They’re the teams within the team — those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context.
Whether it’s the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball — these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature.
Whether or not these units function as one can make the difference between winning and losing, and a single unit can carry a team to New Year’s Day — or beyond.
It’s entirely fitting, then, for us to honor the best of the best at each position with our 12th annual Athlon Awards.
Athlon's Top 20 Offensive Lines for 2012
1. Alabama – The offensive line was one of the key pieces to Alabama’s national title last season, and this unit will be strong once again in 2012. Barrett Jones (right) is regarded as college football’s best returning offensive lineman and will move from left tackle to center to replace William Vlachos. Left guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker should challenge for All-SEC honors this year. Anthony Steen (right guard) and highly regarded Cyrus Kouandjio (left tackle) round out the starting lineup.
2. LSU – Leading the way for college football’s top running back corps will be a veteran offensive line that returns four starters. Tackles Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst started all 14 games last year and are drawing significant interest from the NFL as first-round picks next year. Center P.J. Lonergan has 26 career starts, while Josh Williford is back at guard after starting nine games last year. Josh Dworaczyk missed all of 2011 with an injury but has All-SEC potential when healthy.
3. USC – Matt Kalil will be missed, but USC is in good shape up front. Four starters are back, led by Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-America center Khaled Holmes. Right tackle Kevin Graf was solid in his first year as a starter last season and will be flanked on the left side by promising sophomore Aundrey Walker. John Martinez and Marcus Martin are dependable guards. Depth is a concern, but that problem could be alleviated when incoming freshmen Zach Banner and Jordan Simmons arrive.
4. Texas A&M – The Aggies will have a tough time contending in the difficult SEC West in 2012, but the line should be a building block on offense for new coach Kevin Sumlin. Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel form one of the best tackle combinations in the nation, and both should be All-SEC performers in 2012. The interior of the line will be manned by veteran center Patrick Lewis (35 career starts), while Jarvis Harrison, Shep Klinke and Cedric Ogbuehi will fight for playing time at the guard spots.
5. Oklahoma – Three starters are back from last season’s unit, which allowed only 11 sacks and led the way for rushers to average 4.5 yards per carry. Guard Gabe Ikard has started 25 games over the last two years and is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American for 2012. Ikard may slide to center this year, especially with Ben Habern’s decision to give up football before fall practice. Lane Johnson will bring senior leadership to the lineup, while Adam Shead will likely take Ikard’s place at guard. This unit suffered another tough loss when Tyler Evans was ruled out for the year with a torn ACL.
6. Wisconsin – Even with the departure of first-team All-Big Ten selections Peter Konz (center), Josh Oglesby (tackle) and Kevin Zeitler (guard), the Badgers remain one of the top offensive lines in college football. Anchoring the line will be senior Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick – both Athlon All-Americans for 2012. This unit will be under the direction of a new coach (Mike Markuson), but Wisconsin always seems to produce standout offensive lines.
7. North Carolina – Switching from a pro-style offense to a spread attack will require an adjustment period from this group, but the Tar Heels remain the No. 1 line in the ACC. Left tackle James Hurst and guard Jonathan Cooper are two of the ACC’s top players and could be in the mix for All-American honors. The only question mark will be finding a replacement for Cam Holland at center.
8. Oregon – Two starters are gone from last season’s line but don’t expect that to slow down the Ducks’ offense in 2012. Guard Carson York is recovering from a knee injury suffered in the Rose Bowl and could be sidelined or limited for the first few games of 2012. Sophomore Jake Fisher and center Hroniss Grasu are in for big seasons, while seniors Ryan Clanton and Nick Cody anchor the right side of the line.
9. Notre Dame – Lost in the quarterback issues from last season was a solid offensive line in South Bend. This unit allowed only 17 sacks last year and returns three starters for 2012. Left tackle Zack Martin is the unit’s top performer after starting 26 consecutive games in his first two years on campus. Guard Chris Watt and senior Braxston Cave are back as returning starters, while the unit will look to Mike Golic Jr. and Christian Lombard to replace Taylor Dever and Trevor Robinson on the right side.
10. Michigan – It’s not a particularly strong year for offensive lines across the nation, so even with the departure of David Molk, the Wolverines should rank among the top 10-15. Left tackle Taylor Lewan has All-American potential, while senior Patrick Omameh and junior Michael Schofield are back as returning starters. Ricky Barnum will likely replace Molk at center.
11. Michigan State – This unit went into 2011 as a question mark but emerged as a strength by season’s end. The Spartans finished 19th nationally with just 16 sacks allowed, and the line led the way for rushers to average four yards a carry. Four starters are back for 2012, including Athlon Sports first-team All-Big Ten guard Chris McDonald. With Andrew Maxwell taking over for Kirk Cousins at quarterback, Michigan State will likely lean on its rushing attack early in the year.
12. Texas – With concerns about the quarterback play, look for the Longhorns to rely heavily on their rushing attack in 2012. Although Texas has one of the top backfields in the nation, the offensive line’s improvement has also made a big difference in the ground game. Guard Mason Walters should be in the mix for all-conference honors, while the coaching staff is high on sophomore tackle Josh Cochran. Junior college transfer Donald Hawkins is expected to win the left tackle spot.
13. Stanford – Replacing All-Pac-12 performers David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin won’t be easy, but the Cardinal at least has a solid foundation to start the rebuilding process. David Yankey started all 13 games as a freshman last season and should be the unit’s top performer in 2012. Cameron Fleming and Sam Schwartzstein are back as key contributors for a unit that allowed only 11 sacks last year.
14. Arkansas – This unit struggled at times last year, but the pieces are in place to rank among the top five offensive lines in the SEC. Alvin Bailey is one of the top guards in college football, while center Travis Swanson has started all 26 games in his career. The tackle spots are in good hands with Jason Peacock and Brey Cook.
15. South Carolina – Line coach Shawn Elliott has some work to do this fall, as the Gamecocks return only two starters on the line. However, the cupboard isn’t bare. Guard A.J. Cann is an emerging force on the left side, while center T.J. Johnson enters his senior year with 40 consecutive starts. Redshirt freshman Brandon Shell will take over for Rokevious Watkins at left tackle.
16. NC State – There’s plenty of room for this unit to improve after allowing 34 sacks year. However, with four starters back, the Wolfpack should have one of the nation’s most-improved offensive lines. Four seniors could anchor the starting lineup, including center Cam Wentz and left tackle R.J. Mattes. Rob Crisp has big-time talent and will be counted upon to win the job at right tackle.
17. Georgia Tech – It’s always tough to judge an offensive line that does very little pass blocking, but the Yellow Jackets should rank among the best in the ACC this year. Guard Omoregie Uzzi is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2012 and enters his third season as a starter. Jay Finch is one of the top centers in the ACC, while Will Jackson and Ray Beno are back as returning starters.
18. Virginia – The Cavaliers will miss Austin Pasztor and Anthony Mihota, but three starters are back, including Athlon Sports third-team All-American Oday Aboushi. Morgan Moses will start at right tackle and is a rising star to watch in the ACC. Luke Bowanko returns after starting all 13 games at right guard last year.
19. South Florida – Chaz Hine and Jeremiah Warren must be replaced, but the Bulls should be the Big East’s No. 1 line with the return of three starters. Senior left tackle Mark Popek is the headliner, while sophomore Quinterrius Eatmon is a rising star on the right side.
20. Louisiana Tech – The Bulldogs are a heavy favorite to win the WAC title and should have no trouble scoring points with four starters coming back on the line. Seniors Kevin Saia, Stephen Warner and Jordan Mills should all be in the mix for all-conference honors.
by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Related College Football Content
College Football's Top 20 WR/TE Corps for 2012
College Football's Top 25 Running Back Units for 2012
College Football's Top 20 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice
Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections
Athlon's College Football Rankings for 2012
Athlon's All-American Team for 2012
Ranking the Big Ten's Top 50 Players for 2012
Ranking the Big 12's Top 50 Players for 2012
Ranking the Big East's Top 50 Players for 2012