Ranking the Big Ten Offensive Lines — Leaders Division
By Tony Gerdeman
It's not a great year for offensive linemen in the Big Ten. There are only three returning offensive linemen who received postseason accolades last season, and none were first team.
Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Nebraska's Spencer Long are the lone returning linemen who were thought enough of to be mentioned by either the coaches or the media.
That type of inexperience doesn't lend itself to accurate predictions, which is why this list will rely quite a bit on reputation and the promise of those waiting in the wings.
Keep in mind that only five teams are eligible to win the Leaders Division, and the offensive lines of all five of those teams are going to be integral in deciding who faces Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
One last thing to remember, Purdue is the only team in the Leaders Division that isn't replacing an offensive coordinator, and along with Indiana, the Boilers are also the only team not replacing their offensive line coach. Some of these new coaches will produce marked improvements, and some will come with a marked learning curve.
Starters: LT Ricky Wagner, C Travis Frederick
Possible Starters/Backups: Dan Voltz*, Robert Burge, Ryan Groy, Ray Ball, Rob Havenstein, Tyler Marz, Walker Williams*, Casey Dehn, Dallas Lewallen, Jake Meador*
The Badgers lose two All-Americans and an All-Big Ten performer, and yet they still manage to find themselves at the top of this list. Ricky Wagner will be the next first-round NFL draft pick for the Badgers. Travis Frederick was a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season and moves from guard to center where he started twice last season. Ryan Groy rounds out the left side at guard, which should be the best left side in the conference. Rob Havenstein is the likely right tackle where he started once and played in most every game last year. He was out for the spring, but is still the favorite to win the job. Walk-on Robert Burge held the top spot at right guard during the spring, and could end up keeping it. Wisconsin is an offensive line factory, and they will continue churning out product like it's no big deal.
5. Ohio State
Starters: RG Marcus Hall, LG Andrew Norwell, LT Jack Mewhort
Possible Starters/Backups: Corey Linsley, Jacoby Boren*, Reid Fragel, Taylor Decker*, Kyle Dodson*, Patrick Elflein*, Tommy Brown, Antonio Underwood, Darryl Baldwin, Joey O'Connor*, Chase Farris
The Buckeyes lose three starters from last year, but return players who have started their own fair share of games as well. Marcus Hall started the first five games at right guard last year as the line shuffled to make room for Mike Adams' suspension. With Hall and Andrew Norwell, the Buckeyes should be more than solid at guard. Corey Linsley will start at center and is the strongest player on the team. His mobility is also something that the coaches like. Jack Mewhort, always a versatile player, moves from guard to left tackle and will need to anchor this line for the next two seasons. Reid Fragel moves from tight end to right tackle, but he had some rough moments in the spring against OSU's stellar defensive ends. If he can't hold the job, it will be true freshman Taylor Decker, who received as many raves as anybody from the coaches this past spring. The depth will be manned by youth, but at least it's talented youth.
Starters: C Rick Schmeig, LG Peters Drey, LT Trevor Foy
Possible Starters/Backups: Justin Kitchens, Cody Davis, Robert Kugler, Henry Lorenzen, Devin Smith (JC), Kevin Pamphile, Jason King*, J.J. Prince*, Eric McDaniel, Jordan Roos*, Matt Hene, Josh Davis, Connor Snapp, Jack De Boef, Cameron Cermin
Purdue finished fifth in the Big Ten with 4.4 yards per carry last year, and if everybody stays healthy, they should be able to better that number. Presumed starters Justin Kitchens (RT) and Peters Drey were dealing with injuries during the spring, so while this Boilermaker offensive line could be one of their best in years, the coaches still haven't seen it in any type of full-tilt action. Coach Danny Hope has been effusive in his praise of various members of this line, but that's just his way. Rick Schmeig will set the tone at center. Drey was an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer in 2010, but succumbed to injuries last season. Junior Kevin Pamphile performed well in the spring and he seems to have locked up the right guard spot. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Robert Kugler, who moved from tight end to center. Hope has said he will be a great player and plans to play him some this year. If he's good enough, perhaps Schmeig will move over to make the interior even better. The tackles are still a question mark in pass blocking.
Starters: C Graham Pocic, LG Hugh Thornton, OT Michael Heitz
Possible Starters/Backups: Ted Karras, Simon Cvijanovic, Pat Flavin, Tony Durkin, Jake Feldmeyer, Tyler Sands, Joe Spencer*, Alex Hill, Chris Boles, Scott McDowell
Illinois returns three starters as well as two players who also got starts, but they were all part of a group that was 109th in sacks allowed last season. Graham Pocic was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2010 and will now be in his third season as a starter. Hugh Thornton has started games in each of his first three seasons, but has never started more than ten in a year. Michael Heitz, who was offered by Wisconsin, started nine games as a redshirt freshman last season. Simon Cvijanovic started four games last year at right tackle as a redshirt freshman, and looks to be the heir apparent there this year. It seems the lone question is at right guard, where a battle between redshirt freshman Ted Karras and senior Tyler Sands could last into the season. Overall, there is experience up the middle for the Illini, and youth on the edges. Fortunately, that youth got starting experience last year, but they still need to protect their quarterback better than they did in 2011.
9. Penn State
Starters: C Matt Stankiewitch
Possible Starters/Backups: Adam Gress, Donovan Smith, Miles Dieffenbach, John Urschel, Ty Howle, Luke Graham, Eric Shrive, Khamrone Kolb, Angelo Mangiro, Mark Arcidiacono, Mike Farrell, Ryan Nowicki, Anthony Stanko*, Nate Cadogan, Anthony Alosi, Kevin Blanchard
While Penn State returns only one starter from last year, the good news is that they have a pretty good idea of who their starting five are going to be this year. Matt Stankiewitch returns to man the middle, but he'll have question marks lining up on both of his shoulders in guards John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach. Dieffenbach didn't see the field as a redshirt freshman last season. Urschel saw action in eleven games as a reserve. Both Stankiewitch and the coaching staff like what they saw in the spring out of the two interior linemen. Adam Gress is slotted in at left tackle, and he's only played in six games in each of his first two seasons. Mike Farrell will likely be at right tackle. He appeared in ten games as a backup last year, though he did start once in 2010 as a sophomore. Overall, it's an inexperienced group, but the bulk of the linemen on this roster were highly-sought after recruits, so there is obviously promise here.
Starters: C Will Matte, RG Collin Rahrig, LG Bernard Taylor, RT Peyton Eckert
Possible Starters/Backups: Charlie Chapman, Bill Ivan, Wes Rogers*, Dimitric Camiel*, David Kaminski, Cody Evers, Jacob Bailey*, Ralston Evans, Dan Feeney*, Pete Bachman, Greg Lewis
Last year's Hoosier offensive line reached some landmarks that they hadn't seen in a while. For the first time since 2001, they rushed for 200 yards in three-consecutive conference games. They also posted their best rushing total (319 yards) against a conference opponent (Northwestern) since 2003. Yes, much of that was due to running back Stephen Houston, but you still have to give credit to the offensive line paving the way. Will Matte will be a four-year starter, and Collin Rahrig, Bernard Taylor and Peyton Eckert all return after starting as freshmen last year. Rahrig walked on and redshirted in 2010, and ended up starting eight games last year, including three at center. Eckert and Taylor both started as true freshmen as Kevin Wilson searched for anybody who could help. They still need to find another tackle in hopes of finishing better than last year's 91st in sacks allowed.
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