Unit Rankings: 2012 Big Ten Offensive Lines

Wisconsin should have the Big Ten's No. 1 group in 2012.

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 Ten's Offensive Lines for 2012

1. Wisconsin — Gone are three first-team All-Big Ten performers — and the Badgers won’t miss a beat along the offensive front. A staple since Barry Alvarez took over the program more than two decades ago, Wisconsin’s offensive line will once again be among the nation’s most dependable. Ricky Wagner will push for another UW Outland Trophy at left tackle, while the versatile Travis Frederick slides over to center. Both could be the best at their position in the Big Ten. Rob Havenstein, who conjures images of Aaron Gibson at 6-foot-8 and 343 pounds, will take over at right tackle while Ryan Groy will settle in nicely at left guard. Robert Burge, Casey Dehn and true freshman Dan Voltz should battle for snaps at right guard. With elite players at the top, depth in the middle and another stellar incoming class, the Badgers should have no issues with three new starters.

2. Michigan State — Mark Dantonio has to be excited about at least one part of his offense. His offensive line in 2012 could be the best he has ever had in East Lansing despite losing the best blocker from last year’s squad, Joel Foreman. The tackle tandem of Dan France and Fou Fonoti should be as stable as any bookend duo in the nation, while sophomore center Travis Jackson has as much upside as any hog molly of the Dantonio era. Chris McDonald is a stable, veteran presence at right guard, while Blake Treadwell will take over for Foreman. The best way to break in a new quarterback is with an athletic versatile group like Michigan State will have in 2012.

3. Michigan — Replacing the nation’s top center, David Molk, won’t be easy, but Brady Hoke’s front line looks to have plenty of talent and potential. Rocky Barnum takes over at center with guard Patrick Omameh and tackle Michael Schofield returning to anchor the right side. Taylor Lewan has a chance to be the top tackle in the league should he continue to develop into the future NFL talent many believe him to be. He is the leader of this unit and will be called upon to help develop younger players since the lack of depth might be the only issue. Sophomores Joey Burzynski and Krisitan Mateus, as well as freshman Kyle Kalis, Jack Miller and Chris Bryant, should all expect significant playing time. Potential right guard Elliot Mealer is the only other upperclassmen stepping into regular playing time.

4. Nebraska — Guard Spencer Long, Tim Beck’s top “war daddy” in the running game, and Seung Hoon Choi, the top pass blocker on the roster, will lead the way for another solid Cornhusker front line. On the edge, Tyler Moore, Jeremiah Sirles and bounce-back candidate Andrew Rodriguez provide plenty of talent at the tackle positions. Replacing Mike Caputo at center will be the tallest order, as the undersized Cole Pensick steps into the pivot role. There is plenty of talent and bodies but getting enough reps to win the Big Ten will be the difference for a relatively inexperienced group. Look for Ryne Reeves, Brandon Thompson and Brent Qvale to provide breathers.

5. Ohio State — Like any Ohio State roster, this group has plenty of elite recruits vying for playing time. Realizing their lofty potential, for guys like Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell, will either stabilize a position of concern for Urban Meyer or rebuild an always strong Ohio State front line in short order. Corey Lindsey looks poised to take over at center for four-year starter Michael Brewster and Jack Mewhort, if he can stay focused, should be the best and most consistent blocker on the roster. He will need to be solid to protect Braxton Miller’s blindside at left tackle. Converted tight end Reid Fragel, converted defensive lineman Darryl Baldwin and a pair of highly touted freshman in Taylor Decker and Kyle Dodson will push for time at right tackle. This is a very talented group, but dependable experience is clearly lacking and Meyer is hoping his quicker, smaller offensive line comes together quickly.

6. Purdue — The good news is three starters are back on a unit that averaged over 180 yards rushing per game in 2011. The bad news is two projected starters, Justin Kitchens and Peters Drey, missed all of spring practice. Center Rick Schmeig and left tackle Trevor Foy also return to the field of play, and Kevin Pamphile is penciled in as the left guard. This group could be very athletic and possesses loads of experience as it could start two seniors and three juniors. Should this group come together quickly in the fall, Purdue could challenge in the Leaders Division.

7. Iowa — No one simply replaces two NFL draft picks, but that is what Kirk Ferentz must do after losing Riley Reiff and Adam Gettis. But new OL coach Brian Ferentz has younger brother and three-year starter James Ferentz back at center to lead the unit. Fellow senior returning starter Matt Tobin also returns alongside the youngest Ferentz. The rest of the spots are up for grabs as youthful but talented options like Brandon Scherff (LT) and Austin Blythe (RG) will join with potential veteran right tackles Brett Van Sloten and Nolan MacMillan to fill out the rest of the line. Expect Conor Boffeli and Andrew Donnal, Jordan Walsh and Drew Clark to all see reps in fall camp. This group was last in the Big Ten in rushing a year ago and needs to improve if Iowa expects to improve in 2012.

8. Illinois — This unit regressed in 2011 and finished a pathetic 102nd nationally in sacks allowed. It also couldn’t run the ball like Illini teams have been able to do in the past. Enter a new coaching staff that includes Luke Butkus (yes, that Butkus). He will begin his work with All-Big Ten center Graham Pocic and senior left guard Hugh Thornton. These two must be the veteran rocks on the interior of a line that will surround them with underclassmen. Sophomore Simon Cvijanovic looks to be headed for left tackle with freshman Ted Karras leading the way at right guard. Sophomore Michael Heitz returns to the left tackle position. The group was a huge reason why Illinois stumbled to 0-6 down the stretch last year and must show marked improvement if Orange Crush fans want to contend in the Leaders this fall.

9. Penn State — Normally a major strength for the Nittany Lions, Bill O’Brien will need to find replacements for four starters this summer. Center Matt Stankiewitch is the lone returner and will anchor the line from the pivot position. Talented redshirt freshman Donovan Smith will battle with senior Mike Farrell at right tackle while Adam Gress appears to have the left side locked down. The guard position seems more fluid as big-time recruit Miles Dieffenbach will get the first crack at left guard while John Urschel, Eric Shrive and Angelo Mangiro press for playing time as well. This group has plenty of talent but needs to jell quickly to make things better for the entire offense — and open up lanes for Silas Redd.

10. Northwestern — Pat Fitzgerald has improved recruiting across the board at Northwestern, and nowhere does he need the results more than along the offensive line. Two four-year starters are gone in Al Netter and Ben Burkett and both will be sorely missed on a unit that disappointed last fall. The good news is the left side of the line returns with Brian Mulroe at guard, Patrick Ward shifting from right to left tackle and center Brandon Vitabile building on his solid redshirt freshman campaign. The right side of the line will be key as Neal Dieters, Jack Konopka, Paul Jorgensen, Shane Mertz and Chuck Porcelli battle for two spots. The running game has to get some sort of traditional push in 2012.

11. Minnesota — There could only be one upperclassmen starting along this line and no seniors are listed in the two deep. This means Gophers fans can be cautiously optimistic about the future of its line — especially after playing 11 different players last fall. But it also means that this group is very green. Ed Olson is a junior and could be a special player as the clear leader of the group. A host of talented sophomores, led by big-time recruit Jimmy Gjere are penciled in to the other spots. Olson should be joined by his brother, Tommy, along the left side and coaches want to see junior Zach Mottla start at center due to his experience. This group has loads of upside and only allowed 21 sacks last fall (fifth in Big Ten) and could eventually be one of Minnesota’s better units. It remains to be seen if that can happen in 2012 or if its still a year or two away.

12. Indiana — This team finished ninth in the Big Ten in rushing (mostly because of quarterback Tre Roberson’s improvisational skills) and allowed 2.58 sacks per game (96th nationally). Four players with starting experience return but nearly every spot on the line is up for grabs. Center Will Matte is the most entrenched and should be the leader of the group as a Rimington Award candidate. Bernard Taylor has serious upside at left guard as well. The rest of the line is in a fluid state as the entire group needs to improve across the board.

-by Braden Gall

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