Ever since I’ve started doing these position previews, I’ve started paying more attention to a group that I never watched before. At least not to this extent. A team’s offensive line can make or break the unit, and we’ve seen what happens when teams have a good one. In the AAC, there are some deep lines, which should make for some exciting offenses. They’ll never get the love they deserve, but they play a huge role. Bigger than many will credit them for, but the real ones know.
Other positions: QB, RB, WR/TE
Elite: This is the goal. The top of the mountain. Everyone wants to be here.
Second Tier: Good not great.
Wait and See: Your team could be good or they could be bad. Just let them play it out.
1. Memphis: Everyone knows about the Tigers’ success offensively, but many don’t truly understand why they’ve experienced it. Skill position players received most of the attention the last few years, but their success would not have come without the big guys up front. The same can be said about this year’s team. Obinna Eze came to Memphis as a four-star recruit, and finally got a chance to show what he could do last year. Now he’s one of the best linemen in the conference. Left guard Dylan Parham is a fighter who has a nasty streak in him as well. The experience doesn’t stop there, as C Isaac Ellis, RG Manuel Orona-Lopez, backup LG Titus Jones and RG Evan Fields return with 57 games of experience.
2. Cincinnati: If Desmond Ridder takes a step forward in his development, it will be thanks to his line. Michigan transfer James Hudson’s situation has received plenty of attention nationally, but now he’ll show why he was highly coveted coming out of high school. Center Jakari Robinson and right guard Vincent McConnell bring 38 games of experience to the line. Tackles Lorenz Metz and Darius Harper played in 27 games combined, but will compete with Hudson for the starting tackle spots.
3. UCF: The Knights took a step back in the conference last year, but not a big one. They’ll be back competing for the title again in 2020. Redemption starts up front, and the Knights have some studs up front. Tackle Samuel Jackson isn’t the most talented player in the country, but he’s reliable. Guards Cole Schneider and Parker Boudreaux are two of the best guards in the conference, so finding a center and tackle are the primary areas to address. With the talent on roster, that shouldn’t be a problem, and the Knights will be back in title contention.
4. SMU: Shane Buechele’s big year was aided by an offensive line that kept him upright (only sacked 17 times last year). Left tackle Jaylon Thomas was a second team All-AAC selection and could be playing on Sunday’s in the future. Guard Hayden Howerton and center Alan Ali give the Mustangs are back, with guards Cobe Bryant and Kadarius Smith and tackle Beau Morris returning 53 games of experience as well.
5. Navy: Here’s the thing. Navy’s offense doesn’t go anywhere without its offensive line. Even a good quarterback can’t mask the issues a bad line has, but luckily the Midshipmen haven’t had to worry about that. Nor will they this year. The right side of the line is one of the best in the country with guard Peter Nestrowitz and tackle Billy Honaker back. Center Justin Self also saw the field often last year, so that leaves the left side of the line open. Fortunately, it’s next man up for Navy, so they shouldn’t skip a beat in 2020 even with a new quarterback.
6. Tulane: The Green Wave offense entered new territory last year with its explosiveness, but they have a chance to improve on that even with key skill players gone. Keon Howard figures to take over at quarterback, but he shouldn’t have to worry much with the talent returning in front of him. Corey Dublin is a first team all-conference talent, and is back with 37 games of experience. To his left is Joey Claybrook, a 6’6” 295 pound tackle who’s still growing into his frame. Ben Knutson, Sincere Haynesworth, and Cameron Jackel average 6’4” and 305 pounds and figure to take over the starting spots on the other side and at center.
7. USF: If you want to get your offense going, a good way to start is ensure the big men up front are solid. The Bulls offense struggled at times last year, but they have the weapons on the line to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Center Brad Cecil is back to bring stability and leadership to a talented line. Tackle Donovan Jennings and guard Demetris Harris return a combined 46 games of experience, and Michael Wiggs could break thru as a starter this year after playing 17 games over the last two years.
8. Temple: Right tackle Adam Klein is the next great Temple offensive lineman, and will compete for all-conference awards. But who will join him on the line? Left guard J.D. Gomez saw action in 12 games, right guard Joseph Hooper played in 10, and center Griffin Sestili played in seven. With the offense set to reach new heights thanks to the skill positions, the offensive line becomes the X-Factor in determining how high they go.
Wait and See
9. Tulsa: Philip Montgomery needs a big year from his team, and has the skill players to achieve that goal, but he must find the line to complement those guys. Luckily for him, he’ll have some big men to choose from this year. Chris Paul (6’4”, 332 pounds) is back at guard, joined by tackle Tyler Smith (6’5”, 332) and center Gerard Wheeler (6’3”, 331). Dylan Couch and X’Zauvea Gadlin figure to round out the line. They might be inexperienced, but there’s potential in this group that could make the Golden Hurricane a competitor this year.
10. ECU: Tackle D’Ante Smith returns for yet another year as a starter, but there’s not much experience outside of him. Noah Henderson will take the other tackle spot after playing 11 games last year, but Trent Holler and Bailey Malovic are the next two experienced players and combine for just six games. Holton Ahlers is set to put up some big numbers this year, but he won’t be able to do that if they line isn’t up to snuff.
11. Houston: Dana Holgorsen’s biggest concern is figuring out who will play on the line. Jarrid Williams was supposed to be the steady hand up front, but he transferred to Miami. Center Jack Freeman returns after being thrown into the fire last year. Gio Pancotti played nearly everywhere last year, which gives the Cougars flexibility. Braylon Jones also returns afters redshirting last year, and should take over one of the guard spots. Keenan Murphy and Max Banes will be in the running for the other guard spot, with both tackle positions suddenly open. Patrick Paul showed great potential with his length, so he should snag one of those spots, but both tackles are up for grabs. Clayton Tune ran for his life most of last year, so some stability up front would do wonders.