To make any offense run smoothly in football, you need to have the guys up front that can move people around. O-lines are a unique group as there aren’t many individual match-ups and the five guys on the line of scrimmage must gel together and work as one. In our continuing preview series (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends) we’ll let you know where each program stands at offensive line going into 2017.
Top of the Food Chain
Appalachian State: Maul Unit
Scott Satterfield returns three of his starters from upfront last season and the Mountaineers were the easy pick for the Fun Belt’s top unit. Guard Colby Gossett and tackles Victor Johnson and Beau Nunn should all be preseason first team all-conference selections. Gossett and Nunn will both be four-year starters while Johnson was impressive at tackle in his redshirt freshman season. The Mountaineers ranked 28th in rushing per S&P+ last season and they should continue to blaze holes for stud RB Jalin Moore. Gossett and Nunn will be a solid combination at right guard and tackle and look for the Mountaineers to do a lot of damage behind those two. App State also ranked 18th in adjusted sack rate so that means the front was doing a great job keeping pressure off QB Taylor Lamb. This unit is the real deal.
UL-Lafayette: Plenty of Experience
The Cajuns have solid core returning and the hope is we’ll see an immense amount of improvement from Mark Hudspeth’s club. Guards Kevin Dotson and Robert Hunt were redshirt freshmen last fall and combined to start 25 games. Meanwhile, tackles Grant Horst and D’Aquin Withrow are both seniors and have combined for 41 starts in their careers in Lafayette. New offensive coordinator Will Hall has a solid base as he breaks in Jordan Davis at quarterback. ULL ranked 88th in rushing last season, but were 55th in adjusted line yards. That tells me the big guys were doing their job in getting movement and creating space for the backs. I think both of these numbers improve but they must get better at protecting the passer as the Cajuns were 118th in adjusted sack rate. They must break in a new center but the offensive line may be the biggest strength for ULL this fall.
Georgia Southern: Return to Option Roots
Tyson Summers tried to get Georgia Southern away from the option in 2016 but failed miserably as the Eagles went 5-7 and posted their first losing season in the FBS. In comes new offensive coordinator Bryan Cook from Georgia Tech and he’ll try to install a gun option similar to the one the Eagles won the Sun Belt in under Willie Fritz in 2014. Cook will get something to build on at offensive line as the Eagles get four players with starting experience back (redshirt junior tackle Tommy Boynton, junior tackle Jeremiah Culbreth, redshirt junior guard Ryan North, and junior guard Curtis Rainey). Add in Georgia transfer Jake Edwards and the Eagles have a nice mixture of talent and experience. The Eagles were 117th in rushing last season and Cook needs to improve this immediately.
Georgia State: Can the Panthers create some running lanes?
The Panthers have struggled for a while now trying to get the running game going, so hopefully the return of three starters will help do the trick. Shawn Elliott takes over in Atlanta after stints at Appalachian State and South Carolina as an offensive line coach. Getting a three-year starter back at center is a good building block as the rebuild begins. Redshirt junior Gabe Mobley appeared on the Rimmington Watch List and should contend for all-conference honors. The Panthers also get starters back at guard and tackle in Alex Stoehr and Sebastian Willer. Stoehr enters the season with 37 consecutive starts and will work well with Willer on the right side of the line. The left side is where Elliott will need to figure things out. But with three potential all-conference performers, you have to think Georgia State will improve immensely on their putrid numbers from last season.
Room For Improvement
New Mexico State: Aggies Have Options
Heading into 2017, offensive line coach Andy Richman will have plenty of options to choose from as NMSU builds their offensive front. Returning are six guys with starting experience and that should could create some great competition when fall camp begins. There’s good mix of youth and experience here as Dezmond Candelarie, Brayton Medina, and Jamin Smith are all seniors while Sebastian Anderson, Sage Doxtater, and Brian Trujillo are all sophomores. It will be imperative that NMSU finds five that can stick together and work as unit without getting bit by the injury bug. However, the Aggies put up some solid numbers last season (41st in rushing, 43rd in adjusted line yards). However, the front must work on limiting penetration as NMSU was 100th in stuff rate (runs tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) and 110th in adjusted sack rate. There may not be in any all-conference performers in this bunch, but this could be a unit that is one of the best in the Sun Belt in 2017 because of its balance.
ULM: Can Warhawks Improve on Surprising 2016 Success?
You would’ve never thought it was possible, but in Matt Viator’s first season in Monroe the Warhawks would lead the Sun Belt in rushing at 181.3 yards per game. And they did this without a consistent producer at running back. That means the offensive line did some damage against opposing front sevens. Senior Frank Sutton Jr. returns at guard and will be a four-year starter in 2017. Sophomore Eastwood Thomas, an Alabama transfer, showed some things at tackle as a frosh in 2016. The other three positions must be filled, but ULM has a good starting point. The Warhawks look to build on their short yardage prowess as they were 24th in the country in power success rate. The Warhawks also limited negative plays as well as anyone in the Sun Belt as they finished 17th in stuff rate and 45th in adjusted sack rate.
South Alabama: Can the Jags Stay Healthy?
Looking at QB and RB duos in this league, USA’s Dallas Davis and Xavier Johnson ranks up there with just about anybody. However, can the guys upfront keep them protected and create running lanes? Joey Jones’ squad returns three starters on the o-line in senior center Dominic Esposito, redshirt junior tackle Noah Fisher and redshirt senior tackle Harrison Louden. The addition of Miami transfer Tyler Grimsley should help bolster an offensive line that has some questions surrounding it in 2017. Fisher should be one of the best tackles in the Sun Belt and Esposito, a former FCS Monmouth transfer, is solid at center. If Grimsley can produce and offensive line coach Richard Owens can bring on some young guys to provide depth, the Jags could be very solid upfront. But if the injury bug bites, USA could be in trouble again as they are totally rebuilding at WR and will need to run the football this fall. Depth looks to be lacking so keeping the starters on the field will be essential.
Troy: Replacing a Stud Left Tackle
It was a no brainer last season that Antonio Garcia was by far the best offensive lineman in the Sun Belt. This was proven to be fact when Garcia was taken off the board by the New England Patriots in the third round of the NFL Draft. His loss is the biggest question that must be answered for Neal Brown’s offense as the Trojans were the best in the country at limiting sacks (ranked first in adjusted sack rate). Troy should be very good at center as junior Deontae Crumitie returns and has been starting since he was a true freshman. Senior Steven Rowzee is expected to be a starter at guard for the second year in a row after spending his first two seasons in JUCO. However, the key to this unit will be how the Trojans replace Garcia and it seems that sophomore Kirk Kelley and senior Johnathan Boring are the top candidates.
It’s Still Ugly
Arkansas State: Depending On Transfers
The defending Sun Belt champs return no starters among the offensive line and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Red Wolves ranked in the triple-digits in rushing, rushing success rate, adjusted line yards, opportunity rate, power success rate, stuff rate, and adjusted sack rate according to S&P+. These are all advanced measurements that try to grade offensive line play (each explained in detail here) and it was ugly for Blake Anderson’s club in 2016. It is a big season for second year OL coach Allen Rudolph as the Red Wolves must get better along the line of scrimmage. It appears that Arkansas State will be leaning on Iowa State transfer Jaypee Philbert and JUCO transfers Lanard Bonner and Marvis Brown. The hope is that this group will be a strength of the offense as Blake Anderson takes over play-calling duties in 2017. It appears that improvement is inevitable after a disastrous 2016..
Idaho: Can Young Players Step Up?
In a year of surprises, the Idaho offensive line was no different as this group really stepped up its play and helped get the Vandals to a 9-4 mark. Gone is the entire right side, and Paul Petrino will be looking to some young prospects to fill the void. However, Idaho does return two starters on the left side of the line. This will be the strength for Idaho up front as they protect Matt Linehan’s blind side. Idaho will pencil in senior Jordan Rose at tackle, who made Sun Belt honorable mention last fall. Meanwhile, Noah Johnson returns at guard after being a starter as a true frosh in 2016. Idaho could be depending on some more freshmen this season so it’s hard to envision this group being one of the best in the league.
Coastal Carolina: How does the line adjust to FBS competition?
The Chants are heading into the FBS with a new offensive coordinator, a new QB, and a new feature running back. Add in that they must replace three offensive line starters and the learning curve could be steep for Joe Moglia’s program. The two starters that return for Coastal are junior left guard Adam Lawhorn and junior center Jamarion McBride. Meanwhile, tackles Ethan Howard and Brock Merritt received spot starts last season and should be ready to contribute. Even with a decent amount of experience, the transition to a new play-caller as well as a higher level of competition will cause this group to be towards the bottom of the league.
Texas State: Can’t Get Much Worse
It’s hard to envision an offensive line being much worse than the 2016 Texas State group. As you can see here, Texas State ranked near the bottom of the country in every offensive stat and they were especially bad upfront. However, there is talent returning and sophomore center Aaron Brewer has the chance to be special and he’ll contend for all-conference honors this fall. Redshirt junior Trystan Mizerak returns at tackle and should give new QB Damian Williams a solid blindside protector. The Bobcats have been recruiting well since Everett Withers landed the job so help is on the way.