solid contributors returning.
8. Texas Tech – This unit will be a key area of development throughout the summer and fall camps. Two starters are back as Deveric Gallington is locked in at center while LaAdrian Waddle has the left tackle spot to himself. It also appears that Brian Thomas, who played on one of the Big 12’s most talented lines a year ago at Texas A&M, will stabilize the left guard position after transferring in this spring. Experienced and versatile backups Beau Carpenter and Terry McDaniel will battle with freshman Le’Raven Clark for the remaining starting jobs. The offensive line will be the key difference for an offense that appears to be settled at nearly every other position.
9. TCU – You aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toad-O. Well, technically, TCU will play in Lawrence Week 2, but the Horned Frogs will be facing a different caliber of defensive line this fall. Moving from the Mountain West to the Big 12 will test an offensive line that returns only two starters. This is the offense’s biggest weakness and depth could be an issue as well. Center James Fry and guard Blaize Foltz are seniors and will be asked to carry the load. Behind those two there are a lot unknowns, however, there is upside as well. James Dunbar has experience and should be better after switching from left to right tackle. BYU transfer Tayo Fabuluje has big-time athletic ability and size while John Wooldridge, Michael Thompson and Eric Tausch provide versatility at a number of positions. This group will be the coaching staff’s area of focus come summer camp.
10. Iowa State – There’s really not a bad offensive line in the Big 12, so the separation between No. 6 and No. 10 on this list is very minimal. The Cyclones have three starters returning but must replace their two best players from last season’s unit – left tackle Kelechi Osemele and guard Hayworth Hicks. Osemele was a first-team All-Big 12 selection, while Hicks earned second-team honors. Tom Farniok is a rising star after starting all 13 games at center as a redshirt freshman last year. Junior Ethan Tuftee and senior Brayden Burris are back as returning starters and will help provide stability and leadership up front. Senior Carter Bykowski and junior Kyle Lichtenberg will battle to replace Osemele at left tackle, while Bob Graham, Jacob Gannon and Oni Omoile are in the mix to replace Hicks at right guard. The Cyclones will miss Osemele and Hicks, but this group isn’t going to see a dramatic drop in performance.
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Athlon's 2012 Big 12 Predictions
Athlon's 2012 All-Big 12 Team
Big 12 Heisman Contenders for 2012
College Football Realignment Winners and Losers
The History of Big 12 Realignment
Introducing West Virginia to the Big 12
TCU Comes Home to the Big 12