College Football's Top 25 Offensive Lines for 2013

David Yankey leads the way for Stanford's offensive line.

The unsung heroes of every college football team are the men in the trenches. Offensive lines are often overlooked when it comes to preseason predictions, but this position is arguably the most important unit on the team.

Stanford has churned out some of the nation’s best offensive lines in recent years, and the Cardinal take the top spot in Athlon’s rankings for 2013. Guard David Yankey is a standout performer, and Stanford will get a boost from the emergence of tackle Andrus Peat. Tennessee ranks No. 2, but Ohio State – with four starters back from last year – aren’t far behind. Despite losing left tackle Luke Joeckel and center Patrick Lewis, Texas A&M remains a top-10 line for 2013.

How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2013 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference.

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 13th annual Athlon Awards. 

Ranking the Top 25 Offensive Lines for 2013

1. Stanford
With four starters returning and two touted recruits stepping into key roles, the Cardinal’s physical, run-first approach isn’t going anywhere. Stanford’s line allowed only 1.4 sacks per game last year and paved the way for rushers to average 4.4 yards per carry. David Yankey could be the premier guard in college football, while Cameron Fleming and Kevin Danser should be all-conference selections. Khalil Wilkes is expected to slide to center to replace Sam Schwartzstein. Massive sophomore Andrus Peat is set to start at left tackle.

2. Tennessee 
The Volunteers’ offensive line has morphed from a weakness into one of the nation’s best in just a few seasons. Antonio Richardson — a likely first-round draft pick in 2014 — and Ja’Wuan James could be the best set of tackles in the nation. Guard Zach Fulton is back after 11 starts in 2012, and James Stone should be one of the top centers in the SEC this year. Tennessee allowed just eight sacks in 2012. 

3. Ohio State 
The Buckeyes regarded their offensive line as a weak link going into 2012, but this unit finished the year as the best in the Big Ten. Four starters are back, including All-Big Ten selections Andrew Norwell and Jack Mewhort. Center Corey Linsley is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Big Ten pick, and guard Marcus Hall returns after starting all 12 games last year. Taylor Decker is expected to replace Reid Fragel at right tackle.

4. Oklahoma 
Despite losing left tackle Lane Johnson, the Sooners are in great shape in the trenches. Center Gabe Ikard is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American, and tackle Daryl Williams and guard Adam Shead could be among the best in the Big 12 at their positions. Bronson Irwin, with 13 starts in 2012, returns at right guard, and Tyrus Thompson (five starts in 2012) steps into the lineup at right tackle. Oklahoma allowed just six sacks in Big 12 games last season.

5. Kansas State 
The Wildcats return all five starters from a unit that allowed only 14 sacks last year. B.J. Finney is one of the top returning centers in the nation, and tackle Cornelius Lucas is a preseason first-team All-Big 12 selection. Boston Stiverson and Keenan Taylor man the guard positions, while Cody Whitehair slides from left guard to right tackle.

6. Texas A&M
The Aggies’ offensive line was a big reason for the success of the offense last year. The final totals indicated this unit gave up 23 sacks but cleared the way for Texas A&M to average 5.9 yards per carry. And a mobile quarterback like Johnny Manziel can often inflate the sack totals of an offensive line, as it’s not easy for the front five to hold their blocks while the quarterback scrambles. Left tackle Luke Joeckel left for the NFL, but the Aggies plan to move Associated Press 2012 third-team All-American Jake Matthews from right tackle to the left side. And Cedric Ogbuehi will slide from guard to right tackle to replace Matthews. The guard spots will be manned by Jarvis Harrison and Germain Ifedi, while Mike Matthews – brother of left tackle Jake Matthews – will slide into the center spot. Joeckel will be missed, but Texas A&M has plenty of talent returning to keep this offensive line among the best in the nation.

7. Miami
Five starters are back from a line that allowed just 1.5 sacks a game and led the way for rushers to average 4.7 yards per carry in 2012. Guard Brandon Linder is the unit’s top performer, earning first-team All-ACC honors by Athlon Sports for 2013. Center Shane McDermott started all 12 games last season and should also be one of the best at his position in the ACC this year. Senior Seantrel Henderson finally appears ready to capitalize off his recruiting hype, and the former top recruit has the potential to dominate the right side of the line. The other two spots are up for grabs, with left tackle likely to go to Ereck Flowers or Malcolm Bunche, and Jon Feliciano still the favorite at left guard. Injuries took a toll on the depth of this line in fall practice, but Miami is clearly deeper and more talented in the trenches than it has been in recent years.

8. Alabama
Much like Texas A&M, the Crimson Tide have a few holes to plug up front before 2013. Center Barrett Jones – arguably one of the best offensive linemen of the BCS era – and 2012 first-team All-American Chance Warmack have expired their eligibility. Right tackle D.J. Fluker earned second-team All-American honors last season, and he decided to leave early for the NFL. Despite the departure of three key performers from last year, the cupboard is far from bare. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is primed to emerge as one of the top linemen in the nation, with senior Anthony Steen anchoring the right side at guard. The other three spots are up for grabs, with juniors Arie Kouandjio (left guard) and Austin Shepherd (right tackle) owning a slight edge for snaps going into the fall. Sophomore Ryan Kelly is expected to replace Jones at center. This unit will be under the direction of a new position coach in former FIU head coach Mario Cristobal.

9. Florida State
As long as the starting five stays healthy, Florida State should be in good shape in the trenches. The Seminoles are thin on depth on the offensive line, but there’s plenty to like about the starting unit. Left tackle Cameron Erving shined in his first season after switching from defensive tackle. Junior Bobby Hart started nine games as a true freshman in 2011 but played as a reserve in 2012. He is expected to start at right tackle this year. Florida State boats one of the nation’s top guard duos in Josue Matias and Tre’ Jackson, while center Bryan Stork enters his senior year with 27 starts. Even with the depth concerns, the Seminoles have a top-10 offensive line.

10. Georgia
With only three returning starters on defense, the Bulldogs will need their offense to carry the team through a difficult September schedule. With quarterback Aaron Murray, running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, along with receiver Malcolm Mitchell returning, the firepower is certainly there to win the SEC in 2013. However, Georgia’s offense will only go as far as its line will allow. The good news? All five starters are back, including promising sophomore left tackle John Theus. The rest of the starting five could feature three seniors with Dallas Lee, Chris Burnette and Kenarious Gates, with David Andrews anchoring the interior at center. This unit gave up 27 sacks last year – including a miserable performance in a 35-7 loss against South Carolina. Considering the talent, depth and experience returning to Athens, it would be a big surprise if the Bulldogs fail to find improvement on the offensive line in 2013.

11. Texas
Returning Starters: 5
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 16
Rushing Offense: 53rd nationally, 4.5 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-Big 12 Performers: OG Trey Hopkins (1st), OG Mason Walters (2nd)

12. Cincinnati
Returning Starters: 5
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 17
Rushing Offense: 30th nationally, 5.3 ypc
Athlon 2013 American Athletic All-Conference Performers: OG Austen Bujnoch (1st), OT Eric Lefeld (1st), C Dan Sprague (3rd), OG Sam Longo (3rd)

13. Oregon
Returning Starters: 3
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 19
Rushing Offense: 3rd nationally, 6.0 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-Pac-12 Performers: OT Jake Fisher (1st), OT Tyler Johnstone (1st), C Hroniss Grasu

14. Notre Dame
Returning Starters: 3
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 18
Rushing Offense: 38th nationally, 4.9 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-American Performers: OT Zack Martin (3rd)

15. Nebraska
Returning Starters: 3
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 35
Rushing Offense: 8th nationally, 5.4 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: OG Spencer Long (1st), OT Jeremiah Sirles (2nd)

16. LSU
Returning Starters: 3
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 32
Rushing Offense: 50th nationally, 4.3 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: OT La’El Collins (4th)

17. USC
Returning Starters: 5
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 17
Rushing Offense: 71st nationally, 5.0 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-Pac-12 Performers: OG Max Tuerk (2nd)

18. Michigan State
Returning Starters: 3
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 22
Rushing Offense: 75th nationally, 4.0 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: OT Fou Fonoti (2nd), C Travis Jackson (3rd), OG Dan France (3rd)

19. Florida
Returning Starters: 3
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 39
Rushing Offense: 39th nationally, 4.5 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-SEC Performers: OG Jon Halapio (3rd), C Jonotthan Harrison (4th)

20. Georgia Tech
Returning Starters: 5
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 14
Rushing Offense: 4th nationally, 5.4 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-ACC Performers: OG Shaquille Mason (2nd)

21. Clemson
Returning Starters: 4
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 31
Rushing Offense: 36th nationally, 4.2 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-ACC Performers: OT Brandon Thomas (1st)

22. Oregon State
Returning Starters: 4
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 33
Rushing Offense: 100th nationally, 3.7 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-Pac-12 Performers: C Isaac Seumalo (2nd), OT Michael Philipp (2nd), OG Grant Enger (3rd)

23. Penn State
Returning Starters: 3
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 21
Rushing Offense: 83rd nationally, 3.6 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-Big Ten Performers: OG John Urschel (2nd), OT Donovan Smith (3rd)

24. Utah State
Returning Starters: 5
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 18
Rushing Offense: 26th nationally, 5.6 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-Mountain West Performers: C Tyler Larsen (1st), OT Eric Schultz (2nd), OG Jamie Markosian (3rd)

25. Boise State
Returning Starters: 2
Sacks Allowed in 2012: 10
Rushing Offense: 55th nationally, 4.6 ypc
Athlon 2013 All-Mountain West Performers: OT Charles Leno (1st), C Matt Paradis (2nd)

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