Offensive line may be the least coveted position in football in terms of reward, but it is an essential part of a team’s success. There was plenty of talent last year in the AAC at this position, but what does it look like in 2017? Once again, we split the teams into four categories: Elite, Second Tier, Wait and See and Room for Improvement.
“Room for Improvement” means exactly what you think, this team needs to get better or maybe has one returner or two but a lot of questions behind them.
“Wait and See” are teams that we’re not sold on, but have the talent or experience to be good. These teams just need time to get their players up to speed during fall camp/beginning of the season.
“Second Tier” are for teams that return valuable experience, but the depth behind them is questionable, and an injury to one or two starters could spell trouble.
“Elite” will be the top teams who have all-conference talent, and also have depth behind that talent who can step in should an injury occur.
1. Tulsa: Chandler Miller, Evan Plagg, and Tyler Bowling could begin and end the season on the All-Conference team, and are three big reasons why Tulsa is being considered a candidate to make a New Year’s Six bowl game. If the Golden Hurricane quarterback situation can sort itself out, this offense will be lethal.
2. Houston: Will Noble and Mason Denley were injured in the spring, which allowed multiple players to get experience and play new positions. Alex Fontana and Kameron Eloph took snaps at center for Noble. Marcus Oliver looked to have one guard spot locked, and Denley should be the other in the fall. Braylon Jones, Na’Ty Rodgers and Joshua Jones will all play tackle just like last season. One could slide inside if needed.
3. USF: Two all-conference lineman are gone, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. Cameron Ruff, Jeremi Hall, and Marcus Norman return, giving coach Charlie Strong valuable experience on the line. This group only allowed star QB Quinton Flowers to be sacked 13 times last season while also finishing fifth in the nation in rushing. Expect more of the same in 2017.
4. Memphis: This was a young group in 2016, and it showed. QB Riley Ferguson was sacked 33 times (tied for 13th most in the country), but that number should decrease. Drew Kyser and Gabe Kuhn have been receiving preseason all-conference attention. Dustin Woodard and Trevon Tate both played in 12 games each, adding to the experience. Don’t be surprised if four star recruit Obinna Eze finds his way into the mix as well. This was a young group in 2016 that could be elite in 2017.
5. SMU: Evan Brown, Nick Natour and Jerry Saena all started at least 10 games, giving the Mustangs a good core returning group. While two more starters need to be replaced, there are six returning players who bring back a combined 81 career starts. There will be plenty of competition for the open positions, but whoever wins should be someone with experience.
6. ECU: Two year starter Brandon Smith returns, and should be the anchor of this group. Seven lineman started at least two games last season, and two of them need to be replaced. Garrett McGhin and Messiah Rice bring back the next most experience, and add more valuable experience. For an offense that was one dimensional last season, this group proved it can protect the passer. Now, they just need to learn how to create the running game.
7. Tulane: John Leglue and Leeward Brown both have great size and return 12 starts each. Three other spots need to be filled, and there should be plenty of talent to fill those voids. JUCO transfer Dominique Briggs and Miami transfer Hunter Knighton enter the competition and will battle with Junior Diaz and Tyler Johnson.
Wait And See
8. Navy: Evan Martin and Andrew Wood return with 14 starts apiece in 2016, and Parker Wade returns four starts, but that is it for returning starters. Replacing three all conference lineman is never easy, but Navy has shown it can plug-and-play at just about any position offensively.
9. Temple: Temple’s offensive line has been utilizing its versatility this spring, and multiple players are taking reps at various positions. Jovahn Fair and Leon Johnson will be the leaders this season along with Adrian Sullivan. 2015 starter Brian Carter will also compete for a starting job. With the rotations still in place, no one really knows what this unit will look like come fall, but it’s safe to assume this unit will be sold in 2017.
10. UCF: Tackles Aaron Evans and Wyatt Miller return after starting every game last year. Jordan Johnson held down one of the guard spots, but the other side was questionable after a season ending injury to Tyler Hudanick. Chavis Dickey and Tate Hernly all saw time at guard last season, and will be in the running to start. Someone will also need to replace Jason Rae at center.
Room for Improvement
11. UConn: The right side needs to be replaced and while there is experience returning, this group needs to improve. Sophomore Matt Peart is hard to miss, and will be the anchor at left tackle. Four others return with starting experience, but from a group that allowed 23 sacks and finished dead last in the conference in rushing.
12. Cincinnati: Tackles Korey Cunnigham and Ryan Stout are back, but the interior is up for grabs. Only three other players have starting experience but they only have eight combined career starts. If the Bearcats want to establish a run game this year and keep their quarterback off the turf while passing, this group need to gel quickly.