Unit Rankings: 2012 Big East Offensive Lines

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Louisville's offensive line should be improved this season.

<p> Unit Rankings: 2012 Big East Offensive Lines</p>

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 East's Offensive Lines for 2012

1. South FloridaDespite the departure of two starters, the Bulls get the nod as the No. 1 offensive line in the Big East. Left tackle Mark Popek has 21 career starts and is an Athlon first-team All-Big East selection for 2012. The competition around Popek is up for grabs, as senior Damien Edwards is poised to replace Jeremiah Warren at left guard. Sophomore Austin Reiter left spring with the edge to fill the void left behind by Chaz Hine at center. The right side of the line is set with the return of guard Danous Estenor and tackle Quinterrius Eatmon. The Bulls only gave up 16 sacks and ranked 31st nationally in rushing offense last season. With three solid starters returning, this unit should perform at a high level once again in 2012.

2. LouisvilleThis group struggled to match its 2010 performance last year, but there’s plenty to like about the Cardinals going into 2012. Senior Mario Benavides missed the first three games of last year due to injury and the line never seemed to jell as a result. With Benavides at full strength and another spring practice under its belt, Louisville’s offensive line is poised to to rank among the conference’s best. Alex Kupper started all 13 games last season and will anchor the left side of the line at tackle. John Miller started 10 games as a freshman in 2011 and could contend for All-Big East honors this year. Sophomores Jake Smith (right guard) and Jamon Brown (tackle) will hold down the right side. The Cardinals allowed 41 sacks last season, but that number should be cut in half in 2012.

3. SyracuseWith three starters back, this unit should be a strength for the Orange in 2012. Left tackle Justin Pugh is the headliner and enters his junior year ranked among the top tackles in college football. He is a third-team All-American selection by Athlon Sports and has earned All-Big East honors in each of his first two seasons. Guard Zack Chibane started all 12 games last year and should be in the mix for all-conference accolades in 2012. Center Macky MacPherson also returns after recording 12 starts last season. This group will miss guard Andrew Tiller and tackle Michael Hay, but there’s plenty to lean on with three starters coming back to Syracuse.

4. Rutgers Improving the offensive line was a high priority for Rutgers entering last season, especially after allowing 61 sacks and ranking near the bottom of the nation in rushing offense in 2010. This unit was better in 2011, as it allowed only 30 sacks, but rushers managed only 2.8 yards per carry. Only two starters return for 2012, but this group will gain the services of Maryland transfer R.J. Dill, who started 33 games in three years with the Terrapins. Sophomore Kaleb Johnson is a rising star at left tackle, while junior Andre Civil is a returning starter, but could struggle to crack the starting unit in 2012. The guard spots are expected to go to Antwan Lowery and Taj Alexander, but Betim Bujari or David Osei could figure into the mix. Bujari and Dallas Hendrikson will compete to be the No. 1 center. Cutting down on the sacks allowed was a good sign for Rutgers last season, but this group has to open up more lanes for running backs in 2012. The Scarlet Knights still have holes up front, but this unit appears to be on the right track entering fall practice.

5. Cincinnati There’s not much separation between Rutgers and Cincinnati for the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in this list. Although the Bearcats return two starters and others with experience, this group suffered heavy losses with the departure of center Evan Davis, tackle Alex Hoffman and guard Randy Martinez. Hoffman and Martinez were All-Big East selections in 2011. Eric Lefeld enters his sophomore year entrenched at left tackle, while guard Austen Bujnoch returns after starting 13 games last year. Sean Hooey is a towering right tackle (6-foot-9) and recorded six starts in 2011. Dan Sprague has the edge at center, while sophomore Kevin Schloemer finished spring practice with the lead at right guard. Ohio State transfer Sam Longo could figure into the mix at center or guard. With a new starter at quarterback and running back, it will be important for this group to pickup where they left off last year.

6. Connecticut With two key players gone from last season’s line, the Huskies have significant voids to fill entering fall practice. Center Moe Petrus and left tackle Mike Ryan were two of the Big East’s standout offensive linemen and will be missed. The good news for line coach (and offensive coordinator) George DeLeone is the cupboard isn’t completely bare. Senior Adam Masters is back at left guard after starting all 12 games last season. Right tackle Kevin Friend (10 starts in 2011) and guard Steve Greene (8 starts) are expected to anchor the right side of the line in 2012. The other two spots in the lineup are up for grabs, with senior Jimmy Bennett expected to get the nod at left tackle, while Penn State transfer Alex Mateas holding an edge to start at center. 

7. PittsburghWhile quarterback Tino Sunseri received much of the blame for Pittsburgh’s offensive woes last year, the offensive line deserved a good bit of criticism as well. This group allowed a whopping 64 sacks, and rushers allowed just 3.5 yards per carry in 2011. The offensive line struggled to fit in Todd Graham’s up-tempo spread attack, but this unit is better positioned to succeed under new coach Paul Chryst and a pro-style offense. Another reason for hope up front is the return of guard Chris Jacobson. He missed most of last season with a knee injury and should stabilize the right side of the line. Ryan Turnley is one of the top returning centers in the Big East, but the rest of the group is up for grabs. Juantez Hollins and Matt Rotheram appear to have the inside track on the tackle spots, while Cory King has the edge at left guard. This unit will be improved, but there are enough question marks to keep it near the bottom of the Big East.

8. Temple This unit was a strength for the Owls last season, but with four new starters taking over, a drop off in performance is expected for 2012. The lone returning starter is senior Martin Wallace, who started all 13 games for Temple last season. This unit expects to get a boost with the return of senior Sean Boyle at center. He missed all of 2011 due to a shoulder injury, but his experience will be valuable for a line that needs leadership. While Wallace and Boyle should be dependable players, the rest of the group is young and depth is an issue. Freshman Zach Hooks could get the nod at left tackle, while sophomore Jaimen Newman finished spring practice as the No. 1 right guard. Junior Jeff Whittingham is penciled in as the starter at left guard. If the Owls want to make a bowl game in their first season back in the Big East, developing continuity up front will be critical this fall. 

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

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