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Last updated: 03/29/2011 0:06 AM

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Football
Rating the Big Ten Offensive Lines
By Tony Gerdeman

The Big Ten positional rankings have been on hiatus while we all got sucked into the joy and pain of March basketball, but they're back now and I am powerless to stop them.

The Big Ten is littered with veteran offensive lines this season. In fact, Michigan State and Minnesota are the only two teams in the conference who don't return three or more starters. They are also two of the three teams who don't return last year's starting center.

Similarly, they are also two of the three teams who don't return last year's starting left tackle as well. Are you getting the picture? Well, if not, print the following out, shake it a little, and then maybe you'll start to see it.

1. Ohio State

Starters: Mike Adams (LT), J.B. Shugarts (RT), Mike Brewster (C)

Possible Starters/Backups: Andrew Norwell, Marcus Hall, Corey Linsley, Jack Mewhort, Tommy Brown (Fr.), Brian Bobek (Fr.), Antonio Underwood (Fr.), Chris Carter (Fr.)

The Buckeyes will be without First Team All-Big Ten left tackle Mike Adams for the first five games of the season, and will likely plug sophomore Andrew Norwell into that vacancy. He was the sixth lineman for Ohio State last season and impressed coaches as a true freshman. Michael Brewster is one of the best two or three centers in the conference, but he'll have different faces on his immediate right and left this year. Marcus Hall will get one of those two spots, assuming he hasn't gone ahead and won the left tackle job. The other guard will likely be the versatile Jack Mewhort. J.B. Shugarts will be at his customary right tackle spot, where he has started for the past two seasons. Obviously, this offensive line will be a lot better in November than they'll be in September—but they should still be pretty darn good in September.

2. Wisconsin

Starters: Peter Konz (C), Ricky Wagner (RT), Kevin Zeitler (RG)

Possible Starters/Backups: Travis Frederick, Josh Oglesby, Casey Dehn, Ryan Groy, Jake Current, Zac Matthias, Robert Burge, Rob Havenstein

Ricky Wagner started at right tackle last year, but he'll move to left tackle to man the spot vacated by Gabe Carimi. Travis Frederick, who redshirted last season after starting four games as a true freshman in 2009, has apparently already earned the left guard job. Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler are more than serviceable, as they helped pave the way for a devastating running attack that focused its attention on running between the tackles. The only question is who will start at right tackle. Josh Oglesby will be held out during the spring as he recovers from reconstructive knee surgery. The time off will not help him as there are a few other capable behemoths waiting in the wings. Casey Dehn is a redshirt sophomore with some positive buzz around him right now, and it appears that he will get the first shot at anchoring the right side of the line. Even though only two linemen will be manning the same positions they did last year, this is still Wisconsin—maulers grow on trees.

3. Michigan

Starters: Taylor Lewan (LT), David Molk (C), Patrick Omameh (RG)

Possible Starters/Backups: Mark Huyge, Rocko Khoury, Ricky Barnum, Elliott Mealer, Michael Schofield, Christian Pace, Chris Bryant (Fr.)

There are only three returning starters listed above, but it may as well be four because Mark Huyge started seven games last year—four at left tackle and three at right tackle. He can probably be penciled in at right tackle. Taylor Lewan has as much ability as any tackle in the conference, but he needs to cut down on the amount of penalties he committed last year—or at least cut down on getting caught. David Molk, arguably the best center in the Big Ten, has been a mainstay anchoring the offensive line for Michigan. He's one of the few Wolverines who still remain from Lloyd Carr's tenure. Patrick Omameh has gotten better with every step, and should continue his progress throughout 2011. Michigan is still looking for a left guard to replace Steve Schilling. Fortunately they have a lot of options to select from. Assuming they can pick up the new offense, this will be one of the best lines in the conference.

4. Iowa

Starters: Riley Reiff (LT), James Ferentz (C), Markus Zusevics (RT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Adam Gettis, Conor Boffeli, Nolan MacMillan, Brett Van Sloten, Andrew Donnal, Brandon Scherff, Dan Heiar (JUCO), Jordan Walsh (Fr.)

Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics combine for one of the best tackle tandems in the conference. Reiff, a redshirt junior, has been starting since his redshirt freshman season. There is some concern that he could look at the NFL after this season, but if that's your biggest concern on the offensive line, then you're way ahead of the game. James Ferentz got better as the season went on last year, and he is expected to continue that trend this season. Iowa is really only looking for a couple of guards, but they probably already know who they are. Nolan MacMillan started six games at right guard last year and Adam Gettis started two, so they both have experience. Both players made their starts because players ahead of them were injured. And both lost their jobs when they themselves got injured. Kirk Ferentz was very impressed by MacMillan at times last season, so things look to be in pretty good hands for the Hawkeyes.

5. Purdue

Starters: Dennis Kelly (LT), Peters Drey (C), Ken Plue (RG), Nick Mondek (RT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Rick Schmeig, Andrew Brewer, James Shepherd, Trevor Foy, Jack DeBoef, Justin Kitchens

Dennis Kelly, Peters Drey and Ken Plue were all Honorable Mention All-Big Ten last season, so not only do the Boilers return four starters, but three of them have been pretty good. However, despite Plue's 27 starts in his first three seasons, he is currently working with the second unit and senior James Shepherd is working with the ones. Danny Hope calls Shepherd a “try-hard guy”, but don't be surprised if this is nothing more than a kick in the pants for Plue, who Hope says needs to pick it up off the field as well as on the field. The only spot that is open right now is at left guard, which could go to the loser of the Plue vs. Shepherd battle. Keep an eye on Rick Schmeig, who has started three games over his first two seasons. Also watch out for Justin Kitchens at tackle. He moved over from the defensive side and is earning raves right now. All in all, this unit returns almost intact from last year, but there are incumbents being pushed, which is a good thing for the Boilers. Now if they could just find players to block for.

6. Nebraska

Starters: Jeremiah Sirles (LT), Mike Caputo (C), Marcel Jones (RT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Jermarcus Hardrick, Andrew Rodriguez, Cole Pensick, Brent Qvale, Brandon Thompson, Mike Moudy, Ryan Klachko (Fr.), Ryan Reeves (Fr.)

Jeremiah Sirles started every game last season as a redshirt freshman, if that gives you any idea of his talent level. Unfortunately, he's out for the spring following shoulder surgery, which will give Jermarcus Hardrick a chance to get his foot in the left tackle door. The Huskers had the same starting five for every game last season. While that's a luxury to have at the time, it can also hinder development of depth, which might be where Nebraska is right now when it comes to finding two starting guards. Brent Qvale and Andrew Rodriguez are the odds-on favorites, as both got playing time last year, but nothing overly significant. Offensive line coach Barney Cotton likes the potential of the two sophomores, but has also mentioned that their inexperience is going to be a factor this year. Mike Caputo enters his second year as a starter at center and will be relied upon to keep his shouldermates pointed in the right direction.

7. Illinois

Starters: Jeff Allen (WT), Hugh Thornton (WG), Graham Pocic (C)

Possible Starters/Backups: Corey Lewis, Michael Heitz, Jack Cornell, Tyler Sands, Jake Feldmeyer, Craig Wilson, Shawn Afryl, Willie Beavers (Fr.), Chris Boles (Fr.), Tony Durkin (Fr.), Pat Flavin (Fr.), Ted Karras (Fr.)

Jeff Allen has 34 consecutive starts, and his versatility allows him to move from one side of the line to the other, depending upon formation. He was a key component in Illinois' fantastic rushing offense last year, and will be again this year. Corey Lewis will likely be at the other tackle, but he's currently recuperating from a knee injury and will be out for the spring. Lewis was slated to be a starting tackle last season, but an injury to the same knee that is dinged now cost him his entire 2010. Jack Cornell looks to fill out the starting unit after starting in five games last season. Overall, it's an experienced group with a good history of moving defensive fronts backwards.

8. Michigan State

Starters: Joel Foreman (LG), Chris McDonald (RG)

Possible Starters/Backups: David Barrent, Nate Klatt, Jared McGaha, Ethan Ruhland, Skyler Schofner, Fou Fonoti (JC), Donovan Clark (Fr.)

It's going to be an interesting few months for the Spartans, who are looking for three new starters on the offensive line. David Barrent, a 6'8” sophomore, has been given the first shot at left tackle, but the other spots are seemingly wide open. Nate Klatt, also a sophomore, looks like a good bet to win the center job. The right tackle spot should be a battle between Jared McGaha and incoming junior college lineman Fou Fonoti. Incumbent guards Joel Foreman and Chris McDonald are solid, but far from spectacular. Fortunately for the Spartans, they have enough talent in the backfield to make up for a portion of offensive line ineptitude.

9. Penn State

Starters: Quinn Barham (LT), Johnnie Troutman (OG), Chima Okoli (RT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Ty Howle, DeOn'tae Pannell, Mike Farrell, John Urschel, Eric Shrive, Donovan Smith (Fr.), Angelo Mangiro (Fr.)

The Nittany Lions are okay on the edges with returning starters Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but every other job is open. Johnnie Troutman started eleven games last year, but the staff hasn't exactly been thrilled with him. Add in a DUI in the offseason, and his spot is no longer promised to him.. Many are expecting redshirt freshman Ty Howle to be the starting center this year, but that can be a lot to ask of a young player. DeOn'tae Pannell will get his annual look on the offensive line, and per usual somebody else will move ahead of him by October. Donovan Smith and Angelo Mangiro are two highly-touted prospects who could find a spot somewhere. The staff is also waiting on former five-star tackle Eric Shrive to produce like his hype would have suggested. He played in just two games last season as a redshirt freshman.

10. Northwestern

Starters: Patrick Ward (RT), Ben Burkett (C), Brian Mulroe (LG), Al Netter (LT)

Possible Starters/Backups: Neal Deiters, Brian Smith, Colin Armstrong, Doug Bartels, Chuck Porcelli

The Wildcats return nine of ten in their offensive line two-deep from last season. Despite the experience, however, Al Netter is the only member of the line to have received any conference accolades last year, and that was just Honorable Mention All-Big Ten from the media. Guard Doug Bartels began the season as the team's right guard last season, starting the first three games, and he should get a long look at the same job again.  He already has 25 starts to his credit in his first three seasons. This is a resoundingly veteran unit, but one that is still searching for more tenacity and consistency. Yes, 90% of last year's offensive line returns, but this is also the same offensive line that gave up 40 sacks last year—which was 15 more than any other Big Ten team, and that's even with a short, controlled passing attack. And we haven't even gotten into the fact that the Wildcats had the second-worst yard-per-carry average in the conference last season.

11. Indiana

Starters: Andrew McDonald (LT), Aaron Price (LG), Will Matte (C), Justin Pagan (RG)

Possible Starters/Backups: Colin Rodkey, Pat McShane, Marc Damisch, Cody Evers, Bill Ivan, Peyton Eckert (Fr.), Gregory Lewis (Fr.), Bernard Taylor (Fr.), Ralston Evans (Fr.)

The Hoosiers return four starters from last year, and will have a solid group of blockers in 2011. As a unit, they only gave up 16 sacks last season, which was the second-best mark in the Big Ten. While no individual lineman received any All-Conference accolades, as a whole they were a fairly productive unit, and should be again. They'll never be great at run-blocking, but that has almost as much to do with a lack of talent at running back as anything. Colin Rodkey was the backup at both tackle spots last season, and might be the guy who fills the right tackle slot this year. Also, Marc Damish started a handful of games at right guard last season, so he could provide some depth. With a new offensive system in town, it's going to be up to the offensive line to get their team's best foot pointed forward.

12. Minnesota

Starters: Chris Bunders (LG)

Possible Starters/Backups: Ed Olson, Ryan Wynn, Jonathan Ragoo, Mark Lenkuewicz, Jimmy Gjere, Joe Bjorkland (Fr.), Tommy Olson (Fr.), Kyle McAvoy (Fr.), Luke McAvoy (Fr.), Foster Bush (Fr.), Josh Campion (Fr.)

Your guess is as good as Jerry Kill's right now. The Gophers are dealing with a new coach, yet another new system, and they'll have to do it with possibly an entirely new offensive line. Ryan Wynn was listed as the backup for every position on the offensive line except for left tackle at the end of last season, so he will likely find a spot on this line. Ed Olson was the backup at left tackle last year, and his brother, incoming freshman Tommy Olson, could factor in somewhere as well. Kill would like to redshirt four of his incoming freshmen, but knows that a couple are going to have to play this year. Fortunately, they have one of the more dynamic escape artists to block for in quarterback MarQueis Gray.


Rating the Big Ten Quarterbacks

Rating the Big Ten Running Backs

Rating the Big Ten Receivers

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