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Conference USA Preseason Position Previews: Offensive Line

Our top projected offensive lines match up with the conference’s expected title contenders quite closely.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Marshall Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to our annual offseason series, Conference USA Preseason Position Reviews. This year will be the fifth installment of the series in which we try to determine who has the best roster in C-USA on paper.

For those who are new around here, the format is simple. There are three grading categories: “Great Shape,” “Good Shape,” and “We’ll See.” If you don’t know what those categories mean, then I suggest you go back and check out the other posts in this season’s series so far.

We’ll be keeping track of the grades as each team will receive points based on the category their position groups were placed in. “Great Shape” will result in three points, “Good Shape” two points, “We’ll See” one point.

At the end of the series, there will be a final tally of which teams appear good enough on paper to contend for the conference title.

Great Shape

UAB - Unless you’re a Blazer fan, you’ve probably grown tired of seeing the Blazers at the top of these lists every year. Nonetheless, the Bill Clark factory keeps churning out deep, experienced units all over the roster. UAB returns their top seven offensive linemen in snap count, a group that collectively allowed just one sack throughout their entire 2020 championship season.

Marshall - All-conference guard Cain Madden’s transfer to Notre Dame has stolen the headlines this offseason but folks should be talking about how good this offensive line is from top to bottom. Tackle Will Ulmer was among the best run blockers in the country despite playing four different positions on the offensive line last season. Freshman Ethan Driskell (6’9”) showed promise in limited snaps last season. There’s no reason not to think the Thundering Herd won’t completely rebound from the loss of Madden.

UTSA - All-conference selections Ahofitu Maka and Spencer Burford pace the Roadrunners’ offensive line as they return almost every snap from last season. Right tackle Makai Hart’s health is the big wildcard here. When Hart was healthy last season the Roadrunners’ offense performed at a really high level. If he’s as good in 2021 as he was in 2020, but fully healthy, then UTSA’s offense should really take off this season.

UTEP - Three-time All C-USA Honorable Mention selection Bobby DeHaro leads a strong UTEP offensive line who will look to continue 2021 where they left off last season. The Miners have room to improve in pass protection but their run blocking is rock solid. Right Guard Elijah Klein is one of the more underrated players in the league and could make the jump to all-conference level play this season.

Syndication: ElPaso
UTEP’s offensive line won’t be holding back any potential offensive renaissance in El Paso.
Mark Lambie / El Paso Times, El Paso Times via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Good Shape

WKU - Cole Spencer and Mason Brooks will anchor a Hilltopper offensive line who will seek to replace three starters from last season. Expect redshirt sophomore Gunner Britton to step into a starting role and excel. With two FBS transfers on the way, there’s enough here to expect the Hilltoppers’ line to be at least average in 2021.

La Tech - Despite a tumultuous end to the 2020 season, Louisiana Tech is positioned to improve in the trenches this season. The Bulldogs will return all but one offensive lineman from their New Orleans Bowl starting lineup after center Kody Russey transferred to Houston. Junior Joshua Mote is ready to take the next step into all-conference honors after allowing just two sacks and committing two penalties through 728 snaps at left guard.

FAU - FAU returns all five starters from their Montgomery Bowl appearance, as well as redshirt freshman Federico Maranges who started several games as a true freshman. The Owls also boast other returning talented players such as Alex Atcavage, Doug Johnson Jr., and Devin Hayes. Despite all of the Owls’ talent up front they ranked in the bottom half of blocking grades and sack rate last season. Given the depth here it’s easy to anticipate the Owls’ performance improving in 2021. If the Owls can block as well against the run as they did against the pass last year then they could have an excellent offense again.

USM - Given the Golden Eagles extraordinarily tumultuous 2020, it’s no surprise that Southern Miss played a lot of different guys on the offensive line. The majority of their front returns this season with sixth-year senior Arvin Fletcher leading the way. USM has plenty of young talent on the roster but they’ll need more stability in 2021 to have sustained success. Briason Mays will also be joining the unit after transferring from West Virginia where he started seven games.

UNT - Four of the Mean Green’s starters return from last season, however apart from Jacob Brammer and Manase Mose, it’s still a bit unclear if UNT has all the answers they need upfront from a talent perspective. Even Mose struggled in pass protection last year, as his Pro Football Focus blocking grades have regressed each season.

NCAA Football: North Texas at California
North Texas’ offensive line will have continuity.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll See

Rice - The Owls’ line was disappointing last year but pretty much everyone returns for another go in 2021. Rice’s core group of Clay Servin, Isaac Klarkowski, Jovaun Woolford, and Shea Baker played a lot of snaps next to each other last season. That continuity should help communication and chemistry but we’ll need to see if these guys have the raw talent to make this unit a strong one.

Charlotte - The 49ers lost their acclaimed starting center Jaelin Fisher and their most promising talent Ty’kiest Crawford but their front still returns a lot of experience. Ashton Gist, Jon Jacobs, D’Mitri Emmanual, and Kelly Hunter form a formidable returning group of upperclassmen. While this group was solid in creating holes in the run game, they were woeful against the pass, allowing an average of 2.7 sacks per game. Continuity and vaccination should help this unit improve on that figure as the 49ers really struggled with Covid-19 last season.

FIU - It’s hard to get a firm grasp on the Panthers’ offensive line since the team played in (and lost) just five games. The unit’s 13% sack rate was less than stellar — but some of that was due to subpar quarterback play. Lyndell Hudson Jr. and Miles Frazier are bright spots on this line, but the Panthers will miss Obinna Nwankwo, Shane McGough, D’Antne Demery and Mershawn Miller from last year’s squad. This young offensive line will look to the potential leadership of transfers Api Mane (Kansas) and JD Gomez (Temple) to provide depth.

ODU - Your guess is as good as mine! The Monarchs have just 12 offensive linemen listed on the roster right now, only two of which have seen considerable playing time. Isaac Weaver is the most accomplished player left up front for the Monarchs as he’s started every game he’s played in at ODU, earning All-Freshman team honors in 2017 and honorable mention All-Conference in 2019.

MTSU - Head Coach Rick Stockstill hit the transfer market hard this offseason after the Blue Raiders finished 2020 as the clear-cut worst offensive line in C-USA. MTSU will hope JUCO transfers J’Shun Bodiford and Jacqui Graham will provide an immediate impact and that Arizona transfer Jamari Williams can have a break-through season at the G5 level.