Forced to replace starters at left tackle, left guard, and center, the 2016 season will be a season of transition for the East Carolina Pirates offensive line.
Here is a look at the 18 player that will make up the East Carolina offensive line. The group will be young after losing six players from the 2015 group. Only six players are upperclassmen, but three are players with lots of experience at the FBS level.
Offensive Line (18): Senior: Bladen Gatling, J.T. Boyd. Junior: Christian Matau, Brandon Smith, Justin Sandifer, Jarred Dorton. Sophomore: Des Barmore, Erik Lenzen, Garrett McGhin, Kyle Erickson, Messiah Rice. Redshirt Freshman: Dalton Montgomery, Darius Anderson, Jared Huneycutt. Freshman: Cortez Herrin, Sean Bailey, Jack Doyle, D'Ante Smith.
Gone are stalwarts C.J. Struyk, Ike Harris, and Quincy McKinney . The trio combined to make 27 of a possible 36 starts last season with Harris starting 11 of 12 games at the all important left tackle position. The left tackle started 36 career games for the Pirates, including 36 of his last 38 with the program. Struyk leaves with 18 career starts and McKinney leaves the program with a total of 21 starts in two years.
Not only are they gone, but Tre Robertson (15 career starts), Dontae Levingston (11 career starts), and Stewart Hinson also played their final games for ECU in the 2015 season.
Finding replacements for a group of seniors that made 101 total starts is not an easy task.
Luckily, ECU has a building block for the upcoming season in senior guard J.T. Boyd. The South Carolina native was the only player to make all 12 starts on the offensive line last fall. He made 11 starts at his natural right guard spot, but moved to center for the Virginia Tech game.
Boyd was named to the American Athletic Conference Honorable Mention team along with outgoing senior Ike Harris. The 6-4, 298 pound NFL prospect has made 23 career starts and is projected to make every start in 2015 barring injury.
Junior Brandon Smith also returns after holding down the right tackle position for the final 11 games of the 2015 season. The 6-8, 341 pound behemoth is easily the biggest player on the roster. Smith possesses surprising athleticism (27" vertical) and solid strength (400 pound bench press) that has NFL scouts wondering just how good he could be in the future.
Smith and Boyd give the Pirates one side of the offensive line that is virtually set in stone.
A case can be made that three starters are returning for the Pirates as Christian Matau is back in 2016. Matau was a capable starter for five games last fall, starting the Virginia Tech game at right guard before starting the next four contests at center. He slid into a backup role for the remaining four contests as then senior C.J. Struyk returned to his starting position. Matau fought through an arm injury that limited his playing time late in the season.
He is a more natural center, which allows Boyd to stay at right guard and solidify the entire right side of the line. His five starts will prove quite valuable as we look at the rest of the returning offensive linemen.
After the trio of Boyd, Smith, and Matau, the Pirates do not have very much returning experience on the line. Sophomore Kyle Erickson is one of the few that can be counted on moving forward. The 6-4, 297 pound lineman was a backup at both center and guard to end last season, showing versatility that is much needed in 2016. He will get every opportunity to earn a spot at either left guard or center, depending on just how head coach Scottie Montgomery wants to set his offensive line.
Bladen Gatling (guard) and Messiah Rice (tackle) are expected to at least be in the two-deep. Neither looks very likely to unseat the projected starters, but should see at least some playing time in the fall as backups.
The most interesting prospect moving forward could be JUCO transfer Jarred Dorton. The 6-6, 345 Bakersfield College transfer would slide right in at left tackle in a perfect world. Even moving Smith to the left and sliding in Dorton at right is a realistic option. Hypothetically, that would give the Pirates a pair of tackles that average 6-7, 343 pounds.
The problem with the rest of the offensive line is the fact that they are so young. Outside of Justin Sandifer, every other lineman is a freshman or sophomore. Expect Darius Anderson, Cortez Harrin, and Jared Huneycutt to battle for spots in the interoir line while Sandifer, Garrett McGhin, Erik Lenzen, Des Marmore, and Dalton Montgomery give depth to the tackle positions.
The rest of the incoming freshmen (Sean Bailey, Jarred Dorton, Jack Doyle, D'Ante Smith) are expected to be redshirted unless one of the group has an outstanding fall camp. They, along with early enrollee Cortez Herrin, are the basis of the future of East Carolina football under Montgomery and company.