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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Louisiana Tech at Texas Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews: Offensive Line

There could be more questions than answers for many Conference USA programs who mull their options up front.

We continue our Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews by looking at the offensive line in the conference. The grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.”

To elaborate on the grades, “We’ll See” means exactly what it means. We have no idea if that position is going to turn out to be a plus due to a lack of proven contributors and questionable depth. At this time, there’s no way to know.

“Good Shape” means known commodities are at the position, but there’s room for this unit to improve. Depth is above average to good, with a player or two having the potential to make an All-C-USA Team.

“Great Shape” means All-C-USA performers are at this position or there is good-to-great depth across the board. You want your team to be here.

Great Shape

Western Kentucky v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

1. Western Kentucky: Former NFL All-Pro Mike Goff has worked wonders for the frontline in Bowling Green. PFF College ranked the Hilltoppers 20th in the FBS as a whole, including No. 1 in pass blocking grade, while surrendering a pressure on only 12.7% of their pass-blocked snaps, which was the eight-lowest percentage in the nation in 2019. First Team All-CUSA Miles Pate is gone, but the team returns absolute studs at guard in Honorable Mention recipient Jordan Meredith and consistent starter Tyler Witt. Seth Joest returns at center, with Cole Spencer and All-Freshman Gunner Britton adding considerable depth across the board. This group could be top of the charts for 2020 and beyond.

2. Marshall: Marshall’s anchor and Rimington watch list mainstay Levi Brown is gone at center, but Greg Adkins brings back a unit that is conditioned to play nasty. Alex Mollette and Cain Madden have potential to be the best guard combo in the league, with Madden coming off 2nd Team All-CUSA honors as a piece that helped running back Brenden Knox be named Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player. Tarik Adams has been a staple the past three years, with former 4-star recruit and JUCO transfer Josh Ball on the verge of a bigger role. This line brings back a ton of redshirt juniors, so we could be stating similar sentiments for quite some time.

3. UAB: Despite having nine different starting lineups throughout 2019 due to injury, the Blazers gave up just 25 sacks the entire year en route to a West division title. The offensive line also helped UAB average 150.8 rushing yards per game. Mississippi JUCO transfers Sidney Wells & Colby Ragland have both transformed into All-CUSA performers who come back to anchor a projected starting line driven by all seniors with starting experience. Bringing back quarterback Tyler Johnston III and their top two rushing options as well, UAB should have little trouble hitting the ground running behind their front five in 2020.

4. MTSU: 2019 was indisputably a huge breakout year for Blue Raider quarterback Asher O’Hara. The third-leading rushing QB in the country, close to 4,000 all-purpose yards and 29 touchdowns were made possible by a consistent group of hogmollies up front with the most noticeable standouts returning. Robert Jones didn’t allow a sack all season joining Texas native Will Gilchrist as All-CUSA Honorable Mention. All-Freshman Marcus Greer returns from injury after making 10 starts, giving MTSU another shot at putting the league on notice.

Good Shape

5. Florida Atlantic: At the close of 2019, Pro Football Focus had ranked Florida Atlantic’s offensive line as the 50th best in the country, but must find a way to replace two First Team All-CUSA performers in center Junior Diaz and left tackle Brandon Walton. Nick Weber and Marquice Robinson cemented first-year starting roles, and midyear Colorado State transfer Desmond Noel became a key piece when he joined the starting lineup prior to Week 6. OL coach Jeff Norrid spent 16 years as an SEC assistant, and will have this group back on all cylinders in short order.

6. Louisiana Tech: Ethan Reed and Drew Kirkpatrick, ranked within the top 50 at their positions nationally per PFF College are gone, along with Honorable Mention recipient Gewhite Stallworth. Luckily for the Bulldogs, Willie Allen and Kody Russey were also on that Honorable Mention list, and return at left tackle and center, respectively. LA Tech ranked second in scoring offense (32.5 PPG), fourth in rushing (168.4 YPG), and second in total offense (436.8 YPG) out of all C-USA squads last season, with position coach Robert McFarland being a part of five consecutive winning seasons and five straight bowl wins. Although unproven outside of the starting five, the boys in Ruston will be just fine.

7. Southern Miss: To be brutally honest, every spot between 2-7 was tough to measure personally, because every team has bright spots that aren’t heavily overshadowed by anything related to bad production, Southern Miss included. As listed in our QB’s preview, Jack Abraham has a high ceiling, and 2020 will be heavily dependent upon the front five. Arvin Fletcher returns as the veteran Honorable Mention left guard, with CUSA All-Freshman Coker Wright inserted and former FWAA All-Freshman Trace Clopton looking to make strides as an incoming junior. This will be a tested group in 2020, but as an overall unit could be a dark horse in production.

8. Charlotte: In terms of OL coaching hires, Charlotte’s addition of Lee Grimes to lead this unit could’ve been one of the best in all of college football, not just Conference USA. Bringing the Lone Star pipeline with him from Texas A&M, the addition of 4-star recruit Ty’kieast Crawford showed this group won’t miss too many steps after losing tackle Cameron Clark to the New York Jets. Jaelin Fisher is a two-year starter at center on the Rimington watchlist, with starting right tackle D’Mitri Emmanuel back with All-Freshman Swiss army knife Dejan Rasuo as a plug-in anywhere. Depth is a noticeable concern, but quarterback Chris Reynolds will lead these guys in a positive direction in 2020.

We’ll See

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Army at UTSA Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

9. UTSA: While I do have UTSA fairly low on my list, I do think this Roadrunner group has a fair bit of potential overall. Newly hired head coach Jeff Traylor brings with him OL coach/run game coordinator Matt Mattox, who before a one-year stint at McNeese State was in the same position at South Florida, where he had the 2018 roster ranked in the top 30 nationally in rushing offense. Junior left guard Spencer Burford is the top returnee as All-CUSA Honorable Mention, joining returning starters Kevin Davis and former JUCO transfer Ahofitu Maka. The building blocks are in place to pave the way for Freshman All-American tailback Sincere McCormick, who broke UTSA’s single-season all-purpose yardage mark last season behind 1,177 total yards and eight touchdowns.

10. FIU: The loss of offensive tackle Devontay Taylor to Florida State is one that has to burn, but the real heat comes in the departure of assistant head coach/offensive line coach Allen Mogridge, who joined the staff at USF. Under his tutelage FIU had achieved record numbers in recent years, allowing just eight total sacks all season in 2018 which was third in the country overall. The return of All-Conference hopefuls D’Antne Demery and Shane McGough aid the blow for a Panther offensive unit that committed a ton of penalties in 2019. C-USA All-Freshman Sione Finau needs to play a bigger role at guard for a team also replacing their starting quarterback and running back.

11. North Texas: The talk of the town in Denton, Texas, will be focused on the departure of quarterback Mason Fine, who graduates takes with him All-Conference honors and essentially every North Texas passing record in existence. The direction of the offense and where it goes at this point is anyone’s guess, but there are bright spots up front if you look hard enough. A former 2-star recruit, Manase Mose in my opinion could be one of the best guards in the league, but finding help is the key. Right tackle Jacob Brammer was reliable before injuries took him out, and the Mean Green could be relying on new faces to bolster the attack. Anterrious Gray is a JUCO transfer to watch, along with 3-star Lubbock native Erik Williams, whose 247Sports 824th overall ranking nationally was their top incoming recruit.

12. Old Dominion: The immediate issue with this Monarchs group lies in who can stay healthy. All-CUSA Honorable Mention Isaac Weaver was truly the only consistent force in 2019, and even he was forced to relay back and forth between left tackle and center. The right side could see massive growth with Cameron Muller and Nick Saldiveri, who both enter their second season as starters. Coming off a season where Old Dominion had the worst total offense in the league, hopefully a change in style to Ricky Rahne’s newly transplanted offense can generate a boost in production.

13. UTEP: What I can say for the Mike Simmonds-led group in El Paso, they were able to make way for the graduated Treyvon Hughes to rush for 12 touchdowns in 2019, which became the sixth-highest seasonal total in UTEP history. That being said, 2020 could be a little bleaker in terms of replacing production. 2nd Team All-CUSA center Derron Gatewood is out the door, along with former All-Freshman team member Greg Long who transferred to join Purdue in the Big Ten. Redshirt junior Bobby DeHaro is a two-time member of the Honorable Mention list, and is the point blank anchor this Miner front five must lean on. Zuri Henry & Elijah Klein are 6’5”, 300-lb. linemen with double digit career starts, but this unit’s gonna need multiple men to step up and take on bigger roles.

14. Rice: Head coach Mike Bloomgren led a stacked offensive line unit in his years at Stanford, and for the most part has replicated somewhat similar success in Houston. At some point though, the guys you bring in graduate and move on, and OL coach Sanders Davis just has too daunting of a task replacing those immediate holes. Four Honorable Mention performers showed out in spurts last season, but three of those guys leave with the lone Shea Baker hoping he can get some help. Clay Servin started 11 games at left tackle in 2019, and the team brings in graduate transfer Jovaun Woolford who was an All-Conference name at FCS Colgate. This is a largely inexperienced unit in terms of depth, and we could see an uphill battle take place at Rice Stadium.

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