Big Ten Football: A look at offensive line situations

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten Football: A look at offensive line situations

B1G HIGHLIGHT - Allison Hayes talks with Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer about the 2016 recruiting class for the Buckeyes.

Spring practices are in full swing across the Big Ten, as schools begin to answer questions as they prepare for 2016. And no position across the conference may be under more scrutiny than offensive line, which from my estimations will be a top priority for nine schools to shore up.

Here is a look at the most critical offensive line situations in the Big Ten, listed alphabetically.

Illinois
Guard Ted Karras was the team’s top blocker. Now, he’s gone. This unit needs to get a better push after the Illini ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing (129.3 ypg) and had a league-low 13 rushing TDs in 2015. Three starters are back in left tackle Austin Schmidt, center Joe Spencer and right tackle Christian DiLauro. Much is expected of Gabe Megginson, a four-star recruit that redshirted in 2015. The loss of top back Josh Ferguson exasperates the situation. Ke’Shawn Vaughn flashed potential as a true freshman when he got the chance to carry the ball.

Iowa
This typically always is a strength in Iowa City. Line coach Brian Ferentz is about “playing the five best guys.” Knowing that, look for Cole Croston at left tackle and Ike Boettger at right tackle. James Daniels looks to have a bright future after being the rare true freshman to play on the line for the Hawkeyes. LeShun’s little brother will be the center but will miss the spring after knee surgery. Steve Ferentz, the third of Kirk Ferentz’s boys, will get the reps at the pivot in the spring with Daniels out. Boone Myers and Sean Welsh are the guards. Overall depth needs to be developed.

Michigan State
Lots of work to do. Gone are starting left tackle Jack Conklin, an All-American who left early for the NFL. Also departed are two-time All-America center Jack Allen and two-year starting guard Donavon Clark. Line coach Mark Staten will look at Dennis Finley—coming off a broken leg–at left tackle and rising star Brian Allen at left guard or center. Benny McGowan will also be in the mix. The right side could have Brandon Clemons (an ex-d-lineman) at guard and Kodi Kieler at tackle. Cole Chewins and Tyler Higby figure in the rotation. And keep an eye on David Beedle and Miguel Machado, a former JC transfer.

Minnesota
The staff is counting on JC transfers Garrison Wright and Vincent Calhoun—both on campus–to start at the guard spots. Jonah Pirsig will be the right tackle and Tyler Moore will be center. They are the two returning starters. Who will be the left tackle? It could be redshirt freshman Nick Connelly … or Wright. If Wright wins the tackle spot, it would open a guard slot for Connor Mayes, who started nine games last year. New line coach Bart Miller wants the front to be stronger. This area is a huge area of emphasis for Claeys in the spring.

Nebraska
The Huskers lost four starters in guard/tackle Zach Sterup, guard Chongo Kondolo, center Ryne Reeves and tackle Alex Lewis. Line coach Mike Cavanaugh will have to build around guard Dylan Utter and tackle Nick Gates. It looks like there is more depth at the interior spots than at tackle. The spring will reveal more. Gates looks like the anchor up front at left tackle and a future star. After that, things are lucid. Utter is a wild card who could move to center after starting at left guard last year. If Utter takes over at center, Tanner Farmer could step in at right guard for Utter. The left guard figures to be Jerald Foster. Others to watch are Jalin Barnett and Corey Whitaker. The right tackle spot has some holding their breath. Mammoth David Knevel could be the front-runner but lacks experience.

Ohio State
The unit will be anchored by left guard Billy Price and Pat Elflein, who moves from right guard to center. They are the lone returning starters. Look for Isaiah Prince at left tackle, Jamarco Jones at right guard and Malcolm Pridgeon at right tackle, a JC transfer who will arrive in the fall. If Pridgeon isn’t a plug-and-play guy, the right side of the line could have Evan Lisle at guard and Jones at tackle. Demetrius Knox, Evan Lisle and Matthew Burrell also are factors at guard. This unit needs to develop to protect QB J.T. Barrett and open lanes for the new backs.

Penn State
This unit has been a sore spot during the first two years under James Franklin. Talent and depth have been issues, but the group finally may be rounding into shape as quality recruits have been added and the roster has matured. The unit has a new coach in Matt Limegrover, who was offensive coordinator and line coach at Minnesota. He replaces affable Herb Hand, who took the same job at Auburn. The line could be configured like this: left tackle Paris Palmer, left guard Brendan Mahon, center Wendy Laurent, right guard Brian Gaia, right tackle Andrew Nelson. But we could see players like Steven Gonzalez, Ryan Bates and Noah Beh make moves in the spring. Also, early enrollees Connor McGovern (center) and Alex Gellerstedt (tackle) could impact after arriving with fat scrapbooks and lots of hype. McGovern is a real stud. In the fall, ballyhooed guard Michal Menet arrives and could push for a spot.

Purdue
If you can’t run the football, you can’t win. It’s really pretty simple. Last year, the Boilermakers couldn’t run the ball … and lost—a lot. Purdue finished 13th in the Big Ten in rushing (131.3 ypg). It all begins up front, where this program lacks size, toughness, grit and want-to. Where is the push? Line coach Jim Bridge high-tailed it out of West Lafayette for Duke. And the team’s two best blockers from last year are gone in Swedish tackle David Hedelin and center Robert Kugler. What’s it all mean for 2016? I have no earthly idea. The o-line will look different this spring than it will in the fall because of injury. There literally are 10 healthy players for the spring, and three of those are walk-ons. Here is what looks pretty certain: Jason King and Jordan Roos are no-doubters at the guard spots, and Martesse Patterson will be at one tackle. But after that?

Wisconsin
Last year’s depth and experience problems have now given way to a slew of players that have experience and, at least to start the spring, a number of guys who will be competing for spots. The only departure is left tackle Tyler Marz. Center Dan Voltz will still be out with his knee injury but should be good to go at the start of summer workouts. On the inside, Michael Deiter, Micah Kapoi and Beau Benzschawel all played a lot last year. Add Jon Dietzen, the strongest player on the roster who redshirted last year, and that’s four guys for the two guard spots. At tackle, Jake Maxwell played well in his games last year. Ryan Ramczyk sat out last year after transferring from UW-Stevens Point and the coaches are high on him. Those two guys will get the first look at the tackle spots. So they feel like right now they have seven guys (with Voltz) for five spots. A much better situation than last year.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

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, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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