The offensive line in football is like no other position group in sports. Five men working as one, where no weak links can be afforded. And to build an appropriately competent offensive line, a program needs both outstanding recruiting and stellar development.
In the Big Ten West, however, the recruiting isn’t as easy to come by. It still happens, but the development is where the B1G West programs really shine.
This year is no different, as there are 3-star prospects finishing up multiple years of starting for their schools. Interestingly, however, recruiting is also picking up throughout the division, which is going to make things even more fun to watch in the coming years.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin probably has the best offensive line in the nation this year. They return all five starters, and four of them earned some type of individual accolades last season. Left tackle Michael Deiter and right guard Beau Benzschawel were both First-Team All-B1G selections. Right tackle David Edwards was a Second-Team All-American, and sophomore center Tyler Biadasz was Third-Team All-B1G last year. The black sheep of the family is junior left guard Jon Dietzen, who received no accolades for his play last season. He is entering his third season as a starter, however, so he is hardly an area of weakness. There are two other players here with starting experience and plenty of depth as well. The Badgers finished second in the B1G in rushing (223.9 yards per game) and yards per carry (4.96). They allowed just 1.5 sacks per game, which was tied for the best mark in the conference (Rutgers).
2. Purdue Boilermakers
There are 118 career starts along Purdue’s offensive line, but 40 of those belong to Western Kentucky transfer Dennis Edwards. Edwards is an interior lineman and could earn a job at any of the three spots on the inside. Senior Kirk Barron should again be the starter at center since he already has 25 starts there. Right guard Matt McCann started 10 games at right tackle in 2016, and right tackle just happens to be a position that needs to be filled. If Edwards — who transferred in May — can win the job at right guard, McCann would be able to kick back outside again. Due to an ACL tear by left tackle Grant Hermanns last year, two players started half the season at left tackle, so the experience there could also factor in at right tackle. The Boilermakers actually averaged more yards per carry in conference games (4.42) than non-conference games (4.37) last season. Sacks allowed went down in conference play as well. You can chalk that up to a difficult non-conference schedule (Louisville, Ohio, Missouri), or you can attribute it to players improving the more they’re around head coach Jeff Brohm.
3. Northwestern Wildcats
Four starters return for Northwestern, though only senior right guard Tommy Doles received All-Big Ten accolades (third team) last season. Doles has 25 starts to his credit. Senior left guard J.B. Butler has 18 career starts. Right tackle Rashawn Slater started 12 games last season as a true freshman, and senior left tackle Blake Hance has 34 career starts. Surrounding a new center is a massive amount of experience, and even the new center — should it be junior Jared Thomas — has four career starts under his belt. Statistically, the Northwestern offensive line is average all around. They were No. 8 in tackles for loss allowed in the Big Ten (73), No. 9 in sacks allowed per game (2.39), and No. 7 in yards per carry (4.22).
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Huskers return four starters along the offensive line, and those four players bring 59 career starts with them. It is going to be interesting to see the ebb and flow of each particular player as they progress or regress under new head coach Scott Frost and his offensive system. There is plenty here to work with, however. Sophomore left tackle Brenden Jaimes started eight games as a true freshman last season. Redshirt sophomore right tackle Matt Farniok started twice at right guard and twice at right tackle last season. Can he hold up all season long at right tackle? The interior — which features three seniors — returns 47 career starts. Left guard Jerald Foster received Honorable Mention All-B1G notice last year. He was the only Husker offensive lineman to receive any such accolades. Nebraska was dead last in rushing yards per game in conference play (96.8), but was second in tackles for loss allowed (4.78).
5. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa returns three starters on the offensive line, but the two losses are significant. Guard Sean Welsh was a First-Team All-B1G selection last year, and center James Daniels was a second-round draft pick. The Hawkeyes really only have three true tackles on the roster, but two of them are returning starters, which helps. Sophomore Alaric Jackson started 12 games last season and should be better this year. Fellow sophomore Tristan Wirfs started seven games at right tackle and one game at left tackle as a true freshman. Senior Keegan Render moves from guard (7 starts) to center and expectations are high that he will fit right in. Left guard is still up in the air. Junior Levi Paulsen looks like the right guard, but he missed spring ball. The Hawkeyes were middle of the road in sacks allowed last year, but 11th in the Big Ten in yards per carry (3.76). Both numbers need to improve if Iowa is going to challenge Wisconsin.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Five Gophers with starting experience return along the offensive line this year, but really only one of those players started consistently in one spot last year. In order to push those returning starters, and also to simply build the depth chart, head coach P.J. Fleck brought in seven offensive linemen in the 2018 recruiting class, including junior college prospect Jason Dickson. Where those players will end up is yet to be determined, and that could also be the case for the incumbents. Senior left guard Donnell Greene came from junior college himself and has started 19 games in his career. He was Honorable Mention All-B1G last year. Sophomores Conner Olson (RG/C) and Sam Schlueter (RT/LT) combined for 18 starts last year. Center Jared Weyler started six games last season but dealt with injuries. Despite the fluctuations and struggles to keep linemen healthy, the Gophers did finish third in the B1G in rushing (182.4), and that number only drops 11 yards in B1G play.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
All five starters return for Illinois, and four of those players are sophomores. Illinois started three true freshmen, one redshirt freshman, and one junior last year. The veteran — right guard Nick Allegretti — has starting experience at all three interior spots. He earned an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten nod last year. Doug Kramer won the center job as a redshirt freshman and now in his third year, he has to become a leader. There were obvious growing pains with such a young offensive line last season. Illinois finished 126th in the nation in sacks allowed (3.5), and that number jumped to 3.9 in conference play. The Illini allowed 7.3 tackles for loss per game, which was 119th in the country. Last year was a learning experience for the offensive line, so growth is expected this year. There really is nowhere else for them to go but up. Probably.
2018 Big Ten Ratings
Offensive Line — East |