Dienhart: Let's rank Big Ten offensive lines

It all begins up front. Ask any coach. Without good blockers, skill talent is diminished—and offenses flounder. The Big Ten has some potentially strong blocking units, which has hopes high in several precincts. Here’s my ranking of the Big Ten offensive lines, starting with two of the conference’s biggest powerhouse programs.

1. Ohio State. Line coach Ed Warinner continues to work wonders, transforming this into one of the Big Ten’s top units. Four starters are back in 2013, with only Reid Fragel gone from right tackle. Junior left guard Andrew Norwell, who also started five games at tackle last season before sliding inside, is a special talent. Tackle Jack Mewhort joins Norwell to form a strong left side. Right guard Marcus Hall is a bull with lots of experience, while Corey Linsley is an agile and forceful pivot. Sophomores Taylor Decker and Chase Farris are the top options at right tackle.

[ RELATED: Check out all of Dienhart’s 2013 unit rankings ]

2. Michigan. The Wolverines received a big offseason surprise when stud left tackle Taylor Lewan eschewed the NFL and opted to return for his senior season despite being projected by some as a top-10 NFL draft choice. Lewan, who has started 28 games in a row, may be the top lineman in the nation. Senior right tackle Michael Schofield is a force. Is there a better tackle tandem in the Big Ten? The interior is being replaced, however, with guards Ricky Barnum (left) and Patrick Omameh (right) along with center Elliott Mealer gone after combining for 70 starts. Sophomore Jack Miller could be the answer at center. Redshirt freshman guard Kyle Kalis could be a future star. Ben Braden and Erik Magnuson also are touted on the interior. Lots of quality options.

3. Wisconsin. The line is always a strength in Madison. And that will be the case again this fall, despite the loss of center Travis Frederick—a first-round pick–and tackle Ricky Wagner. Ryan Groy is the top blocker. He’s Mr. Versatile, starting a game at every spot up front but right tackle in 2012. He may end up as the left tackle this season. Massive junior Rob Havenstein (6-8, 342) is back at right tackle.  Redshirt freshman center Dan Voltz has a big future. Juniors Dallas Lewallen and Kyle Costigan are physical guards.

4. Nebraska. This may be one of the school’s better fronts in recent memory, even with guard Seung Hoon Choi and center Justin Jackson gone. Senior guard Spencer Long is the leader. He’s the quintessential story of a Nebraska walk-on-turned-stud. Keep an eye on JC guard Chongo Kondolo. Depth at guard abounds with players like sophomore Jake Cotton, junior Mike Moudy, and senior Andrew Rodriguez—who also can play tackle. Senior Cole Pensick may be the answer at center. Plenty of options at tackle, including seniors Jeremiah Sirles, Rodriguez, Brent Qvale and JC transfer Matt Finnin.

5. Penn State. This ended up being one of the league’s best and most physical units last season. Credit line coach Mac McWhorter. A big reason for success was guard John Urschel. He is a smart cookie whose blocking acumen matches his book acumen. And that’s saying a lot, if you know Urschel. Experience abounds in the likes of junior left guard Miles Dieffenbach; senior right tackle Adam Gress, who will replace Mike Farrell; senior center Ty Howle, who takes over for departed Matt Stankiewitch; sophomore left tackle Donovan Smith, who is a future star. Depth? It’s a bit iffy.

6. Michigan State. It wasn’t long ago when this unit struggled. Now, it’s one of the strongest areas of the Spartan offense. Coach Mark Staten does a good job. Guard Chris McDonald will be missed. The unit took a hit recently when junior tackle Skyler Burkland ended his career because of injury; that could cause some line shuffling. But tackle Fou Fonoti is back and as formidable as ever. A foot injury ruined Fonoti’s 2012. Senior guards Blake Treadwell and Dan France are forces on the interior. Junior Travis Jackson is a top center. Sophomore Jack Allen is a versatile sub whose role may increase with Burkland gone.

7. Northwestern. This is an underrated group paced by junior center Brandon Vitabile and junior tackle Jack Konopka. They must lead the way for a unit that lost tackle Patrick Ward and guards Neal Deiters and Brian Mulroe. Look for Konopka to move to left tackle with Ward gone. Sophomore Geoff Mogus should be next to Konopka at left guard. The right side will be totally new with sophomore Shane Mertz or junior Paul Jorgensen at tackle and Adam DePietro or sophomore Matt Frazier at guard.

8. Iowa. This is always a strength in Iowa City, right? It should be good in 2013. Junior left tackle Brandon Scherff may be the next great Hawkeye lineman, but he’s coming off a broken fibula and dislocated ankle suffered in October. Senior right tackle Brett Van Sloten is a good book end. Senior Conor Boffeli (left) and junior Andrew Donnal (right) are at the guard slots. Donnal is coming off a knee injury in October that ended his season. Austin Blythe was a starting guard as a redshirt freshman in 2012 but is now a center with James Ferentz gone.

9. Minnesota. This unit was plagued by injuries last season, but line coach Matt Limegrover kept the unit together. The result—better depth for a young unit. Senior left tackle Ed Olson will be the bellwether. Look for junior Zac Epping next to Olson at guard. The right side figures to have sophomore Josh Campion at tackle and junior Caleb Bak at guard. Sophomore Jon Christenson and junior Ohio State transfer Brian Bobeck are at center. Keep an eye on junior guard Tommy Olson, Ed’s younger brother, and massive (6-9, 308) redshirt freshman tackle Jonah Pirsig.

10. Purdue. This could be a solid unit with lots of veterans. And Jim Bridge, lured from Illinois, is a good coach. Robert Kugler was thrust into the starting lineup late last year at guard and impressed. Now, he’s penciled in to start at center as a sophomore. The kid could be special. Some staffers think the best lineman is senior left tackle Kevin Pamphile, a former defensive tackle. Senior Justin Kitchens is an athletic right tackle who lacks bulk. Massive senior Devin Smith (6-7, 315) is a former JC transfer who can push the pile at left guard. Coaches like senior Cody Davis at the other guard, along with redshirt freshman Jordan Roos.

11. Indiana. This unit isn’t overly big or physical, but it’s improving. A better push is needed in the run game. The left side sophomore tandem of tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney is a heck of a foundation. Each turned heads as true freshman starters in 2012. Junior right guard Bernard Taylor is the closest thing to a mauler this group has. Junior Collin Rahrig assumes the center spot from departed Will Matte. Junior right tackle Peyton Eckert has made 18 career starts.

[ RELATED: Read Dienhart’s Q&A with Indiana OC Seth Littrell ]

12. Illinois. This unit was an unmitigated disaster in 2012, as injuries and youth caused havoc. Goal No. 1: be more physical. That starts on the left side with junior tackle Simon Cvijanovic and junior guard Michael Heitz. Right guard Ted Karras was a big contributor as a redshirt freshman last season. Is there a better feel-good story in college football than right tackle Corey Lewis, who is back for a sixth season? He is back after missing over two years while getting over five knee operations. Junior Alex Hill takes over for Graham Pocic at center.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Your Opinion?
Show Comments (16 Comments)
Josh on 5/30/2013 @ 3:48pm EDT Said:

Are u kidding me? IU is 11th? Didn’t they give up the fewest sacks in the Big Ten. With everyone coming back?

Louis Hébert Poulin II on 5/30/2013 @ 4:18pm EDT Said:

Hilarious because Ohio State’s line wasn’t exactly amazing last year.

Common Sense on 5/30/2013 @ 4:27pm EDT Said:

Nice to see the Wolverines # 2 . The elite recruiting classes of Ohio State and Brady Hoke are starting to separate the cream of the crop. Sad to see Sparty at #6 . In just about every category Dantonio is falling further and further behind Hoke. These two programs are clearly headed in opposite directions.

shookwriter27 on 5/30/2013 @ 7:25pm EDT Said:

Hopefully, Illinois’ offensive line will be better than expected. It may help they have a more experienced o-line coach who knows the system.

Josh on 5/30/2013 @ 8:28pm EDT Said:

Reasonable list like the others. I didn’t expect to see Michigan as high as #2, but you make some interesting points. OSU, Wisconsin, and Nebraska in the rest of the top 4 is obvious. The rest of the list seems good.

K. John on 5/30/2013 @ 8:35pm EDT Said:

Another great job ranking Big Ten units…not. Again, Penn State tops the list, not by as much as they do at receiver but they still have the best line nonetheless. LT Donovan Smith matched and exceeded Taylor Lewan by seasons end. Penn State boasts the best guard in the league in John Urshell and have a top five guard in Miles Deiffenbach. Ty Howle is an uprade at the pivot and Adam Gress has considerable starting experience at RT. Simply put, Penn State has the best line in the conference and the top line coach in the country.

Big Brother on 5/31/2013 @ 2:09am EDT Said:

never bet on Dantonio fielding an elite OL. you’ll be disappointed every time

S. Anderson on 5/31/2013 @ 8:30am EDT Said:

Iowa may be mediocre this upcoming season but their O-line will be top 4 – Book it!

tgi on 5/31/2013 @ 8:53am EDT Said:

w K. John. Your Pretty High OnThat Penn St. Team. They Are Pretty Middle Of The Pack.

Common Sense on 5/31/2013 @ 9:42am EDT Said:

Have to agree with you their Big Brother, even MSU Doug who has an obsession with Wolverine dominance is silent of this one.

Alan on 5/31/2013 @ 12:40pm EDT Said:

As a Penn State fan, I’d just like to say that not all of us are like K. John. I think Penn State’s OL is pretty good, but certainly not the best in the league. Dienhart, justly, points out the major issue, depth. I may not have agreed with his rankings of WR units (especially since they included TEs), but this ranking for Penn State seems pretty fair.

Josh on 5/31/2013 @ 2:14pm EDT Said:

I find it very funny to come look at the comments for these list and seeing the Penn St. fans whining that Penn St. should be one on every single list. Just pure entrainment.

badgerhawk75 on 5/31/2013 @ 3:23pm EDT Said:

Curious Wisconsin is #3 too low. The consistently blow huge holes year over. You’re giving OSU too much love. Iowa is way too low.

Doug on 5/31/2013 @ 4:15pm EDT Said:

oh great dhani is talking to himself using 2 different names. Keep up your obsession with MSU athletics, we at MSU appreciate it !

K. John on 6/1/2013 @ 4:59pm EDT Said:

Josh, I am not whining, just pointing out the obvious. And I know a lot more about Big Ten football than Tom ever will. Now, you can argue that Penn State doesn’t have the top collection of running backs to which I will respectfully disagree. Penn State returns Zwinak, Belton and based on what we have seen in Lynch, the top talent at the position in the Big Ten who went underrated throughout the recruiting season due to him being Canadian. Go watch the film, defenders backed down and refused to take him on throughout the season which is something that does not happen very often in the Big Ten. Only a few players have been afforded such respect with Larry Johnson being the most recent. Mike Alstott, Curtis Enis, Aaron Harris, and TJ Duckett are the others in recent memory.

There is no doubt Penn State has the top receiving corps. None. They have the top receiver in the league, the top two tight ends and they might not be the most talented on the roster come September, and six solid to good receivers and tight ends coming off the bench. The Quarterback position is the one the watch on offense. Defensively, the don’t call it Linebacker U for nothing and Penn State WILL have the top linebacking corps in the BIg Ten for the ninth straight year. Bank on it. This dope will rank them fifth or sixth because he doesn’t know what he is talking about but it just isn’t so. Mike Hull was the third best linebacker a year ago as a part time player playing out of position. He is top dog now and might be the best nationally as well. Glen Carson is just as good as any and Wartman is a rising star. So, if you want to dispute my statements, go ahead, bring it. I know more about the Big Ten than most.

Dillon on 6/3/2013 @ 7:31pm EDT Said:

K John,

Compare film of the top RBs in the Big 10 and what PSU has. Zwinak is ok, but I’m sorry Belton didn’t do sh*t and none of PSU’s other RBs played. So to say that PSU should be #1 is kind of delusional. For starters James White is the leading returning career rusher in the nation this season, and Mark & Abdullah are fantastic, as well as Hyde & Gordon. There is a reason why most people would have PSU’s RBs ranked around 5th or 6th. PSU’s RBs aren’t bad, but they are not special. Zwinak is a solid player, but he is not even close to NFL caliber. Those other guys ahead of him are.

I don’t know if they are #1, but I will agree with your case for WR if you factor in TEs. That said this year it could be different with PSU’s QB transition. But PSU does have a solid case for the overall #1 group of WR/TEs.

At LB I think you are really discounting how good Hodges and Mauit were. Those two were All Big 10 LBs who were drafted into the NFL. Hull & Carson are solid, but they are not the playmakers Hodges & Mauti are. Not saying PSU’s LB core is bad, they are solid. They just are not elite. Hull & Carson just don’t have that elite athleticism.