Most of college football’s preseason hype surrounds high-profile quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. But arguably the most important position – the offensive line – usually doesn’t garner much attention. However, the play of the offensive line could be the difference between contending for a conference championship or fighting just to get bowl eligible.
The SEC is loaded with talent on the offensive line in 2013. Led by future NFL first-round draft pick Antonio Richardson, Tennessee ranks as the No. 1 group for 2013. The Volunteers allowed only eight sacks in 2012 and return four starters this year.
Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama round out the top four offensive lines in the SEC for 2013. The Bulldogs have upside with all five starters back, while the Crimson Tide must replace Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker.
Kickoff for the 2013 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 2013 - not how it played in 2012.
Ranking the SEC Offensive Lines for 2013
With a new quarterback and a revamped receiving corps, Tennessee will lean heavily on its offensive line to carry the offense in 2013. The line is anchored by future NFL first-round pick Antonio Richardson. He started all 12 games and earned second-team All-SEC honors last year. Joining Richardson in the starting lineup as returning starters will be center James Stone (27 career starts) and seniors Zach Fulton and Ja’Wuan James (37 consecutive starts). Senior Alex Bullard and junior Marcus Jackson are battling to replace departed guard Dallas Thomas. This unit must adapt to a new coach, but Tennessee should still have one of the best offensive lines in the nation.
2. 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.
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.
Related: Unit Rankings: 2013 SEC Wide Receivers
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.
Josh Dworaczyk and center P.J. Lonergan must be replaced, but the Tigers should remain one of the SEC’s best offensive lines in 2013. Anchoring the line at tackle will be rising star La’el Collins. The Louisiana native earned honorable mention all-conference SEC honors last season and started 13 games at guard. Collins is expected to slide to left tackle this year. Sophomore Vadal Alexander will join Collins as the bookends, with senior Josh Williford and sophomore Trai Turner expected to start at guard. Elliott Porter is slated to take over at center, but he will be pushed by Ethan Pocic. LSU allowed 32 sacks last season, but the line paved the way for rushers to average 4.3 yards per carry in 2012.
With the personnel losses on defense, the Gators need more help from the offense in 2013. And there’s plenty of good news with the return of quarterback Jeff Driskel, and the offensive line could be one of the most-improved groups in the conference. Seniors Jonotthan Harrison and guard Jon Halapio are back as returning starters, and the group is expected to get a boost from the arrival of transfers Tyler Moore (Nebraska) and Max Garcia (Maryland). Left tackle D.J. Humphries ranked as the No. 3 overall recruit in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 last year. If Humphries, Moore and Garcia quickly acclimate to the starting lineup, the Gators will easily cut last season’s sack total (39) in 2013.
7. Mississippi State
With four starters back, this unit should be a strength for the Bulldogs. Anchoring the line will be one of the nation’s best guards in senior Gabe Jackson (a third-team All-American by Athlon Sports for 2013). Joining Jackson on the interior will be promising junior Dillon Day, who has made 22 starts during his career. The tackle spots are expected to be manned by Blaine Clausell and Charles Siddoway, and the coaching staff would like to see both players step up their performance in 2013. The right guard spot is up for grabs, with sophomore Justin Malone and junior Archie Muniz battling for time. The Bulldogs allowed only 19 sacks last year and could lower that number in 2013.
Under the direction of line coach Herb Hand, the Commodores have made significant progress in the trenches over the last couple of seasons. And this group is poised to take another step forward in 2013, especially with senior Wesley Johnson returning at left tackle and center Joe Townsend anchoring the interior. Junior Andrew Bridges could be pushed for time by redshirt freshman Andrew Jelks, while the guard spots should go to Jake Bernstein and Spencer Pulley. This unit was a key reason why the Commodores averaged 166.3 rushing yards per game last year, and with three solid returning starters in place, Vanderbilt should be able to cut its sacks allowed from last year (24).
9. Ole Miss
The Rebels allowed 34 sacks and ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 173.9 rushing yards per game last year. With four starters returning, Ole Miss should be able to improve on those totals in 2013. Seniors Emmanuel McCray and Pierce Burton anchor the line from the tackle spots, while guard Aaron Morris is a second-team All-SEC selection by Athlon Sports for 2013. Center Evan Swindall provided steady play last year and started all 13 contests. The one open spot on the line comes at right guard, where the vacancy is likely to be filled by a senior – Patrick Junen or Jared Duke. Ole Miss also has help on the way in the form of incoming freshman Laremy Tunsil. Even if Tunsil doesn’t replace McCray and Burton, he will provide valuable depth for a line that hopes to use more bodies in 2013.
Related: Hugh Freeze Has Ole Miss on the Rise
Much like many of the other units for Auburn in 2013, the Tigers could easily outperform this ranking by the end of the year. There’s no shortage of talent up front for coach Gus Malzahn, starting with junior Reese Dismukes at center. Dismukes has 23 career starts coming into 2013 and could emerge as one of the SEC’s best centers by the end of the year. The coaching staff is counting on sophomore Greg Robinson to guard the blindside for whichever quarterback wins the job, while redshirt freshman Alex Kozan is expected to slide into the lineup at left guard. Junior Chad Slade (right guard) and sophomore Patrick Miller (right tackle) will likely round out the starting lineup. However, junior college transfer Devonte Danzey could push for time as a starter at guard this year.
Related: College Football's Top 10 Most-Improved Teams for 2013
11. South Carolina
With four starters returning, the Gamecocks are hoping for significant improvement in the trenches. The line struggled at times last year, allowing 38 sacks (102nd nationally) and rushers averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. Although the line has four players back, there’s also the concern of replacing one of the SEC’s top centers in T.J. Johnson. Redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop is slated to fill Johnson’s shoes at center. For the line to take the next step, the Gamecocks need a big year from sophomore Brandon Shell at right tackle and left guard A.J. Cann to become an all-conference performer. For South Carolina to win the East Division, the offensive line’s development could hold the key to the season.
The Razorbacks’ offensive line will be led by senior center Travis Swanson, an Athlon Sports’ second-team All-American for 2013. Having Swanson back in the lineup is a huge asset for new coach Bret Bielema, especially since three starters departed, and the offense is switching to a new scheme under coordinator Jim Chaney. Senior David Hurd is expected to start at left tackle after making 11 starts last year. Guards Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers have potential, while the right tackle spot is expected to be up for grabs between Grady Ollison and Austin Beck. Incoming freshmen Dan Skipper, Denver Kirkland and Reeve Koehler could all push for time this fall. Line coach Sam Pittman did an excellent job of molding Tennessee’s line into a strength, and this unit should be significantly improved by the end of 2013.
Injuries and inconsistent play hindered this group’s performance last year. The Tigers allowed 29 sacks and led the way for running backs to average only 3.7 yards per carry. While last season was a transition year for this group as it adjusted to life in the SEC, Missouri should be hopeful about its offensive line prospects for 2013. Evan Boehm could blossom into one of the nation’s top sophomore offensive linemen by the end of the season, and he is expected to slide to center after playing guard in 2012. Senior Justin Britt has 22 career starts and will anchor the line from the left tackle spot. Senior Max Copeland is expected to join him at left guard, while junior Mitch Morse is likely to start at right tackle.
The Wildcats suffered some significant losses in this group, as All-SEC guard Larry Warford and center Matt Smith have expired their eligibility. Also, the line must adapt to a different scheme and a new coach in John Schlarman. Although two key starters must be replaced, this unit isn’t in total disarray. Left tackle Darrian Miller started all 12 games last year and will be joined by promising sophomore Zach West at guard. Senior Kevin Mitchell is slated to move from tackle to guard to help replace Warford. Proven depth is a concern in the trenches for Schlarman, especially for an offense that plans to pay at a faster pace in 2013.
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