Our position series rolls on as we move over to the line of scrimmage and take a look at the big guys up front.
The offensive linemen are often the most overlooked players in football and this becomes obvious every media day when the all-conference teams include four tackles and a center. Here we’ll try to keep it a little more realistic as we breakdown the best units in the Sun Belt.
Top of the Food Chain
Last year the Mountaineers had the top rushing offense in the conference as this offensive line paved the way for App State to average over 200 yards in both the air and on the ground in 2017. Three starters return as they’ll look to lead the way for a brand new quarterback. Victor Johnson is the star of this unit as the junior has started all 26 games of his college career and may be the best lineman in the Sun Belt. Noah Hannon was a pleasant surprise last season as he started all 13 games at center as a true freshman.
Neal Brown has quickly built up the offense for the Trojans and yearly the offensive line has emerged as one of the team’s biggest strengths. This fall will be no different as four starters return under the guidance of co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Moore. Deontae Crumitie leads the way from his center position as he’s been starting games since his freshman season. JL Gaston is a solid starting tackle and junior Kirk Kelley has played all over the line. This group should be very strong this fall.
Last year was a struggle for the Eagles as a young offensive line gained some very valuable experience. Entering 2018, new head coach Chad Lunsford will be able to lean on a talented and seasoned group on the line of scrimmage. Curtis Rainey is the leader and the senior will push Crumitie for first team All-Sun Belt honors at the center spot.
The Warhawks seem poised for a breakthrough in year three under Matt Viator and the offense is the main reason for that. Up front, ULM gets four starters back and the only other spot could be filled by a Texas Tech transfer. Devin Jackson, Bobby Reynolds, and Eastwood Thomas all enter junior years with plenty of experience as they’ve been starting since their freshmen season. Much like the program, this offensive line has really grown under Viator and they should be able to impose their will on opponents this season.
Room for Improvement
The Red Wolves will enter the fall as the Sun Belt’s best offense on paper, but if you’re looking for a weakness it could be on the line. The group allowed 33 sacks last season but they made major strides from 2016. Lanard Bonner returns at tackle as the former junior college player was an all-conference performer last season. If this is a unit weakness, you’re team is in a very good spot.
The Cajuns entered last season with one of the best offensive lines in the conference and it showed as the ground attack averaged just over 180 yards rushing per outing. This year three starters return and tackle Robert Hunt is the best of the group at tackle. Cole Prudhomme and Kevin Dotson give Billy Napier’s offense to reliable pieces inside and this ground game should continue to flourish. With only one senior in the two-deep, the future is bright.
Shawn Elliott took the job at GSU with an offensive line background and one of his top goals was to establish a physical presence that has been missing from this program. The Panthers got bullied at times last season but there was evidence of a bright future. In 2018, Elliott gets three starters back and two solid recruiting classes collected to help fill some holes. Hunter Atkinson stepped up in a big way to man a tackle spot last season and Gabe Mobley is one of the better interior lineman in the conference. This group is growing but it’s going to take some time.
It’s Still Ugly
Jamey Chadwell begins year two as the primary play-caller in Conway and his offense returns five starters from last season. In their first season in the FBS, Coastal started four freshmen (three true) on the offensive line as they fought their way through an ugly season. The hope is that those growing pains begin to pay off this fall.
Steve Campbell is bringing an Air Raid offense to Mobile and new offensive coordinator Kenny Edenfield will have to deal with major inexperience on the offensive line. Only one starter returns and that is Ryan Alexander who started every game last year at right tackle. After that things get iffy but if this group gels it could take a big step forward in 2019.
It’s a huge year three for Everett Withers in San Marcos as the Bobcats must take a step forward towards relevancy in 2018. A big key in this will be improvement among an offensive line that has struggled mightily the last two seasons. This year the Bobcats get four starters back led by All-Conference performer Aaron Brewer at tackle. Texas State will still have plenty of youth in the mix.