Fourth in a series that goes position by position to rate the best players and units in the Southeastern Conference. Today: the offensive line.
Barrett Jones of Alabama is the best offensive lineman on the best offensive line in the SEC.
Florida coach Will Muschamp likes to say that the Southeastern Conference is a line of scrimmage league. Winning games begins with winning the line of scrimmage. While the SEC doesn't have the household names on its offensive lines, the league is stacked with big, physical types such as Alabama's Barrett Trotter, a junior who is as good as any offensive lineman in the nation. He is the best lineman on the SEC's best offensive line but there are plenty of other talented units out there.
Now that spring football is over, here is an early look at the offensive line position, rating by units and individually.
1. Kentucky: Kentucky might have lost its playmakers from 2010, but the Wildcats will might have the best offensive line they’ve had in years with four returning starters and a key backup from 2010 in the starting lineup. Three-year lettermen Chandler Burden and Stuart Hines are on the left side of the line with Matt Smith back as the starting center, flanked by massive Larry Warford. The only new face is Billy Joe Murphy at right tackle, but he’s lettered three years and can play either tackle or right guard. The Wildcats are breaking in a new starter at quarterback in Morgan Newton and there is nothing more pleasing to new man under center than an experienced offensive line that only gave up 19 sacks in 2010 and opened the holes for 158.5 yards per game rushing.
LT: Chandler Burden (6-4, 300, SR); LG: Stuart Hines (6-4, 296, SR); C: Matt Smith (6-4, 297, JR); RG: Larry Warford (6-3, 340, JR); RT: Billy Joe Murphy (6-6, 306, SR)
2. South Carolina: If the Gamecocks can find a right tackle who can get the job done, they will have one of the best O-lines in the SEC and maybe the best that Steve Spurrier has had in his time in Columbia. Last year while learning new schemes under first-year offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, the Gamecocks developed a nasty streak when it came time to run the ball as they improved from South Carolina ran for 154.4 yards per game after finishing dead last in the SEC the previous three years. The Gamecocks allowed 30 sacks but for every sack you can pin on the offensive line, there is one you can pin on Stephen Garcia and his questionable decision-making. Right guard Rokevious Watkins is a masher in the run game and center T.J. Johnson comes into the season with 27 consecutive starts. The Gamecocks are very confident with the left side of their line, Kyle Nunn and Terrence Campbell. The only question is right tackle where Cody Gibson is a talented freshman who needs some upper body weight.
LT: Kyle Nunn (6-5, 296, SR); LG: Terrence Campbell (6-3, 296, SR); C: T.J. Johnson (6-4, 314, SR); RG: Rokevious Watkins (6-4, 319, SR); RT: Cody Gibson (6-6, 282, FR)
3. Tennessee: There were times last season when Tennessee’s offensive line consisted of four true freshman and sophomore Dallas Thomas at left tackle. The Vols gave up 27 sacks last year and the offense struggled, especially in the first half of the season, but things figure to improve in 2011 with a year of experience and an added year in the weight room. Tennessee likes its tackle combination of Thomas and Ja’Wuan James, who started at right tackle as a true freshman. Center James Stone earned the starting job as a true freshman where he was flanked by Zach Fulton and sometime starter Jerquari Schofield. With its starting line pretty much intact, Tennessee figures to give more than adequate protection for sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray who can light it up when he has time to throw. If the line can protect Bray, Tennessee should have one of the more improved offenses in the SEC in 2011.
LT: Dallas Thomas (6-5, 301, JR); LG: Jerquari Schofield (6-6, 333, SO); C: James Stone (6-3, 307, SO) RG: Zach Fulton (6-5, 330, SO); RT: Ja’Wuan James (6-6, 324, SO)
4. Vanderbilt: The good news is that Vanderbilt returns a very experienced offensive line. The bad news is Vandy’s offense hasn’t been very productive in a long time (16.9 points per game last year). With new coach James Franklin and offensive line coach Herb Hand, there is a new philosophy and optimism that Vandy will actually be able to make the O-line a strength and move the football this year. The key for Vandy will be Wesley Johnson, who moves from tackle to center. If he can handle things in the middle of the line, then Vandy could be quite good. Guard Kyle Fisher (17 straight starts) could make some All-SEC teams.
LT: Ryan Seymour (6-4, 305, JR); LG: Jabo Burrow (6-4, 290, JR); C: Wesley Johnson (6-5, 280, S); RG: Kyle Fischer (6-6, 310, SR); RT: Caleb Weichans (6-5, 300, JR)
5. Georgia: For a team with so much experience on the offensive line, Georgia struggled in 2010. The Bulldogs averaged less than 400 yards of total offense and only 142.6 per game on the ground while giving up 24 sacks. Josh Davis, Tanner Strickland and Clint Boling are all gone from that line and Trinton Sturdivant, the talented left tackle who sat out last year with an ACL tear, tore the same ACL in the spring so he’s out. There are a couple of strong pieces to build upon in center Ben Jones and left tackle Cordy Glenn, but the Bulldogs are going to have to go with inexperience at the other three positions. Georgia has a mobile quarterback in Aaron Murray and he might need that escapability until the line gels.
LT: Cordy Glenn (6-5, 320, SR); LG: Justin Anderson (6-5, 342, SR); C: Ben Jones (6-3, 300, SR); RG: Kenarious Gates (6-5, 307, SO); RT: A.J. Harmon (6-5, 345, JR)
6. Florida: The Gators lose four starters from a line that never lived up to its potential and now the line has to be reshaped into a pro-style unit with players who were recruited for a spread option scheme. While protection was an issue last year, the Gators allowed only 21 sacks, which is fewer than teams like Alabama, Auburn and Arkansas allowed. Still, the Gators averaged only 351 yards per game so it’s fairly obvious that the line didn’t get the job done. Xavier Nixon started when he was healthy and Jon Halapio got several starts at right guard. For the first time in three years there will be a center not named Pouncey as Jonatthan Harrison takes over in the middle. Ian Silberman, who was recruited as a tackle will slide in at guard. The key to the line is oft-injured Matt Patchan, who will be shifted to right tackle if he’s healthy enough to play. If Patchan can go, then Florida’s line has a chance to be much improved.
LT: Xavier Nixon (6-6, 295, JR); LG: Ian Silberman (6-6, 290, RFR); C: Jonnathan Harrison (6-3, 300, RSO); RG: Jon Halapio (6-3, 300, RSO); RT: Matt Patchan (6-6, 295, RJR)
1. Alabama: Alabama’s offensive line is the best in the SEC and might be the best in the country. Four starters return including the two best linemen in the SEC --- Barrett Jones, an All-American who moved from right guard to left tackle, and center William Vlachos, a two-year starter who rates with the best in the country at his position. The other returning starters are left guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker, a future number one draft choice just biding his time in college until he can go pro. The other starter will be Alfred McCullough who has been around and played so much he might as well be a starter. Alabama averaged 5.1 yards per carry last year and while the offensive line gave up an uncharacteristic 27 sacks, the unit figures to be improved this year and will get some help because both A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims are more mobile that their predecessor, Greg McElroy.
LT: Barrett Jones (6-5, 311, JR); LG: Chance Warmack (6-3, 320, JR); C: William Vlachos (6-1, 294, SR); RG: Alfred McCullough (6-2, 311, SR); RT: D.J. Fluker (6-6, 335, SO)
2. Ole Miss: The largest offensive line in the SEC belongs to Ole Miss, which returns five starters who average 6-5-1/2, 326 pounds. Houston Nutt teams are going to run the football and these guys can definitely block in the running game. They have to improve their pass blocking (gave up 31 sacks last year) as the offense moves to a more conventional attack from last year’s spread that was an attempt to bring out the best in quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who transferred from Oregon. The Masoli experiment caused Nutt to throw that offensive scheme out the window for a more pro-style attack brought in by David Lee, who has always worked well with Nutt. The tackles --- Bobbie Massie and Bradley Sowell --- are right up there with Alabama’s Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker as the best in the SEC.
LT: Bobbie Massie (6-6, 325, JR); LG: Jared Duke (6-7, 346, SO); C: A.J. Hawkins (6-3, 313, SR); RG: Alex Washington (6-4, 333, SR); RT: Bradley Sowell (6-7, 315, SR)
3. Mississippi State: Even with the loss of two starters including left tackle Derek Sherrod, who figures to go in the first round of the NFL Draft, Mississippi State’s offensive line is going to be very, very good under the direction of former Florida assistant John Hevesy. The Bulldogs are tough, physical and they’ve been recruited to play option football from a spread offense, which they do very well.
LT: James Carmon (6-7, 330, SR); LG: Gabe Jackson (6-4, 310, SO); C: Quentin Saulsberry (6-2, 300, SR); RG: Tobias Smith (6-3, 305, JR); RT: Addison Lawrence (6-4, 290, SR)
4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return only two starters, right guard Alvin Bailey center Travis Swanson, but there is experience up and down the line except at left tackle where freshman Brey Cook will take over for the graduated DeMarcus Love, who started more than 30 consecutive games in his career. If Cook can get the job done, then Arkansas should be solid. Swanson and Bailey are sophomores who have long range star potential, but right now they’re just solid and capable. The Razorbacks gave up 28 sacks last year but those numbers should go down because Tyler Wilson is much more mobile than the departed Ryan Mallett. This is an offense that averaged 482.5 yards and 36.5 points per game last year. There are big time playmakers on the perimeter and at tailback where Knile Davis ran for 1,322 and 13 touchdowns. If there is a dropoff, it figures to be marginal.
LT: Brey Cook (6-7, 317, FR); Grant Cook (6-4, 316, SR); Travis Swanson (6-5, 305, SO); Alvin Bailey (6-5, 316, SO); Grant Freeman (6-7, 305, SR)
5. LSU: LSU is only missing left tackle Joseph Barksdale from a 2010 offensive line that gave up 34 sacks. The good news is that three of the four returning starters --- Will Blackwell, P.J. Lonergan and Alex Hurst --- were learning on the fly as first year starters. Joseph Dworaczyk returns as a three-year starter at right guard. The big question mark is left tackle where sophomore Chris Faulk takes over. There is a new offensive coordinator in Steve Kragthorpe, who is expected to improve the play at quarterback where Jordan Jefferson’s indecisiveness contributed to at least half of the sacks. Kragthorpe’s new scheme emphasizes quick reads by the quarterback and seems to be better suited to LSU’s offensive personnel.
LT: Chris Faulk (6-6, 316, SO); LG: Will Blackwell (6-4, 303, SR); P.J. Lonergan (6-4, 300, JR); RG: Joseph Dworaczyk (6-6, 295, SR); RT: Alex Hurst (6-6, 329, SR)
6. Auburn: It’s ground zero for Auburn, which not only lost Heisman quarterback Cam Newton and both wideouts, but four starters on an offensive line that paved the way for 499.2 yards and 41.2 points per game. Losing left tackle Lee Ziemba won’t be as big a loss as Newton, but it’s not far off. He was a three-year starter who was one of the best in the nation. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the backups aren’t bad and freshman center Reese Dismukes had an impressive spring. A.J. Greene started at right tackle last season before he was injured in game four. He’s back and has moved to left tackle. Brandon Moseley, who started at right tackle in the final 10 games returns and he should be very, very good. Auburn gave up 35 sacks last year but the Gus Malzahn offense gains yards in such chunks that they’re willing to take risks that create sack situations.
LT: A.J. Greene (6-5, 298, SR); LG: John Sullen (6-6, 336, JR); C: Reese Dismukes (6-3, 290, FR); RG: Jared Cooper (6-4, 298, SR); RT: Brandon Moseley (6-6, 306, SR)
RATING THE STARTERS:
1. Barrett Jones (T), Alabama
2. William Vlachos (C), Alabama
3. Ben Jones (C), Georgia
4. Larry Warford (G), Kentucky
5. Gabe Jackson (G), Mississippi State
6. D.J. Fluker (T), Alabama
7. Bradley Sowell (T), Ole Miss
8. Ja’Wuan James (T), Tennessee
9. Chandler Burden (T), Kentucky
10. Rokevious Watkins (G), South Carolina
11. Will Blackwell (G), LSU
12. Cordy Glenn (T), Georgia
Tomorrow: the defensive linemen