June 18, 2008

SEC position rankings: Offensive line

BamaOnLine.com's annual Southeastern Conference position rankings return this summer with a special emphasis on the SEC West, and rankings now divided by division. True freshmen are not listed. The series continues with a look at the offensive lines around the league.

Offensive line

SEC West

1.] LSUProjected starters: LT Ciron Black; LG Herman Johnson; C Brett Helms; RG Lyle Hitt; RT Joseph Barksdale.
Best of the bunch: Tough call in an outstanding group, but the pick is Johnson, whose play at guard merited first-team All-SEC honors last year.
Key loss: OT Carnell Stewart.
Round Table Ranking: 1.
2007 By the numbers: 27 (Consecutive career starts for Black).
2007 high point: LSU's line completely embarrassed a proud Virginia Tech defense to the tune of 598 yards in a 48-7 win Sept. 8.
2007 low point: When the offense scores 37 and 48 points in your only two losses, there is no low point.
Spring postcard: Helms earned LSU's top spring honor, the Jimmy Taylor Award, for leadership, effort and performance.
Biggest concern: Barksdale, who was originally signed as a defensive lineman, fills in at right tackle as the only new starter up front. As Alabama fans know too well, trouble at right tackle can spell trouble for the entire line. If there is a weak link on LSU's 2008 offensive line, this will be it.
Biggest reason for optimism: In Helms, Johnson and Black, the Tigers have the most gifted trio of offensive linemen in the entire league. And with those three lined up one next to another on the left side, there is little doubt where most of LSU's rushing attempts will go this fall.

2.] AlabamaProjected starters: LT Andre Smith; LG Mike Johnson; C Antoine Caldwell; RG Marlon Davis; RT Drew Davis.
Best of the bunch: Smith was a co-winner of the Jacobs Trophy as the league's top lineman last year, and is seen as a strong early-entry NFL Draft candidate.
Key loss: LG Justin Britt.
Round Table Ranking: 2.
2007 By the numbers: 87 (career starts among four returning starters).
2007 high point: With more than 500 total yards, including a 100-yard rusher and a 300-yard passer, the line's performance against Tennessee was clearly its finest of the season in a 41-17 win.
2007 low point: With just 20 total rushing yards and seven sacks allowed, the line had no answers for LSU's front seven.
Spring postcard: Tackle Drew Davis emerged at the only position on the line where a first-time starter will be broken in.
Biggest concern: Aside from the uncertainty of Davis' performance on the right side, the entire line must prove it can run the ball consistently in SEC play.
Biggest reason for optimism: With two All-SEC anchors returning at center and left tackle, there are no excuses for this not being the best unit UA fields on either side of the ball.

3.] AuburnProjected starters: LT Lee Ziemba; LG Tyronne Green; C Jason Bosley; RG Chaz Ramsey; RT Ryan Pugh.
Best of the bunch: On a line absent of star power but loaded with cohesion, give the nod to the senior, Green.
Key loss: None.
Round Table Ranking: 3.
2007 By the numbers: 231 (Season-high for rushing yards, vs. Ole Miss).
2007 high point: With 190 rushing yards and 233 passing, AU's line was both balanced and effective in a bowl win over Clemson.
2007 low point: In the season opener against Kansas State, AU allowed a season-high five sacks and averaged less than two yards per rush.
Spring postcard: Pugh got some work at center in the spring, his natural position, and could see action there in the fall.
Biggest concern: Can Ziemba handle the transition to the left side, where he'll see more of the league's elite pass rushers? His standout freshman season suggests he can, but that doesn't mean there won't be some growing pains.
Biggest reason for optimism: A young line that steadily improved last year returns all five starters.

4.] ArkansasProjected starters: LT Jose Valdez; LG Mitch Petrus; C Jonathan Luigs; RG DeMarcus Love; RT Ray Dominguez.
Best of the bunch: Luigs shared the Jacobs award as the SEC's top lineman along with the Tide's Smith, and is the finest center in a league currently loaded at the position.
Key loss: OT Robert Felton.
Round Table Ranking: 5.
2007 By the numbers: 2 (Years that Luigs has been a finalist for the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top OL).
2007 high point: Rolling up 542 rushing yards in a conference game (vs. South Carolina) is the pinnacle for any offensive line.
2007 low point: Auburn was the only team to stuff the Hogs' run game all year (25 for 67).
Spring postcard: Dominguez turned in an impressive spring, winning one of the tackle jobs as a projected first-year starter.
Biggest concern: Without two of the nation's elite running backs overcoming missed blocks with ease, mistakes on the Arkansas front will be more costly than they've been in three years.
Biggest reason for optimism: With Luigs' leadership at center, this will continue to be an experienced, physical line.

5.] Ole MissProjected starters: LT Michael Oher; LG Reid Neely; C Daverin Geralds; RG Maurice Miller; RT John Jerry.
Best of the bunch: Oher (6-6, 322 pounds) is a major NFL prospect and could be primed for the best year of any lineman in the league.
Key loss: C Corey Actis.
Round Table Ranking: 4.
2007 By the numbers: 34 (Consecutive starts for Oher).
2007 high point: The Ole Miss front paved the way for a surprising 466-yard effort against the league's best defense in LSU.
2007 low point: Against an opponent it should have handled better, the Rebels line led the way for just 65 rushing yards against Louisiana Tech.
Spring postcard: The line struggled in pass protection in the Rebels' spring game and still needs work in that area, something new coach Houston Nutt noted in post-game remarks.
Biggest concern: Geralds is a first-year starter at a leadership position, which can sometimes be a tough transition. And with Nutt favoring a power running game between the tackles, Geralds' play will come under a quick microscope.
Biggest reason for optimism: Oher isn't a one-man show on this line. Jerry has plenty of experience and could start for most teams in the league.

6.] Mississippi StateProjected starters: LT Mark Melichar; LG Anthony Strauder; C J.C. Brignone; RG Michael Gates; RT Derek Sherrod.
Best of the bunch: Strauder is the most experienced of the bunch and brings a veteran presence to a physical group.
Key loss: OL Mike Brown.
Round Table Ranking: 6.
2007 By the numbers: 4 (New starters for MSU's OL in 2008).
2007 high point: The Bulldogs line gave up just one sack against UAB on the same night it got RB Anthony Dixon loose for a season-high 152 yards.
2007 low point: MSU's front was stuffed for just 45 rushing yards by West Virginia, allowing three sacks as well.
Spring postcard: Standout Mike Brown was dismissed from the team in March after an arrest. It's a major blow, as Brown posted an All-SEC season in 2007.
Biggest concern: The absence of Brown and a new starter at center give the Bulldogs some glaring question marks up front.
Biggest reason for optimism: Gates, who came on strong late last season, and sophomore Sherrod have the makings of a strong duo on the right side.

SEC East

1.] TennesseeProjected starters: LT Chris Scott; LG Anthony Parker; C Josh McNeil; RG Jacques McClendon; RT Ramon Foster.
The bottom line: Four starters return on a unit that allowed just four sacks in over 500 pass attempts last year. The strength here is McNeil and Parker, who line up side by side as the best center-guard tandem in the division. Watch for somewhat of a philosophy flip this fall, given the departure of a senior quarterback, and resulting in a renewed reliance on the ground game. TE Jeff Cottam adds another strong blocker for the running game.

2.] GeorgiaProjected starters: LT Trinton Sturdivant; LG Vince Vance; C Chris Davis; RG Clint Boling; RT Kiante Tripp.
The bottom line: Much like Auburn's, Georgia's offensive line went through some growing pains last year with a lack of experience but eventually developed a lot of cohesion, as well as some good results. The loss of center Fernando Velasco hurts, and his eventual replacement will be a battle waged in fall camp. Tripp will be an early-season question mark on the right edge in his first year as a full-time starter. Sturdivant and Boling held up well under fire as freshmen last season, paving the way for a 1,300-yard rusher.

3.] FloridaProjected starters: LT Phil Trautwein; LG Jim Tartt; C Maurkice Pouncey; RG Mike Pouncey; RT Jason Watkins.
The bottom line: With some of the most impressive offensive skill talent in the nation around them, UF's offensive line has one of the easiest jobs around. Whiff on a block? Tebow can tuck it for 20. Miss an assignment? Harvin only needs a crack anyway. Trautwein and Watkins give UF senior experience at the tackle spots as Trautwein returns from injury. Inside, Tartt anchors things at guard with 29 career starts while the Pouncey twins cut their teeth.

4.] South CarolinaProjected starters: LT Jamon Meredith; LG Seaver Brown; C Garrett Anderson; RG Heath Batchelor; RT Justin Sorensen.
The bottom line: A group that was inconsistent last season lost it's most consistent player in C Web Brown. Two senior tackles in Meredith and Sorensen give the Gamecocks some much-needed experience on the edge, but the interior will be a carousel of unprovens. Among reserves, Hutch Eckerson could be the first to make a move for playing time. Meredith will miss USC's first two games - vs. NCST and Vandy - on an eligibility ruling.

5.] KentuckyProjected starters: LT Garry Williams; LG Zipp Duncan; C Jorge Gonzalez; RG Jess Beets; RT Justin Jeffries.
The bottom line: Williams is the clear leader of this group, a veteran presence and a fine pass protector entering his third year as a starter. On the other side, right tackle Jeffries shows promise and has a full season under his belt. Like South Carolina, the bigger concern at UK is on the inside, where Gonzalez and Beets are new faces, and the other guard - Beets - struggled last season.

6.] VanderbiltProjected starters: LT Thomas Welch; LG Ryan Custer; C Bradley Vierling; RG Drew Gardner; RT Eric Hensley.
The bottom line: The Commodores' all-senior line from last season left an inevitable hole for 2008, where five new starters - all juniors - project on the starting front. The loss of Chris Williams is the major graduation blow, who was a stalwart at the critical left tackle spot. Replacing him will be Welch, another athletic guy (former tight end) with high potential. Vierling will give the Commodores leadership from the center position, but his experience is as limited as the rest.

BOL's top five overall

1. Jonathan Luigs (Arkansas)

2. Andre Smith (Alabama)

3. Michael Oher (Ole Miss)

4. Herman Johnson (LSU)

5. Anthony Parker (Tennessee)

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