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 SEC's Offensive Lines for 2012
Even with the departure of center William Vlachos, the Crimson Tide have one of the top offensive lines in the nation. Barrett Jones earned first-team All-SEC honors last season but will move to center in 2012. Considering the versatility and performance throughout his career, he has to be considered the best linemen in college football. Replacing Jones at left tackle is expected to be Cyrus Kouandijo, a former 5-star recruit. Right tackle D.J. Fluker started all 13 games last year, while Anthony Steen and Chance Warmack are back to man the guard positions. Fluker is on the verge of a breakout season, while Warmack should be in the mix for All-American honors.
This collection of Bayou blockers could be the best in the nation. Two potential future first-round picks in Alex Hurst and Chris Faulk bookend a line that returns four starters. This group was No. 2 in the SEC in rushing and No. 1 in the SEC in sacks allowed (1.29) last year and could actually get better. The only replacement comes in the form of Josh Dworaczyk, who is a sixth-year player with loads of experience. P.J. Lonergan, who is only starter who isn’t at least 6-foot-6, will be one of the nation’s top pivots and Josh Williford returns at right guard. This group averages 319 pounds up front and is stacked with elite level depth behind them. There are few groups nationally that are as talented and deep as the LSU Tigers front line.
3. Texas A&M
With a new quarterback and offensive scheme, the Aggies may have to rely more on their rushing attack in 2012. The good news for Texas A&M is three starters are back up front, including tackles Luke Joeckel (second-team All-Big 12 in 2011) and Jake Matthews (honorable mention All-Big 12). Both players have All-American potential and should allow this line to rank among the top 10-15 nationally. Patrick Lewis has been a starter the last three years and will provide a veteran presence in the middle. The guard spots are up for grabs, but Jarvis Harrison, Shep Klinke and Cedric Ogbuehi all have experience. This group allowed just nine sacks last year and should be a team strength once again in 2012.
4. South Carolina
This group will have some youth and inexperience, but it also has loads of talent. T.J. Johnson is the elder statesman and lone senior, but will anchor the line at center. A.J. Cann - an elite recruit in the 2010 class who played every game of his freshman season last fall - returns for his redshirt sophomore campaign at left guard. With junior Ronald Patrick lining up at right guard, the interior of the offensive line should be stable. The tackle position is a bit more fluid but the talent has incredible upside. Brandon Shell ranked behind only Jadeveon Clowney in the Gamecocks’ 2011 haul and he should be ready to compete as a redshirt freshman. He will battle with Cody Gibson, who got four starts last year, and Mike Matulis, who was pressed into action last year as a freshman due to injuries. Between the trio of underclassmen, South Carolina feels that it can improve on its 2.38 sacks allowed per game from a year ago (87th nationally).
Running up the middle and off guard to the right should be no issue whatsoever for the Hogs. Center Travis Swanson and right guard Alvin Bailey, who has loads of NFL potential, are as good a center-guard combo as there is in the league. Filling the holes around them will determine just how far Arkansas can go in the SEC West this year. Jason Peacock, who started nine games last fall, will get the first crack at protecting Tyler Wilson’s blindside while uber-recruit Brey Cook will bookend the right side. Expect David Hurd and Chris Stringer to figure heavily in the tackle mix as well. Tyler Deacon and Luke Charpentier will work into the guard rotation with Bailey. Lastly, Mitch Smothers can play anywhere on the line and is a versatile piece on the bench. If Arkansas expects to beat Alabama or LSU, it must get improved play from a line that was 73rd nationally in sacks allowed and 81st in rushing offense.
Few teams in the nation have recruited as well along the offensive line over the last two cycles. Twelve of the 16 scholarship blockers on the roster were signed in the 2010 or 2011 recruiting classes. Sophomore Reese Dismukes is entrenched at center after only one year of action while fellow sophomore Chad Slade has the right tackle position locked up. One of the few veterans, John Sullen, looks to have the left guard position to himself. Look for an elite group of talented but unproven youngsters, including redshirt freshmen Greg Robinson and Christian Westerman to divide the right guard and left tackles duties up at some point. Freshman Patrick Miller will also get plenty of chances to compete. Gene Chizik has an elite three-year haul of hog mollies, now it’s up to line coach Jeff Grimes to develop and motivate these massive blockers.
Perhaps the only area preventing Georgia from garnering a top five ranking in preseason polls is the offensive line. Three key players are gone from last season’s unit, including center Ben Jones. Tackles Cordy Glenn (first-team All-SEC in 2011) and Justin Anderson have both expired their eligibility. The cupboard isn’t bare for coach Mark Richt, but there’s a lot of work to be done. Three starters are back, including guard Chris Burnette who started 12 games last year. Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee combined for 16 starts in 2011 and figure to work with the first team once again in 2012. Although three starters are back, the two most important positions on the offensive line – left tackle and center – have question marks. True freshman John Theus will have an opportunity to start at left tackle, while sophomore David Andrews appears to have the early edge at center. If this unit jells, Georgia will have a chance to compete for the national title.
This unit loses three key players, but is in decent shape heading into 2012. Senior left tackle Elvis Fisher is back after missing all of 2011 with a knee injury. Fisher earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors in 2009 and 2010 and needs to quickly find that form in 2012. The guard spots are expected to be anchored by Travis Ruth and Jack Meiners, while Justin Britt shifts from left side to start at right tackle. Sophomore Mitch Morse played in 13 games last year, but has yet to start a game. He is expected to start at center in 2012, and his performance will be crucial to the success of Missouri’s offensive line. This unit allowed 18 sacks in 2011 – a number surely helped by quarterback James Franklin’s mobility – but should be steady once again in 2012.
For the first time in a few years, the Vols finally look to have restocked the offensive line with talent, depth and experience. This is due in part to the fact that so many returning starters were forced into action as freshmen and sophomores. The only non-returning starter is Tiny Richardson - who is thought so highly by the coaching staff that Dallas Thomas will be moved inside to guard - steps in at left tackle to protect Tyler Bray’s backside. Ju’Juan James should hold down the right tackle spot. Zach Fulton, Alex Bullard, James Stone and Marcus Jackson — who all have plenty of playing experience — will battle it out for the center and right guard positions in camp (maybe, all season). This offensive line, for the first time in years, has a chance to be a strength rather than an area of concern.
10. Mississippi State
Despite dealing with inconsistency up front in 2011, the Bulldogs still managed to average 4.4 yards per carry and ranked 38th nationally in rushing offense. With a new quarterback and running back taking over, this unit will be under the microscope to perform in 2012. Guard Gabe Jackson has started all 26 games in his career and is a candidate to earn first-team All-SEC honors in 2012. Center Dillon Day is the unit’s only other returning starter, but he could be pushed for time from junior college recruit Dylan Holley. This unit needs Blaine Clausell stabilize the left tackle spot, but don’t be surprised if junior college recruit Charles Siddoway pushes for time in the fall.
The offensive line has been a major point of contention for second-year head man Will Muschamp. The defense kept them in most games last year but the offense could do little to help out. With new coaches all around the O-Line, upperclassmen like Matt Patchen and Xavier Nixon need to deliver on their five-star recruiting status. Those two will man the tackle positions and should have their best seasons, while junior Jonotthan Harrison will man the pivot. James Wilson, who will be entering his sixth season on campus, will get the first crack at right guard and could also finally deliver on his lofty recruiting potential. Sophomore Chaz Green, and freshmen D.J. Humphries and Trip Thurman could compete right away for important playing time. Like most positions on the Gators roster there is loads of talent and upside — it just needs to be realized.
A year after finishing last in the SEC in scoring, the Commodores showed significant improvement on offense. The line was a key reason for Vanderbilt’s offensive gains, as it averaged 4.3 yards per carry and paved the way for 26 rushing scores. While this unit improved last season, the Commodores have a few question marks up front, especially with only two starters returning. Left tackle Wesley Johnson has All-SEC potential, while Ryan Seymour is back after making 12 starts last year. Josh Jelesky and Andrew Bridges are expected to anchor the right side of the line and both gained valuable experience last season. The biggest question mark will be center Spencer Pulley. Although the Commodores rank No. 12 on this list in July, don’t be surprised if this group ranks higher by the end of the season.
A combined 87 starts are gone from last year’s unit but Joker Phillips is surprisingly optimistic about this group. Larry Warford is a superstar and anchors the unit from his right guard position while fellow senior Matt Smith returns as the starting center. The left side of the line will be manned by two talented youngsters in sophomore Darrian Miller (left tackle) and freshman Zach West. Veterans Kevin Mitchell and Trevino Woods will battle for right tackle duties. There is a nice blend of youth and experience on this roster, but depth is a major issue. Any one injury for any extended period of time could spell disaster for a team already scratching and clawing to get to bowl eligibility.
14. Ole Miss
With the departures of tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, along with guard Matt Hall, there are few positives surrounding this group going into 2012. Evan Swindall is a returning starter at center, but four spots are up for grabs around him. Junior college recruit Pierce Burton is expected to start at right tackle, while Emmanuel McCray finished spring as the No. 1 option on the left side. Senior A.J. Hawkins is expected to anchor one of the guard spots, and his experience will be valuable for a unit that lacks overall depth and proven bodies. This unit allowed 33 sacks in 2011 and could be worse in 2012 if four new starters struggle to jell in the fall.
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