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2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Offensive line (part two)

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the best offensive linemen in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have had the most success in previous years. Part One of our offensive line rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top 10 offensive linemen. If you have not had the chance to read it yet, I recommend that you do so before proceeding. Read it? Great! Let’s unveil who will be the five best offensive linemen in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two.
Offensive Line: Part One.

5. Jack Allen, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’2”, 300 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 12 13
2011 0 0
Career Totals 24 25
(Mark Cunningham, Getty Images)

(Mark Cunningham, Getty Images)

Wretched. There really is no other adjective to describe Michigan State’s offense in its first two games of the 2013 season. Actually, that is untrue. Pitiful, woeful, pathetic, and dismal would have worked just fine, too. It was almost as if the Spartans’ offense had forgotten that its purpose was to gain yards and score more points than its opponent. In those first two contests, Michigan State faced two dregs of the FBS in Western Michigan and South Florida—teams that combined for a 3-21 record last season. They were awful in all facets of the game. And, yet, MSU’s offense could muster only an average of 281 total yards per game, 3.99 yards per play, and 9.5 points per game against them. It was so deplorable, in fact, that Michigan State’s defense actually outscored its offense in these first two weeks, 28-19. These offensive performances—or lack thereof—sent Spartans fans into a worried tizzy.

In Michigan State’s third game against Youngstown State, the offense began to remember what it was supposed to do on the football field, tallying 547 total yards and 55 points. These numbers may have been compiled only against an FCS opponent, but it certainly was a step in the right direction after the appalling displays seen in the first two weeks. Much of the credit for this offensive turnaround was assigned to quarterback Connor Cook, who replaced Andrew Maxwell and made his first career start against Youngstown State. Cook undoubtedly was worthy of some of this praise as Michigan State thereafter discovered its offensive identity, running its way through the Big Ten to a Rose Bowl victory. But there is another Spartan who deserves credit for MSU’s offensive 180. In fact, he may be more responsible for the turnaround that initiated in the third week than Cook. His name is Jack Allen.

Allen, who started 12 of 13 games and was named a Freshman All-American by media outlets in 2012, was penned as the starting center for the 2013 season. However, he was sidelined for the first two contests against Western Michigan and South Florida with turf toe. It was not until the third week against Youngstown State when Allen made his season debut. Is it a coincidence that Michigan State’s offensive U-turn just so happened to occur right when Allen returned to the gridiron? I think not.

Allen’s inclusion in the starting lineup transformed Michigan State’s offensive line into one of the best in the Big Ten. One reason why Cook always looked so poised and collected in the pocket was because the offensive line kept his jersey free of grass stains. The Spartans finished in the top 20 nationally in both sacks allowed per game (1.21) and sacks-allowed rate (4.10 pct.). Allen’s pass blocking provided Cook copious amounts of time to go through his progressions and make the correct read.

Allen’s run blocking was not too shabby either. Michigan State’s rushing attack may not have averaged many yards per carry—only a middle-of-the-pack 4.28—but it was not predicated on efficiency. The Spartans wanted to line up in power formations and run it down the defense’s throat over and over again. And that is what they did with Allen’s assistance. Allen repeatedly opened holes for running back Jeremy Langford, springing Langford to a 1,422-yard, 18-touchdown campaign.

For Allen’s efforts and production, he was placed on the All-Big Ten second team by the media and received an honorable mention from the coaches. He has received further recognition entering the 2014 season. Not only was Allen named to the Rimington Trophy—which is given to the nation’s best center—preseason watch list, he was anointed to Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten first team. None of this should be a shock. Barring injury, Allen will be the Big Ten’s best center in 2014.

4. Jack Conklin, Michigan State | RS Sophomore – 6’6″, 330 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 14
2012 0 0
Career Totals 13 14
(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

The foregoing sections explains how Jack Allen was the most important offensive lineman to Michigan State’s success last season and that he will be the best center in the Big Ten this fall. But it does not insinuate that Allen will be Michigan’s best offensive lineman for a second straight season. There is another Spartan who has been lost in the shadows throughout his career. Next season, though, he will have no choice but to emerge into the spotlight and become an elite offensive tackle in the Big Ten. Say, “Hello,” to Jack Conklin.

Just two years ago, despite having the physical attributes that college coaches want from offensive line prospects, Conklin did not field a single scholarship from an FBS program. Not one. In fact, a quick peek at Conklin’s 247 Sports profile reveals that he did not receive a single star from any of the four major recruiting services. He was a consensus zero-star recruit. It was not because he underwhelmed on the football field; Conklin dominated the opposition. It was because recruiters and scouts were unsure how to gauge these performances when he was punishing only players who were a foot shorter and at least 100 pounds less than him. Conklin was a victim of the vastly inferior high school competition he faced. With no scholarship offers in tow entering the spring of 2012, Conklin was on the verge of heading to prep school for one last chance to finally seize the attention of an FBS program. Then, Michigan State called.

Head coach Mark Dantonio offered Conklin a spot on Michigan State’s roster for the 2012 season with a promise that he would be on scholarship no later than the following January. Conklin accepted the offer enthusiastically and went to work in East Lansing immediately. He redshirted his first season at Michigan State, as most offensive linemen do, but MSU’s coaches realized they might have found a true gem as they watched him practice on the scout team.

When the 2013 season rolled around and Conklin was eligible to play, he was thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle for the Spartans’ first three games before starting the final 10 contests at left tackle. The only game Conklin did not start was at Notre Dame—MSU’s only loss of the season. Conklin thrived immediately on the gridiron. As a redshirt freshman, he was the starting left tackle for an offensive line that was one of the best in the Big Ten. Michigan State’s offensive numbers were discussed already in Allen’s section, so there is no need to rehash them here. But there is one statistic that must be stated: Conklin did not allow a single sack in his 13 starts last season. His remarkable first season earned him a spot on many Freshman All-American teams.

In 2014, much more will be expected of Conklin. Michigan State lost three starters on the offensive line, leaving Conklin and Allen as the only holdovers. Although the new starters are not completely green, the Spartans will need Conklin to develop into a leader at left tackle. They need him to be one of the best left tackles in the conference. Conklin has the benefit of having played only one season thus far. As a player who is entering only his redshirt sophomore season, there still is more room for Conklin to grow—a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten. Relying on the chip that he has on his shoulder, Conklin should develop into one of the best tackles in the Big Ten this season. This is why Phil Steele has him on his preseason All-Big Ten second team. It is also why Conklin finally will have the attention he has wanted for so long and deserves.

3. Jason Spriggs, Indiana | Junior – 6’7”, 307 lbs.
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 12 12
Career Totals 24 24
(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

To continue the theme of underrated Big Ten offensive linemen who have not received their fair share of credit, let’s study Indiana’s Jason Spriggs. Like most of Indiana’s recruits, Spriggs was a generic three-star recruit who received little to no hype. Other than the Hoosiers, Spriggs only reported offers were from schools in the MAC. So he had a choice: Indiana or the MAC? For a high school kid raised in the Hoosier State, it was an easy selection.

It did not take very long for Spriggs to make his presence known in Bloomington. Whereas most offensive linemen redshirt their freshman season to develop physically, Spriggs started as a true freshman in Indiana’s season opener in 2012. In fact, he started in all 12 games, setting a school true freshman record for an offensive lineman. And Spriggs demonstrated why there was no need for him to redshirt. In 961 snaps, he led the team with 80 knockdowns and surrendered just two sacks. Further, he was a starting tackle for an offense that led the conference in passing yards per game (311.2), was second in total yards per game (442.0), and fourth in scoring offense (30.8). Spriggs’ impressive debut was rewarded with Freshman All-American nods and an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team.

However, it was last season when Spriggs really bloomed, even if few others took notice. The Hoosiers had one of the most explosive offenses in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. Nationally, Indiana finished 16th in scoring offense (38.4), ninth in total offense (508.5), 30th in rushing offense (201.8), and 17th in passing offense (306.7). IU was one of only six schools to rank in the top 30 in all four of these categories. It was a record-setting season for the Indiana offense. And it could not have been done without Spriggs solidifying the line in all 12 of his starts at left tackle. The Hoosiers were a team that preferred airing out the football to grinding it out on the ground. Yet, Indiana ranked 15th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in sacks-allowed rate, allowing a sack on only 3.93 percent of IU’s drop backs. If one of the main responsibilities a left tackle has is to protect his quarterback’s blind side, then there are very few left tackles who executed their job better than Spriggs in 2013.

This fall, Indiana will transition from a two-quarterback, hybrid offense to a full passing spread with quarterback Nate Sudfeld after dual-threat quarterback Tre Roberson transferred. In all likelihood, the Hoosiers will drop back to pass even more this year than they did last season. Accordingly, Indiana will rely even more upon Spriggs to hold down the left side of the offensive line in pass protection. The great news for Indiana is that all of the starting offensive linemen from last season return, so Spriggs will not need to worry about building new chemistry. His comfort level will be at an all-time high. This, coupled with the talent Spriggs had displayed in 24 starts in two seasons, should allow Spriggs to contend for a slot on the All-Big Ten first team in 2014.

2. Rob Havenstein | 5th-yr Senior – 6’8”, 327 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 14 14
2011 1 13
2010 0 0
Career Totals 28 40
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Wisconsin right guard Kyle Costigan was included in this top-10 list of who will be the best offense linemen in the Big Ten in 2014. He was ranked at No. 9 in Part One yesterday. But Costigan will not even be the best player on the right side of Wisconsin’s offensive line. Right tackle Rob Havenstein will be. To start, Havenstein is one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the conference. He has participated in 40 games in his career, starting 28 of them and 27 in the past two seasons. Because of this experience, we know what to expect from Havenstein in 2014. And what we expect is for Havenstein to be the one of the best road graders in the conference.

In Havenstein’s two full seasons as Wisconsin’s starting right tackle, the Badgers have pulverized opponents into submission with their ground game. Running behind Havenstein, Wisconsin averaged 236.4 rushing yards per game in 2012 and 283.8 yards per game in 2013. Both of these averages were among the 15 best nationally each year. Wisconsin’s rushing offense was so productive because of its explosiveness. Last season, the Badgers averaged 6.62 yards per carry, which was the second-best in the nation. Speedy running backs Melvin Gordon and James White played a huge role in generating these averages, but they needed the space to make their cuts past defenders. This burden fell on Havenstein, and he delivered. Havenstein did more than move the line of scrimmage a yard or two. Rather, he escorted defensive linemen completely out of the picture, which allowed Gordon to dazzle and dance. Without Havenstein, Wisconsin likely would not have had two 1,400-yard rushers last season.

What makes Havenstein such a devastating run blocker is his size. Listed at 6’8” and 327 pounds, Havenstein is the largest offensive lineman in terms of height and weight in these rankings. And the mind-blowing thing is that he has lost 53 pounds in Madison just to get to his “svelte” 327 pounds. Havenstein uses his size and body mass well to get under a defensive lineman’s shoulder pads and drive him backwards. Opposing defensive ends have tried countlessly to thwart Havenstein’s run blocking, but very few have succeeded. And the ones who have not succeeded? They generally find themselves on their back.

However, any man who sheds 53 pounds to reach a current playing weight of 327 pounds probably does not have much speed, agility, or lateral quickness. Accordingly, Havenstein has had issues with his pass blocking. Although Wisconsin finished 17th nationally in sacks allowed per game, it was only because Wisconsin attempted so few passes. In actuality, the Badgers’ pass blocking was only mediocre as its sacks-allowed rate of 5.23 percent was only the 54th-best in the nation. Until Havenstein can drop a few more pounds and increase his lateral quickness, defensive ends will continue to utilize the speed rush to beat Havenstein to the outside.

But this is why Havenstein plays right tackle and not left tackle. While the right tackle should still be adequate in pass protection, which Havenstein is, the right tackle’s main job is to pave the path for the running backs. Only one person in the Big Ten does it better than Havenstein. Consequently, Phil Steele named him to his preseason All-America fourth team and All-Big Ten first team. With potential Heisman contender Gordon and three starting offensive linemen returning, including Costigan, Havenstein should be the best offensive lineman for one of the best rushing attacks in the country yet again.

1. Brandon Scherff, Iowa | 5th-yr Senior – 6’5”, 320 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 7 7
2011 3 10
2010 0 0
Career Totals 23 30
(AP)

(AP)

Every single season, the Big Ten seems to have at least one offensive lineman who will be drafted in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. Michigan’s Taylor Lewan in 2014. Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick in 2013. Iowa’s Riley Reiff and Wisconsin’s Kevin Zeitler in 2012. Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi in 2011. Iowa’s Bryan Bulaga in 2010. Do you see where this is going? This year, no one will need to look very hard to find the next Big Ten offensive lineman who will be a sure-fire first-rounder. All one needs to do is glance over at Iowa City to find left tackle Brandon Scherff—a projected top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman bar none.

Scherff has the entire package as a prototypical NFL left tackle. At 6’5” and 320 pounds, he has the size. With 23 starts at left tackle under his belt, he has the experience. But, most importantly, Scherff has demonstrated that he excels at both run blocking and pass blocking, which cannot be said for most of the offensive tackles in the Big Ten. To see just how impressive Scherff is as a road grader, one has to look at much more than just Iowa’s rushing stats. The Hawkeyes tend to pound the football with heavy, power formations. With so many players scrunched up next to the ball before it is snapped, there is less of an opportunity for Iowa’s running backs to break into the open field. Accordingly, Iowa’s yards per carry suffer. But one look at Scherff run blocking on film is all one needs to see how dominant he is.

Scherff may be an even better pass-blocker than run-blocker, too. As the left tackle, Scherff must have the lateral quickness, agility, and strength to compete against the opponent’s best pass-rushers. Yet, very few of them have been able to reach the Iowa quarterback with Scherff standing post on the blind side. In 2013, Scherff’s only full season as a starter, Iowa allowed the fewest sacks per game (1.15) in the conference. Further, even after adjusting for Iowa’s tendency to run the football, the Hawkeyes finished 12th nationally and led the Big Ten in sacks-allowed rate (3.61 pct.). If opposing defenses want to bring down Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock in 2014, they should try to take a different approach than attack Scherff.

As the anchor of what should be a splendid Iowa offensive line next season, Scherff should add to the collection of awards, honors, and accolades he earned in 2013. He already has been named to Phil Steele’s preseason All-America second team and All-Big Ten first team. Scherff will contend for first-team All-American honors and be a heavy favorite for the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award—given to the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman. Scherff also will have a fantastic opportunity to be a finalist for the Outland Trophy—given to the nation’s best offensive lineman. All of these honors are within Scherff’s grasp. And then he will take his talents to the NFL, where he will be one of the first players selected in 2015, just like the Big Ten’s best offensive linemen before him.

Do you agree with our list? Or did we get it wrong? Will Iowa’s Brandon Scherff be the best offensive lineman in the Big Ten next season? Or will someone else surprise the conference and overtake him? Please tell us your thoughts by leaving comments below. With this post published, we have completed our rankings of who will be the best Big Ten players at each offensive position. Next week, we will transition to the other side of the ball by rankings the best defensive linemen.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Offensive line (part one)

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

This is the fifth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten football players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends have been covered. This week, I rank the last offensive position: offensive linemen. Here is Part One:

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two.
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two.

10. Kaleb Johnson,  Rutgers | Senior – 6’4”, 305 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 13 13
2011 11 11
Career Totals 37 37
Kaleb Johnson

(ScarletKnights.com)

If one was to say that the Rutgers offensive line struggled mightily last season, that person still would be sugarcoating it. Rutgers’ offensive line faltered in all facets of run and pass blocking. The Scarlet Knights managed to post only 129.5 rushing yards per game and 3.70 rushing yards per carry. These averages ranked 100th and 98th in the nation, respectively. Additionally, the offensive line allowed 46 tackles-for-loss, excluding sacks. This means Rutgers lost yardage on 11 percent of its running plays. Yikes. Pass blocking was not much better either. Opposing defenses broke through the line to sack Rutgers’ quarterback 2.69 times per game and 7.28 percent of the time. These were ranked 102nd and 90th in the nation, respectively. It does not matter how one tries to shake it down. The message is clear: Rutgers had one of the worst offensive lines nationally in 2013.

So how in the world did Rutgers’ left guard Kaleb Johnson crack this list? Well, if anyone will understand how Johnson finds himself here, it would be Michigan fans. In 2013, fans of the Wolverines saw Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan, who later would be drafted with the 11th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, anchor arguably the worst offensive line in school history. Lewan was not at fault, though. The majority of the blame fell to the underwhelming performances of the interior linemen. No matter how talented Lewan was, his talent alone was not enough to compensate for the deficiencies of his fellow linemen.

Johnson found himself in a similar situation last season, too. Johnson is not as talented as Lewan, who was considered to be the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman last year, but he is no slouch either. Johnson has started 37 games in his career, including 11 as a true freshman, and has showcased his versatility with starts at both tackle spots and left guard. While it is nice to be versatile, it is more important to good. And Johnson is good. He has the accolades to prove it. In 2011, he was named a Freshman All-American as a right tackle. The following season, he flipped over to left tackle and was placed on the All-Big East second team. Then, last season, he moved inside to left guard and, once again, earned second-team honors—this time in the AAC. Johnson also contemplated leaving Rutgers early and declaring for the NFL Draft as a projected fourth- to seventh-round pick, but opted to return for his senior season. And Johnson did all of this despite being a member of a putrid Rutgers offensive line.

Not much should change in 2014 when Johnson makes his Big Ten debut. Rutgers returns its entire starting offensive line from last season. While continuity along the offensive line generally yields positive results, it is unclear if this will be the case for the Scarlet Knights given last year’s issues. But Johnson will be a stud whether or not his fellow returning linemen improve. Phil Steele named Johnson to his preseason All-Big Ten first team for 2014, and Johnson remains a projected NFL Draft selection for 2015. So, when the Scarlet Knights’ offense takes the field, keep an eye out for Johnson at left guard because he likely will be one of the two best offensive guards in the Big Ten this fall.

9. Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin | 5th-yr Senior – 6’5”, 315 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 12 13
2012 9 12
2011 0 3
2010 0 0
Career Totals 21 28
(Scout.com)

(Scout.com)

The top offensive guard in the Big Ten will be Wisconsin’s Kyle Costigan. This would have seemed ludicrous a tad more than two years ago. When he enrolled at Wisconsin, Costigan was not even an offensive lineman. Instead, he began his collegiate career as an unheralded defensive tackle. Costigan competed in only three games at the position as a redshirt freshman in 2011 before he suffered a season-ending foot injury. However, when he returned the following spring, Costigan switched over to the offensive line. He impressed the coaching staff as a right guard and took hold of the starting job four games into the 2012 season. The rest is history.

Costigan has been a key cog of a dominant Wisconsin offensive line the past two seasons. He started 21 of 27 possible contests. He missed three starts as a backup early in 2012 and another three due to injury thereafter. During this stint, Costigan has proven to be a splendid run blocker and helped Wisconsin deploy a lethal rushing attack. In 2012, the Badgers averaged 236.4 yards per game—the 13th-best nationally—and 5.21 yards per carry—the 18th-best nationally. Last season, Wisconsin upped these averages despite the departure of Heisman contender Montee Ball to the NFL. In fact, Wisconsin ranked in the top 10 for both rushing yards per game (283.8) and rushing yards per carry (6.62). It did not hurt the Badgers that few of its running plays failed to gain positive yardage. Only 8.9 percent of them ended behind the line of scrimmage. Although the talent Wisconsin had at running back played a significant role in producing these figures, they never would have had the room to run without Costigan.

There are still two worries about Costigan’s play, though. First, Costigan has room to improve his pass blocking. Last season, Wisconsin’s protection of its quarterback was just so-so. The Badgers allowed a sack 5.23 percent of the time they dropped back to pass—54th in the nation. Offensive tackles may be more responsible for the quarterback’s well-being, but Costigan is not free from blame. He must be better in 2014. Second, Costigan has been hampered by injuries. He has played through considerable pain after dislocating his right kneecap two seasons ago. He admitted there is permanent damage that will never be repaired. This is why he is projected not to be an NFL Draft pick in 2015. Scouts fear his leg would not endure more than a few seasons. But it should last this season, and, accordingly, Costigan likely will be the best offensive guard in the conference.

8. Brandon Vitabile, Northwestern | 5th-Yr Senior – 6’3”, 300 lbs.
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 13 13
2011 13 13
2010 0 0
Career Totals 38 38
(Matthew Holst, Getty Images)

(Matthew Holst, Getty Images)

Brandon Vitabile is one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the Big Ten. This season, Vitabile will have the opportunity to join the select club of offensive linemen with 50 career starts under their belt. It is a rare milestone because not many offensive linemen can complete the transition from high school to college quick enough—physically and mentally— to break into the starting lineup as a true or redshirt freshman and then remain healthy throughout their career. Yet, Vitabile has done just this. In the spring prior to his redshirt freshman season in 2011, Vitabile impressed the coaches so much that they moved three-year starting center Ben Burkett to offensive guard to accommodate him at center. Vitabile has not missed a start since in three seasons, earning 38 straight. Thus, if he starts every contest this fall, Vitabile will have no less than 50 career starts and cross the notable threshold.

Vitabile has the opportunity to accomplish this feat because he has proven himself to be one of the best centers in the Big Ten. Prior to the 2012 season, Vitabile was named to the preseason watch list for Rimington Award—given to the nation’s best center—as a redshirt sophomore. It did not take long for him to demonstrate that he deserved to be on that list. He was the stalwart of one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten. The Wildcats finished fourth in the conference in rushing yards per game (225.5) and yards per carry (4.93), assisting running back Venric Mark in registering a 1,366-yard, 12-touchdown season. Plus, Vitabile and his fellow linemen allowed the fewest sacks per game among Big Ten schools (1.23) and allowed a sack on only 3.80 percent of Northwestern’s drop backs—second-best in the conference. Vitabile’s sophomore campaign could not have been much better.

However, Vitabile’s junior campaign could not have been much worse in 2013. This was not because Vitabile’s performance declined. His individual performance was just as solid as it was in 2012. In fact, it was even better. Last season, Vitabile received honorable mention on the All-Big Ten teams by the coaches and the media. Rather, his junior campaign could not been much worse because, no matter how well Vitabile played, his teammates on the offensive line constantly erred. And, as we learned while discussing Rutgers’ Kaleb Johnson and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, no individual can be an entire offensive line by himself. Unfortunately, for Vitabile and Northwestern, the Wildcats’ ranking in categories like rushing yards per carry and percentage of sacks allowed plummeted. And there was nothing Vitabile could do about it.

For the upcoming season, there still are many lingering questions about Northwestern’s offensive line. But Vitabile is not one of them. He will be the rock of the Wildcats’ offensive line for the fourth straight season. Accordingly, he has been named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award for the third straight year and to Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten second team. Further, NFL scouts project Vitabile to be the fifth-best center for the 2015 NFL Draft. So, even if the rest of Northwestern’s line continues to struggle and make mistakes, know that Vitabile will be doing all he can in the middle as one of the Big Ten’s best two centers.

7. Donovan Smith, Penn State | RS Junior – 6’5”, 322 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 11 12
2012 9 10
2011 0 0
Career Totals 20 22
(Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

(Justin K. Aller, Getty Images)

Penn State’s left tackle Donovan Smith should be the most intriguing Big Ten offensive lineman to watch next season. Smith appears to be the perfect—and popular—sleeper pick to enter the upper echelon of the conference’s linemen. He has the physical attributes at 6’5” and 322 pounds. Although two more inches would do him wonders, he still is a big boy that defenders have problems circumventing. His size allows him to excel at pass blocking, even if Penn State’s protection of its quarterback was only average last year. Smith also has the experience. He has picked up 20 starts at left tackle in his first two seasons on the gridiron. And Smith has the accolades. He was a four-star recruit in high school. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, he was selected to at least one Big Ten All-Freshman team. He then followed that up by receiving honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team by both the coaches and media as a redshirt sophomore. It would seem Smith has the potential to make the All-Big Ten first team next year.

Yet, there are a few red flags that must be accounted for before Smith is anointed as one of the Big Ten’s best. First, Smith’s run blocking must be more consistent. There are times when Smith flashes what he is capable of, like when he bottled up Nebraska’s Randy Gregory—a projected top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft—last season. But there are also times when he loses focus and fails to use the proper technique, which results in him not driving opposing defensive linemen off the line of scrimmage. With the proper technique, Smith could be a beast at run blocking given his size.

Second, Smith must cope with lots of new personnel in Penn State’s offense in 2014. The biggest area of concern will be the Nittany Lions’ dearth of experienced offensive linemen. Smith will be the only healthy returning starter on the offensive line for Penn State. Originally, the Lions were supposed to have two returning starters, but left guard Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL in spring practice and will miss the entire year. It will be interesting to see how playing with four new starters on the line will affect Smith’s performance this season. Will it cause his performance to suffer as he tries to build chemistry with the fresh faces lined up next to him? Or will Smith still be able to perform at an All-Big Ten level even if his fellow linemen cannot live up to the standard set by last year’s starters? Plus, Smith will be adjusting to all of this while trying to learn new head coach James Franklin’s offense and schemes.

The best prediction is that Smith is still one year away from becoming an elite left tackle in the Big Ten. It just seems there will be too many obstacles preventing him from putting it all together and fulfilling his potential: lapses of concentration, flawed technique, inexperienced teammates on the offensive line, and a brand-new offensive system. Smith still will be one of the better left tackles in the conference and will display glimpses of what makes him so special. But All-Big Ten first team? Wait until 2015.

6. Taylor Decker, Ohio State | Junior – 6’7”, 315 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 14 14
2012 0 4
Career Totals 14 18
(Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch)

(Brooke Lavalley, Columbus Dispatch)

In last season’s opener against Buffalo, Taylor Decker made his first career start at right tackle for Ohio State. Yet, it was not the type of performance one dreams about when he imagines his first career start. Decker was converted into a turnstile for the afternoon as Buffalo’s Khalil Mack beat him not once, not twice, but three times for sacks. It was a shaky first start for Decker, and it worried Ohio State fans that Decker was not ready for the challenge.

However, we learned quickly that Mack—later selected with the fifth pick of the 2014 NFL Draft—was not a typical MAC-level player and that Decker definitely was ready for the challenge. Decker started all 14 games at right tackle for what was arguably the best offensive line in the Big Ten last season. The Buckeyes had the most efficient rushing attack in the nation. Ohio State averaged 308.6 rushing yards per game, which was the fifth-best in the nation. But, most importantly, no team in the nation averaged more yards per carry than the Buckeyes (6.80). Further, it was extremely rare for Ohio State to lose yardage when running the football. The offensive line allowed a tackle-for-loss on only 5.55 percent of Ohio State’s non-sack running plays, which was one of the best marks in the nation. Much of the credit for this production belongs to dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller and former running back Carlos Hyde, but a good chunk of it also belongs to Decker and his fellow offensive linemen.

Next season will be a different challenge for Decker, though. Decker’s four fellow starters on the offensive line last year all graduated, leaving him as the only holdover. Ohio State’s offensive line will be very inexperienced in 2014. Among the five projected starting linemen for the Buckeyes next season, there are 15 combined previous starts. Fourteen of those belong to Decker. And, yet, although Decker proved his mettle at right tackle, he will be flipping to left tackle, where he has no previous collegiate experience, for the 2014 campaign.

The biggest question about Decker is whether he has the ability to defend Miller’s blind side. Decker’s struggles versus Mack in the opener already have been noted, but the entire line underwhelmed at pass blocking last season. The Buckeyes allowed only 1.57 sacks per game, but this statistic is flawed because they did not drop back to pass very often. The truth is that Ohio State allowed a sack on 6.70 percent of its called passes, which was the 80th-best rate in the nation. Although some of these sacks were the result of Miller dancing around in the pocket and trying to make a play, this was a poor rate for a line with the experience Ohio State’s had last season. Can Decker—who is not the fastest or most agile offensive lineman—improve that sacks-allowed rate with the help of four brand-new starters? It seems dicey. This is why Decker—a talented run-blocker who is projected to be one of the first 10 offensive tackles selected in the 2016 NFL Draft—just missed the cut for the top five on this list.

So what do you think? Do you agree with the rank of the names on this list so far? Will a Michigan offensive lineman surprise everyone and become one of the Big Ten’s best in 2014? And who do you think will be in the top five? Please post your comments below as we will reveal tomorrow who will be the five best offensive linemen in the conference this upcoming season.

Countdown to kickoff: 60 days

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-60(Paul Sherman, The Michigan Daily)

Predicting Michigan: The offensive line

Monday, June 30th, 2014


Predicting Michigan-OL

Kyle-Kalis

Michigan’s offense was difficult to watch for much of the 2013 season as a normally-reliable Wolverine rushing attack imploded before vanishing from the offense by the middle of Big Ten play.

To compensate for the struggles on the ground, quarterback Devin Gardner was asked to drop back on more than half of the team’s snaps. Unfortunately for Gardner, he was almost never alone in the backfield. The middle of the offensive line was a sieve and turned the mobile quarterback into a proverbial tackling dummy.

Despite the group’s struggles, both tackles, Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, were selected in the 2014 NFL Draft, further weakening the unit and raising major question marks for Brady Hoke and his new-look offensive staff.

The Starters

Perhaps the brightest spot on Michigan’s offensive line comes in the form of two talented young guards. Sophomore left guard Kyle Bosch and redshirt sophomore right guard Kyle Kalis played a major role on the line last season and hope to solidify a group that lost its two leaders during the offseason.

Kalis had a breakout 2013 season, starting eight games and lining up with  Schofield to form a right side that largely held its own during the majority of the season. The redshirt sophomore is the strongest run blocker on the team and will play a huge role in turning around the running game.

Bosch blossomed much later in the campaign than Kalis, earning his first start against Michigan State because of his teammates’ struggles during the first half of the season. With the departure of Lewan from the left side, Bosch will have to improve his run blocking game, which was his calling card during high school.

In between the two strong guards Michigan returns center Jack Miller, who struggled for much of 2013 but started four games for Al Borges. Miller earned the starting spot after a strong offseason, and will likely start Week 1 while Graham Glasgow serves a one-game suspension for an offseason offense.

Michigan needs Miller to decrease his mental errors after he snapped the ball several yards over Gardner’s head and fumbled exchanges as a sophomore. Hoke hopes that a more focused offseason under Doug Nussmeier will eliminate many of the baffling mistakes that reared their ugly heads last season.

The departure of Lewan and Schofield leaves a mammoth-sized gap on either end of the offensive line, as the two seniors started all 13 games for Hoke last season. The left tackle position, which has seen the program produce two top-12 picks in the last decade, will likely be filled by redshirt sophomore Erik Magnuson.

Magnuson stormed onto the stage as a redshirt freshman, playing in 12 games and starting seven times as a guard. The sophomore admitted that he struggled with injuries throughout 2013 before a shoulder surgery sidelined him for this year’s spring game. Despite the medical concerns, Magnuson is the top candidate to succeed Lewan on the left side, as he owns the dominant run-blocking ability to carry the rushing attack.

Ben Braden figures to earn the nod at right tackle. The redshirt sophomore is the only projected starter to not have a career start to his name, but he came out of spring practice with the job, and at 6’6″, 319-pounds, has the body for the position.

Projected Starters
Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Erik Magnuson Kyle Bosch Jack Miller Kyle Kalis Ben Braden
2013 Starts 7 3 4 8 0
Career Starts 7 3 4 8 0

Veteran Depth

While Miller starts the opener, Graham Glasgow will be ready to replace him in Week 2 if he either wins the job in fall camp or Miller struggles. Glasgow is the only returning lineman that started every game last season and did well at center. But his natural position is guard, so Hoke and Nussmeier will be able to evaluate the Week 1 performance and either insert Glasgow into any of the three interior positions or hold onto him as a quality if-needed backup.

Nussmeier owns plenty of other options if his initial lineup falters early in the 2014 season. One of the strongest offensive line recruiting classes in recent memory brought four players to Ann Arbor last season that are ready to contribute as redshirt freshmen this fall. Former five-star Patrick Kugler is a potential breakout player to watch if Miller’s struggles continue at center and Glasgow is needed at guard. Kugler was one of the top linemen in the country to come out last season and his elite quickness equips him with the skills to start on the inside line.

Four-stars David Dawson, Logan Tuley-Tillman and Dan Samuelson also joined the rotation during the spring game and provide Nussmeier with critical depth on the line. Dawson is the mostly likely to join a regular rotation, as his pass blocking ability complements a group of linemen that were recruited to help the ground attack.

Newcomers

The only freshman that figures to play a significant role on the 2014 team is Mason Cole, who offers Nussmeier an elite pass blocker for his pro-style offense. Cole may already be the best pass protector on the team, and took first-team snaps at left tackle during the spring game. If Magnuson’s shoulder isn’t fully healed by the first game, Cole will likely get the nod at left tackle. Otherwise, he’ll be a top sub at tackle. Look for the freshman to make a splash despite the abundance of veteran options.

Check back on Wednesday and Thursday for Drew’s Big Ten offensive lineman rankings. Will any Michigan linemen make the list?

Countdown to kickoff: 61 days

Monday, June 30th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-61(John T. Greilick, Detroit News)

Countdown to kickoff: 65 days

Thursday, June 26th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-65

Countdown to kickoff: 67 days

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-67

Countdown to kickoff: 74 days

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-74(Melanie Maxwell, AnnArbor.com)

Countdown to kickoff: 78 days

Friday, June 13th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-78_edited-1

New in Blue: Offensive tackle Grant Newsome

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


Grant Newsome

Grant Newsome – OT | 6-7, 290 | Lawrenceville, N.J. – The Lawrenceville School
ESPN: 4-star, #25 OT Rivals: 4-star, #21 OT 247: 4-star, #22 OT Scout: 4-star, #20 OT
Other top offers: Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, S. Carolina, Wisconsin

On the heels of last week’s big announcement that USC running back Ty Isaac was transferring to Michigan, Brady Hoke picked up another big offensive talent in four-star offensive tackle Grant Newsome this morning. Despite holding offers from a number of major programs, including Alabama and LSU, Newsome narrowed his list down to two, Michigan and Penn State, and visited both last week. This morning, he tweeted a statement that announced that his decision had been made.

Newsome is ranked pretty similarly among the four recruiting services. All rate him a four-star and Scout ranks him the highest as the No. 20 offensive tackle, while ESPN has him the lowest at No. 25. As far as national rankings are concerned, 247 Sports ranks him the highest at No. 192, while Rivals has him at 199, Scout at 215 and ESPN at 235. They’re all pretty much in agreement about his size as well. Three of the four list him at 6’7″, while 247 has him an inch shorter. Rivals lists his weight as 280, but the other three have him at 290.

Scout lists Newsome’s strengths as explosion, feet, and size, and his areas for improvement as body control and balance, flexibility, and technique.

“Newsome is athletic, strong in pass protection and can get to the second level quickly in the running game,” wrote Scout’s Brian Dohn. “He is good drive blocking and does a nice job in pass protection. He has good length and is able to protect the edge, but does need to refine his technique. Newsome also gets to the second level quickly.”

Newsome is the second offensive lineman in Michigan’s 2015 class, joining Jon Runyan Jr., and is the seventh total commit in the class. With a heavy emphasis on recruiting linemen in the past few classes, Hoke will be able to give Newsome a redshirt and allow him to spend a couple of years learning the tricks of the trade before he’s thrown into action. That’s a good thing.

Michigan now has about eight scholarships remaining in the class, a number that could always go up between now and signing day, and should be set at offensive line.