For any good offense, it all begins up front. It’s not an oversimplification to say the teams with the best offenses typically feature the best lines. Knowing that, Michigan State and Wisconsin have to be happy entering the 2012 college football season. I like the Spartans and Badgers’ front lines, to the point where they rank 1-2 in my Big Ten offensive line unit rankings. Where does your school’s line rank? See the entire list in this post. Also, check out all of my 2012 unit rankings.
1. Michigan State – This may be the best line in the Mark Dantonio era, with four starters back. But the one loss–left guard Joel Foreman—was the best lineman; Blake Treadwell is taking over with Chris McDonald at right guard. Travis Jackson is a strong center. Fou Fonoti (right) and Dan France (left) are a formidable tackle tandem who excel on the edge in pass protection while getting a push in the run game.
2. Wisconsin – Death, taxes and the Wisconsin offensive line excelling. Those are three sure things in the life. Yes, three starters are gone, but the unit will be fine. This year’s unabashed star is left tackle Ricky Wagner, who may be the Badgers’ next Outland recipient. Massive Rob Havenstein (6-8, 343) is opposite Wagner, taking over the right side for departed Josh Oglesby. Travis Frederick may be the top center in the Big Ten, as he assumes command from Peter Konz who was an NFL draft pick. Guard Kevin Zeitler also was an NFL pick. Robert Burge or Casey Dehn could step in for Zeitler on the left side. Dehn quit the team last season but returned in the spring. Guard Ryan Groy—who made some starts at center last year–is on the left side. Keep an eye on Dan Voltz, a promising true freshman guard.
3. Ohio State – Lots of exciting potential for a unit that lacks depth but could be very good even without center Michael Brewster and tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts. The linemen have slimmed down, with an emphasis on quickness to block in space. Some shuffling has gone on. Left tackle Jack Mewhort, who was the right guard in 2011, and center Corey Linsley are the leaders and building blocks. Left guard Andrew Norwell is the only full-time lineman returning to his spot from last season. The right guard is Marcus Hall, a part-time starter last season. The right tackle slot is the most interesting, with promising true freshman Taylor Decker, former defensive lineman Darryl Baldwin and ex-tight end Reid Fragel in contention.
4. Michigan – Love the size and talent, but depth is problematic. This unit performed well in 2011 but will miss star center David Molk, an NFL selection. Former guard Ricky Barnum will step into Molk’s massive void. Left tackle Taylor Lewan is the unabashed star of the unit and one of the best in the country. Mauler Michael Scofield is moving from left guard to right tackle to replace Mark Huyge. Elliott Mealer will take over at left guard next to Lewan. Steady Patrick Omameh is back to start at right guard. Incoming freshman tackle Kyle Kalis could fit in somewhere—he’s that good and that ready.
5. Nebraska – There is depth and talent on what will be one of the Big Ten’s top fronts, but experience is thin with starters Mike Caputo (center) and Yoshi Hardrick (tackle) and Marcel Jones (tackle) gone. Tyler Moore (left) and Jeremiah Sirles (right) are good-looking talents at tackle who will be pushed by spring star Andrew Rodriguez. Center could be an issue with Caputo gone. Is Cole Pensick capable? He’s undersized and inexperienced. Stay tuned. Spencer Long (left) and Seung Hoon Choi (right)—a former walk-on–form a strong duo at guard. In fact, Long is considered by most to be the team’s top lineman. Ryne Reeves, Brandon Thompson and Brent Qvale also could be factors on this unit.
6. Iowa – No doubt, the unit will miss left tackle Riley Reiff and guard Adam Gettis, who both were selected in the NFL draft. And tackle Marcus Zusvakas also is gone. Still, potential looms, but depth could be an issue for a corps that wasn’t great last season. Staffers are excited about new left tackle Brandon Scherff. And center James Ferentz will be an anchor and leader as one of the two returning starters up front. The other starter back is right guard Matt Tobin, a former walk-on who is a blue-collar player. Right tackle Brett Van Sloten is a physical blocker who excels at mashing people in the run game. Who will play right guard? Look for Austin Blythe and Conor Boffeli to battle it out.
7. Penn State – There is talent, but this is a unit that needs to gel after losing four starters—guards DeOn’tae Pannell (right) and Johnnie Troutman (left) and tackles Quinn Barham (left) and Chima Okoli (right). The lone starter back is center Matt Stankiewitch, who could be one of the Big Ten’s best. Donovan Smith and Adam Gress are slated to start at tackle. Gress will man the critical left tackle slot, getting stronger and looking primed for a big season. Smith, a redshirt freshman, is a terrific talent and a future star who will be pushed by Mike Farrell. Strong and smart John Urschel (right) and Miles Diffenbach (left), who is ready to finally live up to his hype, are the guards.
8. Illinois – This group disappointed in 2011, especially in passes protection. Center Graham Pocic is a great starting point who could be an All-Big Ten player. Hugh Thornton is back to start at left guard. That duo provides toughness and leadership inside. The Illini will miss left tackle Jeff Allen, an NFL draft pick. Simon Cvijanovic is the man now at the key left tackle slot. He has good feet and athletic ability but isn’t a mauler. Michael Heitz is back at right tackle. Right guard is a concern with Jack Cornell gone. Ted Karras—the nephew of Alex–or Tyler Sands could assume command.
9. Purdue – This unit is in transition, losing NFL draft choices in left tackle Dennis Kelly and right guard Nick Mondek. But three starters are back in center Rick Schmeig, left guard Peters Drey—who also has played center–and left tackle Trevor Foy. Kevin Pamphile is penciled in at the other guard slot after playing defense his first two seasons. Like Pamphile, Justin Kitchens was a defensive lineman his first two seasons on campus. He’s slated to start at right tackle for what could be an athletic and underrated front.
10. Northwestern – Tackle Al Netter and guard Ben Burkett are gone from a group that disappointed in 2011 in most phases of the game. Where was the pass protection? Where was the push in the ground game? There are lots of moving parts for a tall, massive unit. Tackle Patrick Ward will be an anchor and leader, playing next to guard Brian Mulroe to form a potentially strong left side of the line. Mulroe will be the leader of the line with Netter gone. Center Brandon Vitabile was a revelation as a freshman. The right side of the line will be new. How will it develop? All eyes are on guard Neal Dieters and tackles Paul Jorgensen and Shane Mertz.
11. Minnesota – This could be a pleasantly good unit. There will be no senior starters, so this group is still a work-in-progress. Staffers say left tackle Ed Olson will be the anchor and leader, a true bellwether on the edge. Jimmy Gjere is a rising force at the right tackle spot. The group got a good push in the ground game last season and could get better, but the interior must be overhauled with guards Chris Bunders and Ryan Orton and center Ryan Wynn gone. Tommy Olson and Zac Epping will figure in at guard. The center is Zach Mottla.
12. Indiana – The group has struggled for several seasons, but it’s making progress and hope floats with the return of four starters. However, the unit must be tougher, stronger and nastier. The bellwether will be center Will Matte, a Rimington Award candidate. Former defensive lineman Bernard Taylor endured a baptism by fire last season at left guard and looked good. He may one day be special. The lone new starter is at the key left tackle slot, Charlie Chapman. Peyton Eckert is penciled in at right tackle, with Cody Evers at right guard.
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