Offensive line play is often overlooked when analyzing and predicting a college football season. Outside of quarterback play, the five players in the trenches are the most important position on offense. Good skill players won’t go far with a limited offensive line, and a passing game won’t get on track if there’s no protection.
In Athlon’s predicted top 25 offensive lines for 2014, five of the units hailed from the Pac-12. Stanford, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and UCLA ranked among the nation’s best, with the Cardinal grabbing the No. 1 spot in the conference.
While optimism ran high at those schools in the preseason, some teams are still searching for the right answers three weeks into 2014.
Each team has a different story in the trenches, but for Oregon, injuries have limited a unit that returned all five starters and was poised to be one of the best in the nation.
Improving the production from the guards and overall physicality of the line was a priority in the offseason, and so far, it appears Oregon’s offensive line has answered the call. The Ducks have scored on 93.3 percent of their red zone trips in 2014. Oregon rushers are averaging 6.3 yards per carry through three weeks and that includes a solid (4.3 ypc) performance against one of the best defenses in the nation (Michigan State).
But will those numbers hold over the course of the season? The Ducks’ line has been thinned by injuries, as Tyler Johnstone was lost for the year due to a knee injury in the preseason, and tackles Andre Yruretagoyena and Jake Fisher have been injured in the last two weeks.
Oregon's Projected OL for Week 4
LT Matt Pierson/Jake Fisher
Fisher's Status Uncertain
LG Hamani Stevens
Started all 3 games in 2014.
C Hroniss Grasu
Best center in nation?
RG Cameron Hunt
Started 2 games in 2014.
RT Tyrell Crosby
True freshman pressed into duty.
Oregon is secretive with injury updates, so there’s no long-term diagnosis on Fisher or Yruretagoyena.
With Fisher and Yruretagoyena sidelined, the Ducks will rely on junior Matt Pierson and freshman Tyrell Crosby to handle the tackle duties. Crosby ranked as the No. 401 recruit in the 2014 signing class and started the Week 3 contest against Wyoming. Crosby started on the right side and is expected to stay there, even with Fisher’s absence in Week 4. Pierson is a walk-on but has game experience by playing in six contests in 2013 and three games in 2012. He also filled in against Wyoming, helping a line that did not allow a sack last Saturday.
But if either player is out for an extended period of time, the Ducks could go into the heart of their schedule (at UCLA – Oct. 11, Washington – Oct. 18 and Stanford – Nov. 1) without their top three tackles from the preseason.
Matchups against the Bruins and Cardinal will be huge for Oregon’s playoff hopes and could decide whether or not the Ducks or Stanford represents the North in the Pac-12 title game.
Will Oregon’s offensive line woes derail the offense against Washington State or Arizona? Probably not, but a thin offensive line could create more pressure on quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The Cougars have just four sacks in three games and have allowed 28.7 points per game so far this year. Washington State’s defensive line is underrated, headlined by tackle Xavier Cooper. The Cougars also sacked Mariota three times in 2013.
The Wildcats have allowed 21.3 points per game and 5.2 yards per play through three weeks. Oregon’s matchup against Arizona is more favorable, as the Wildcats are breaking in two new starters on the line.
But the reality for Oregon is simple. Good luck and injuries are required to win a national title. Not having three of your top tackles from the preseason is something that will be difficult to overcome. Of course, having a quarterback like Mariota certainly alleviates the concerns up front. And the Ducks can use their spread to get rid of the ball and allow their athletes to make plays in space.
If Fisher and Yruretagoyena return soon, Oregon’s offensive line should be fine. However, if these two miss the rest of the year, the Ducks’ depth up front could be a huge issue, especially against physical defenses like Stanford, UCLA and potential matchups in the playoffs.
On the other side of the division, UCLA is also dealing with uncertainty on its offensive line.
In the opener against Virginia, the Bruins allowed 11 tackles for a loss and five sacks. Center Jake Brendel (All-Pac-12 candidate) did not play against the Cavaliers due to a knee injury, which clearly attributed to some of UCLA’s struggles up front.
5 (33 att)
4 (44 att)
3 (34 att)
Brendel returned in Week 2 against Memphis, and the Bruins allowed four sacks on 44 pass attempts, gave up six tackles for a loss and improved their yards per carry average from 3.0 in the opener to 3.5 against the Tigers.
UCLA’s line took a step forward in Week 3, recording a 4.6 yards per rush against Texas – the best defensive front the Bruins have played in 2014 – and gave up only three sacks on 34 pass attempts.
The good news for coach Jim Mora and quarterback Brett Hundley is the line seems to be improving with each game. However, tackle Malcolm Bunche was injured against Texas and his status for next week’s Thursday night showdown against Arizona State is uncertain.
If Bunche can’t go in Week 5, redshirt freshman Conor McDermott is listed on the backup on the depth chart, but UCLA could shuffle its line to move someone else to the left side.
Losing Bunche for an extended period of time would be a huge setback for a line that is still developing and thin on proven options off the bench. While that’s ominous for the Bruins, Bunche does have a week to get healthy before playing Arizona State (Sept. 25).
Assuming UCLA is able to win in Tempe, an aggressive Utah defense awaits on Oct. 4, followed by a date against Oregon on Oct. 11. Getting Brendel fully entrenched at center once again, along with Bunche back to full strength is critical in a key stretch run for the Bruins.
However, there’s one major caveat to UCLA’s title hopes that won’t revolve on the offensive line. Is quarterback Brett Hundley healthy and capable of returning soon? The early reports suggest Hundley’s elbow injury isn’t serious, but the Bruins need their signal-caller and No. 1 quarterback at full strength.
UCLA was Athlon’s pick to win the South Division this preseason. Even if the wins haven’t been impressive or as dominating as some may have anticipated in the preseason, the Bruins are still squarely in the mix for the division and conference title. And if UCLA wins the Pac-12 title with one loss or remains unbeaten, Jim Mora's team is going to be in college football's playoff.
The stats from the first three games suggest the offensive line is improving. But what type of impact could a long-term injury to Bunche hold for this group? And assuming Bunche does return to full strength, can this unit jell and continue to improve after a sluggish start to the season?
With its strong defense and quarterback Brett Hundley leading the way, UCLA is capable of pushing for a playoff spot. However, much like Oregon, the Bruins’ title hopes depend on the five blockers leading the way in key games against the Ducks, Sun Devils, along with late-season matchups against Washington, USC and Stanford.
It's early, but the development (and health) of offensive lines at UCLA and Oregon are going to play a huge role in determining the Pac-12 champion in 2014.