Rating the Big Ten - Offensive Line
By Tony Gerdeman
If a team has a great offensive line, they can get away with not having the most talented skill positions. In a conference like the Big Ten, an offensive line can cover over a host of ills. However, if an offensive line isn't up to snuff, then it often doesn't matter what kind of talent they have behind them.
When looking at what the Big Ten has returning on the offensive line, there is a lot to like. Every team returns at least two starters, with most returning three or four.
The winner of each Big Ten division will likely end up having one of the top four or five offensive lines in the conference. While that may eliminate quite a few teams in the ratings below, keep in mind that I have been known to be wrong...from time to time.
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes return four starters from last season, and together they have 92 career starts. Jack Mewhort (LT), Andrew Norwell (LG), Corey Linsley (C) and Marcus Hall (RG) are each All-Big Ten candidates. Norwell was a First-Team All-B1G player last year. Mewhort was on the second team, and Linsley was an honorable mention. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner claims Hall may be the most improved of the entire group. There is still a competition for the right tackle spot, but that will likely be won by six-foot-eight Taylor Decker. The depth should be solid as well, with three backups who got time with the first team in the spring.
2. Penn State
The Nittany Lions return three starters: Donovan Smith (LT), Miles Dieffenbach (LG), and John Urschel (RG). Urschel was a First-Team All-Big Ten player. Dieffenbach was a second teamer. Smith started nine games as a redshirt freshman and could really blossom this season. The two open spots should be manned by Adam Gress (RT), who started three games last season, and Ty Howle (C), who started once. Howle had a very good spring, prompting some teammates to say they don't anticipate missing All-Big Ten center Matt Stankiewitch. There are also a few former high school All-Americans providing depth.
The Huskers return three starters from last season and nine letter-winners. Right guard Spencer Long is an All-Big Ten performer, and right tackle Jeremiah Sirles (Second-Team All-Big Ten) is entering his third season as a starter. Left tackle Brent Qvale also returns. Cole Pensick is the likely starter at center, and Jake Cotton should fill in at left guard. Pensick started twice last season, and he is a senior, so he shouldn't be overwhelmed. There is also Andrew Rodriguez, a senior who has eight career starts at tackle.
4. Michigan State
The Spartans return a ton of starting experience on the offensive line, and that's even with the possible retirement of starting right tackle Skyler Burkland due to injury. Fou Fonoti (T) and Travis Jackson (C), both starters, return after having their seasons drastically shortened by injuries last year. They are back now and will provide the Spartans with some necessary experience. Starter Dan France returns as well, and he could end up at either guard or tackle. Jack Allen (G/C) started 12 games last season and was named a Freshman All-American. Blake Treadwell has 10 career starts and will also be in the mix at guard. New offensive line coach Jim Bollman has a lot to work with.
With three returning starters, the Badgers start off on a good foot in 2013. Left guard Ryan Groy was a Second-Team All-Big Ten honoree last season, and depending on how things go, he could end up at the vacated left tackle spot. Right guard Kyle Costigan returns, as does right tackle Rob Havenstein. These three players will be playing under their fourth offensive line coach in three seasons. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz will take over at center. He had a solid spring and has a ton of promise, but his next game will also be his first game. Dallas Lewallen, a redshirt junior, is the top candidate for left tackle. There isn't much experienced depth.
If everything goes as planned, the Hawkeyes could very well end up with one of the top offensive lines in the Big Ten. They paved the way for an average group of running backs to be dominating at times last year. Starting tackles Brandon Scherff (LT) and Brett Van Sloten (RT) return, and Scherff is an All-Conference possibility. Austin Blythe started at guard last year, but has been moved to center. Andrew Donnal started in three of his seven games last season before being lost to injury. He should win one of the open guard spots. There are 14 scholarship linemen on the Hawkeyes roster, so they should also be able to find a second guard to pair with Donnal.
The Hoosiers gave up just one sack for every 31.8 pass attempts last season, which was the best mark in the Big Ten. They lose center Will Matte, but still return five linemen with significant starting experience. Left tackle Jason Spriggs and right guard Dan Feeney started as true freshmen, and were named Freshman All-Americans, as well as Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. Feeney didn't allow a sack last season. Bernard Taylor started the first half of the season at left guard before a season-ending injury. He was a Freshman All-American in 2011. Right tackle Peyton Eckert already has 18 career starts as a junior. Collin Rahrig stepped in when Taylor was injured, and now he's moved to center, where he played well this spring.
The Wolverines return starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, but they will need to find three new starters on the interior. Lewan is an All-American, and most feel he is the best lineman in the Big Ten. Schofield has two years of starting experience under his belt, but has yet to even merit Honorable Mention All-Conference status. Redshirt freshmen Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis are the popular bets at the guard spots. Redshirt sophomore Jack Miller is the likely starter at center. Brady Hoke has recruited well on the offensive line, and he is going to need that recruiting to begin paying off.
Minnesota allowed the fourth-fewest sacks per game in the conference last season (1.62). They return four starters from that offensive line, as well as a number of players who could push the incumbents. The Gophers dealt with injuries all last season, which has now given them a lot of experienced linemen. The injuries continued in the spring, and so did the shuffling of the offensive line. How the line looked in the spring may not resemble the line in the fall. Left guard Zac Epping and right tackle Josh Campion each started 13 games last season, and both are expected to solidify the shifting nature of the Gopher offensive line. Ohio State transfer Brian Bobek is also eligible now and will get a look at center.
The Boilermakers return three starters on the offensive line, though guard Robert Kugler moves to center. He had a very solid spring, and even though he's only a sophomore, Darrell Hazell considers him a leader. Both tackles return, as Kevin Pamphile and Justin Kitchens are each back for one final go-round. They will need to find a pair of guards to round out the line, and given Hazell's love of the running game, it's critical that they don't come up empty. Hazell only brought in one offensive linemen in his first recruiting class, so whatever they are going to do with the line will have to come from those already on campus.
Northwestern returns two starters, though one of them will be playing a new position. Center Brandon Vitabile will continue to anchor the offensive line in the middle, while Jack Konopka most likely moves from the right tackle spot he manned last year, to left tackle. Other than that, however, the rest of the jobs are open. The Wildcats had to deal with numerous injuries this spring, so they didn't get as good a look as they would have liked from their possibilities. There are high hopes for Shane Mertz, who is battling for the right tackle spot. At 6-8 and 313 pounds, those are really the only type of hopes allowed. There are four or five candidates for the two open guard spots. It's not ideal, but things should be fine.
Until we see differently, it's almost impossible to give any Illinois offensive unit the benefit of the doubt. Last season was just devastatingly disastrous. That being said, the Illini return three starters from last season. Of course, last season's offensive line gave up over three sacks per game, so enjoy those grains of salt. Tackles Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz return, as does Ted Karras (LG). The story to watch, however, is at right tackle, where Corey Lewis was granted a sixth year of eligibility. He missed all of 2010 and 2011, and all but two games in 2012 due to three torn ACLs. Alex Hill (C) started once last year and provided depth all season long.
B1G Receivers and Tight Ends
B1G Running Backs
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