Ask any coach, and he’ll tell you games are won in the trenches. So, that means teams ranked highly on this list should be in store for good seasons, right?
Check out the Big Ten offensive line unit rankings. Big uglies can be beautiful.
1. Iowa. A strong line typically always is a calling card of this program under Kirk Ferentz. This season will feature another strong wall. Left tackle Brandon Scherff is one of the best in the nation. Not bad for a high school quarterback. Fellow tackle Andrew Donnal is a mauler. Center Austin Blythe transitioned from guard and is a standout. Depth is good all the way around.
2. Wisconsin. Another year, another solid Badger line. This is a veteran group, as the projected five starters have combined for 100 games and 64 starts. Center Dan Voltz could be special. The tackle tandem of Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right) has few peers. Right guard Kyle Costigan is a two-year starter who locks on defenders and is relentless.
3. Ohio State. Line coach Ed Warinner has his work cut out for him. But, he’s capable. Four starters are gone, with left tackle Taylor Decker the lone starter back. Right guard Pat Elflein is a battler on the interior. Those are the lone sure starters. The other spots will be determined in camp. Keep an eye on left guard Antonio Underwood, center Jacoby Boren and right tackle Darryl Baldwin. There is no shortage of talent. This is Ohio State, remember?
4. Minnesota. With four starters back, the Gophers will be strong along the line. Left tackle Ben Lauer is a young star. Josh Campion is a classic run blocker at 6-5, 326. He engulfs foes. Tommy Olson moved from guard to center last year and excelled. Left guard Zac Epping is the grizzled vet. Line coach Matt Limegrover does a good job with this group.
5. Michigan State. This underrated unit has three holes to fill from what many feel was the best front of the Mark Dantonio era. Center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin are among the best in the Big Ten at their positions. Mean, nasty, tough … they epitomize Spartan football under Dantonio. Right tackle Kodi Kieler looks primed to be a star. Left guard Travis Jackson is a veteran hand and ex-center.
6. Nebraska. Questions loom with the loss of five players who accounted for 120 career starts. But talent is in the ranks, as many players were forced into action last year when injuries hit the unit. Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, who was a stud in spring ball, could be the best of the bunch at left tackle. Left guard Jake Cotton is the lone starter back. Rangy Zach Sterup is set at right tackle; he’ll get a push. Mark Pelini is the man at center after an apprenticeship in 2013.
7. Michigan. The Wolverines had one of their worst offenses in over 50 years. (Let that sink in for a while.) And a big reason for that was poor line play. There seemingly are some good parts to build around on the interior in Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow. Erik Magnuson is first up at left tackle. A new right tackle also is needed. The good news: There is one way to go: up.
8. Maryland. This group was a mess when Randy Edsall arrived. Now, it is rounding into form and epitomizes two key Edsall traits: tough and physical. Three starters are back in left tackle Ryan Doyle, right tackle Michael Dunn and center Sal Conaboy. Depth needs to be augmented.
9. Penn State. The new regime has work to do with only one starter back in left tackle Donovan Smith. Left guard Derek Dowrey and right guard Brian Gaia were moved from defense in the spring. Yes, depth was that thin. Right tackle Andrew Nelson has potential. This unit bears close scrutiny.
10. Indiana. Long a weakness, the Hoosiers front looks to be the program’s best in years. Six players with starting experience are back. Center Collin Rahrig is the best. Left tackle Jason Spriggs is athletic and savvy. Guard Bernard Taylor is a physical blocker. These guys need to get a push in the running game.
11. Northwestern. All five starters are back. Is that a good thing after the unit disappointed last year? Paul Jorgensen has flipped from right to left tackle—a move you don’t see often. He must excel. Former No. 1 left tackle Jack Konopka is battling Eric Olson at right tackle. Brandon Vitabile is one of the league’s top centers.
12. Rutgers. This remains a work in progress but has potential. Mammoth left tackle Keith Lumpkin is a future pro. Ditto left guard Kaleb Johnson. Center Betim Bujari is a veteran pivot man who can make the calls and direct traffic. Depth could be an issue. A big issue.
13. Illinois. This has been a lackluster group in the Tim Beckman era, but potential looms with four starters back. Right tackle Michael Heitz is the bellwether; Simon Cvijanovic is a good book end. Alex Hill is capable at center and guard. Right guard Alex Karras may be the best of the bunch, a nasty blocker who plays with a defensive attitude.
14. Purdue: Center Robert Kugler is a keeper and the unquestioned stud of this front. Like Kugler, right guard Jason King is a returning starter. But questions abound after that. Most worrisome: the tackle spots. Right tackle J.J. Prince was a spring surprise. The key left tackle slot may be manned by a JC transfer who hails from Sweden. Really. Everyone in West Lafayette has their fingers—and toes, and arms, and feet–crossed.
|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.|