Since the US is dismantling Spain right now and the Big Man named the bookends yesterday, this seems like an opportune time to examine the offensive line. Many people throughout the country, and even in this part, will point to the O-Line as the biggest point of concern on this year’s team. Personally, I’m more worried about the one on the other side (and most worried about the PK), but I can certainly see where they’re coming from. And if you're so inclined, feel free to vote in the poll to the right.
Much of the offseason debate has centered on who would be called upon to replace departed All-American Anthony Collins (left) and his right side counterpart, Cesar Rodriguez. Originally, the four in consideration were Matt Darton (started in place of Collins v. ISU last year), Ian Wolfe, Nathan D’Cunha and Jeff Spikes. It became evident pretty quickly that Spikes and Darton were the frontrunners. Yesterday Mangino removed the suspense as he announced that Spikes would start on the left side, while Jeremiah Hatch (surprise!), who was originally being groomed as a guard, will start on the right.
We’ll start with Spikes as he has the biggest shoes to fill replacing an All-American. The first thing you have to understand is that this won’t be a seamless transition, considering the guy has never played a down of college football. The second thing you should also know though is that the coaches think he can (and will) be decidedly better than Collins. At 6’6” 314 pounds, the problem clearly won’t be his size. And from what I understand he’s also incredibly quick and agile. The problem will simply be experience. In many cases he’ll be going against not only the other team’s best pass rusher, but often one who is a few years older and has played a couple dozen more games at the collegiate level. It will be interesting to watch his development and I think we’ll all be pleasantly surprised. (Note: Our good pal, Dugan Arnett, has a nice profile of him in today's LJW.)
On the other end will be the surprise of the line, Jeremiah Hatch. Another RS Freshman, Hatch simply made the staff find a place to play him. Or at least that’s my hope, considering that they were pretty high on Darton, once upon a time. At 6’3 311 pounds, you can certainly see why they would rather play him at guard but as #5 has shown us, you don’t always have to be the prototypical size to play a position well. That is especially true if you work harder than the guy you’re going against, which seems to be why Hatch won the job. Same as Spikes I’m sure we’re going to have a few rough moments with Hatch, but so much of being a good lineman is trusting your team enough that you can concentrate on winning your 1-on-1. In that scenario, more often than not I’ll take the guy working his ass off. Frankly, though, my biggest worry is that the penalties will increase. Collins and Rodriguez were so confident in their ability that they rarely false started or had to hold; I’m hoping Spikes and Hatch can develop a similar ability, but we’ll see.
As has been well documented, the interior of the line is said to be the strength, simply because all three are returning starters entering their senior campaign. And there is certainly some truth to that as both their experience and chemistry are going to be well beyond that of the tackles. But a line is only as good as its weakest link so for them to succeed they will need to bring along the newbies and work as a unit. Of this trio, Cantrell is the anchor, and the most talented. Hartley is a beast, who is rarely going to get beaten. The only question mark is Mayes, who at times had some trouble (much more so with pass protection that run blocking) when going against some of the better DTs the team faced a year ago. If they can come together as seniors and integrate the young freshman outside of them, this unit has the potential to duplicate last year’s success.
Aside from the penalty issue I mentioned above, though, my biggest worry here is one that has seemingly gone largely unnoticed. And that is the loss of Derek Fine. Yes, he was a solid pass catcher, but more than that he was a third tackle. He loved catching passes and scoring touchdowns, but more than anything he viewed himself as an extension of the line; and he performed accordingly (see: Reesing’s 60 yard run v. CU). It seems that Fine’s replacement will be a duo comprised of his backup from last year, Bradley Dedeaux (6’3” 250), and converted QB AJ Steward (6’4” 225). Both have as much, if not more, athletic ability than Fine. And I have little doubt that they’ll be able to effectively replace his production as a receiver.But until I see it, I’m going to have to assume that they won’t be able to match what he added to the O-Line, especially in run blocking. (Note: My guess here is that Dedeaux is the better blocker and Steward the better playmaker, but in order to not give away what’s coming they’re each going to have to at least be a threat in both areas to be effective).
As you already knew, there are certainly some unanswered questions on this part of the roster. But with three seniors anchoring the middle, and two hard working talents on the outside, I expect this unit to perform pretty well. Far and away my biggest concern is what kind of help the TEs can give their tackles, but then again, Martin Rucker had a pretty successful career and he blocked about as well as I could, so perhaps the spread negates this need more than I think. Then again, maybe he just didn't feel like blocking for this douche. We’ll know soon enough. After all, the opener is but a fortnight away...