Position Preview: Offensive Line

2006 was not a very good year for the Duke offensive line. Through the first four games, the offense was averaging a miserable 37.5 yards rushing per contest and Duke quarterbacks had already been sacked 24 times. Many factors played into this offensive ineptness, but the bulk of the burden fell on the big guys in the trenches.

Granted, the Devils were in a dire situation from the start. Two starters from the 2005 team elected not to return for their senior seasons, which left the line depth chart shallower than a kiddie pool. Lone returning starter, center Matt Rumsey, was flanked by four fresh faces. It was readily apparent from game one that this unit would be a season-long work in progress. And despite the horrific start, which included three shutouts, the line did improve tremendously as the season progressed. With every member of the 2006 depth chart returning along with four very talented red-shirts, the line prospects look quite rosier than a season before.

The bedrock of any offensive line is the center position, and this is where the Devils have the most experience. Matt Rumsey played sparingly as a freshman, but has lined up for almost every offensive snap the past two seasons. His senior experience and leadership help make up for average size and strength. His backup is 5th year senior Garrett Mason. After spending time at tackle, defensive line and guard, Mason has settled in to his role and should be able to provide quality minutes in a reserve capacity.

Tackle might be Duke's strongest overall position on the line. Juniors Cameron Goldberg and Fred Roland enter their second seasons as the bookend starters. Both players had consistency issues at times last season, but occasionally displayed a high level of play against some of the nations' best competition in the ACC. Goldberg, Duke's best lineman last year, is an athletic player who uses quickness and tenacity to execute his assignments. Because of his relative light weight (280 pounds) he can be effectively bull-rushed from time to time. Size is no issue on the right side, however, as Roland can use his prototypical NFL size (6'8", 310 lbs) to overpower his opponents. His long reach helps him keep opposing pass-rushers at bay. Despite their improvement, both will be pressed for playing time by mauling sophomore Jarrod Holt. He combines his immense size with quite a mean streak to be a devastating blocker once he gets locked on to his defender. To become a complete player, he will need to improve his lateral quickness to better handle speed rushers from the outside. Towering sophomore Ben Loebner (6'9" 305) can fill in on the right side for Roland. Despte his immense presence, Loebner's strength is still catching up to his frame so he will likely be relegated to spot duty early on.

Guard seems to be the one position where playing time is truly up for grabs. Last year's starters, senior Zach Maurides (290 pounds) and Rob Schirrman (285 pounds) are both undersized players who have had, at times, trouble getting a push on short-yardage situations. There are plenty of fresh, young faces that are hungry for playing time. As many as four red-shirt freshmen could figure into the rotation. Mammoth sophomore Mitch Lederman was expected to be a long-term project at Duke, but just might be ready for prime-time. He has changed his physique and improved his stamina over the past year, and, at 320 pounds, provides a pile-moving physical presence on the inside. Swedish import Marcus Lind has limited football experience, but is big and strong enough to handle himself in the ACC trenches. Rob Drum is a big, tall, talented player whose quickness and build might be better utilized on the outside. Duke needs to play their five best offensive linemen, and if Drum is the best option, he will play. Sophomore Jeff Cowart could also figure into the mix, but despite his great size and quick feet still might need another year of strength work and seasoning before he is ready to contribute. If none of the above options work out, cam Goldberg can slide down from tackle

Positional Strengths:

1. Familiarity – With the entire starting unit returning from a season ago, all members of the line should be used to playing next to one another. While this might not matter at most positions, familiarity with the man next to you is crucial to good offensive line play. All of the projected starters will be at least in their 4th year at Duke and this experience should pave the way for better line play in 2007.

2. Upward Trend – The line gradually improved during the course of the 2006 season. At the beginning of the year, they could not block anyone. By the final game, however, they were able to pave the way for a 44-point scoring day. With the entire depth chart returning and having an offseason with no turnover whatsoever, it is likely that the upward trend of improvement will continue into this year.

3. Reinforcements – Duke only had two or at best three reserves available last season. The Devils were blessed with relative health during the season so the lack of depth ended up not being a huge concern. This allowed the Devils to redshirt four players that just were not physically ready for college football. Now with a year of strength work and practice under their belts, the freshmen are ready to dramatically improve the OL depth in 2007.

Positional Question Marks:

1. Size – While Fred Roland is a mammoth at right tackle, the rest of the starters are considered average size at best. Cameron Goldberg is a good athlete, but at only 280 pounds is one of the smallest left tackles in the conference. As a whole, the projected starting offensive line has an average weight of 290 pounds. This is on the light side for a BCS conference line. While the lack of bulk might result in increased quickness, it becomes quite a hindrance in short-yardage situations where pile-moving becomes important.

2. Potential among returning starters – Roland and Goldberg are pretty good tackles that both made great strides in their first seasons as starters. The rest of the line, however, are older players that really have not shown any special ability. Matt Rumsey is a solid snapper, but has trouble moving out larger defensive tackles while run blocking. The guard positions last year were revolving doors several players were given a chance to seize the starting role. None stepped forward and took firm hold of the jobs.

3. Overall experience- The starting unit does return intact, however, most the backups are second and first year players, almost all of which have no college experience. Sure these players have plenty of talent, but talent can only take you so far. A taste of real game action will show whether or not these player are ready to positively contribute to Duke's offensive success.

Bottom Line:

The line is undoubtedly the biggest unknown of the entire offense. The tackle and center positions appear set with 3 4th year players. The guard spots, however, seem to be a free-for-all heading into the fall. Expect an intense preseason battle between Maurides, Schirrman, Lederman, Holt, Drum and Lind for the final two line spots. If Holt shows he is ready to assume the left tackle duties, Goldberg will move inside to the left guard spot and that will leave a bevy of players fighting for one position. The improved competition coming from the younger players should result in better overall line play. Still, the line was below average at best last season. So, if the performance of this unit does not continue its upward trend from a season ago, Duke will once again struggle to score points. If the line is able to open holes for the running game and provide adequate protection for the quarterback, Duke will score many more points in 2007.


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