Positional Preview: Offensive Line

Perhaps not one positional group has faced more scrutiny during the off-season and pre-season camp than the offensive line. With the Blue Devils replacing three starters including both tackles, the questions are well warranted. However, there are some steady building blocks and encouraging signs coming from the off-season work.

Projected Depth Chart:
Starters:
T - Mitchell Lederman - Jr. & Jarrod Holt - Sr.
G - Kyle Hill -So. (also LT) & Brian Moore - So.
C - Bryan Morgan - Jr.
Top Reserves:
T - Pontus Bondeson - Jr, Connor Irwin - Fr, Rob Drum - Jr
G - Brandon Harper - Jr, John Coleman - Fr
C - Jeffrey Coward - Jr.
Though they will be looking for players such as Lederman and Holt to step up on the outside, the interior portion of the offensive line is sound with he return of two year starter Bryan Morgan at center and freshman All-American Kyle Hill at guard. In this third year in Durham, Hill has drawn praise from both offensive and defensive players alike for his ability to quickly engage his opponent and hold his blocks.

"I go against him every day in practice and we're constantly pushing each other to get better," said senior defensive end Ayanga Okpokowuruk. "He's really worked hard to improve on what he did last year, and going against a player like that can only make you better."

Another player garnering praise from the defensive unit is redshirt freshman Brian Moore who finds himself locked in a battle for the starting spot with converted defensive tackle Brandon Harper. Moore had a head start on Harper when it came to learning the position after spending last year as a redshirt. However, Harper has made this positional battle a hotly contested affair with his advantage in strength.

"Both of those guys are playing well and really pushing each other," said middle linebacker Vincent Rey. "I think Moore will be ready to help us this year, and Brandon is just so strong that he really helps out when he's in there. He makes it tough on the defense to get any kind of push."

In the middle Morgan returns after spending the off-seasn adding some weight (he's listed 10 pounds heavier than in 2008) and focusing on stepping in as the leader of the line.

"I have to make sure that guys know who to pick up - especially in the passing game," said Morgan. "If we're gong to be passing I need to call out and explain to guys which players are going to try and shoot through the gaps, which linebackers are going to be coming, etc. If someone isn't doing that, it's my job to make sure to remind them and get them on the same page."

Being on the same page will be extremely important as the Blue Devils will line up a pair of new starters at the tackle position. In a league that has produced a number of high round NFL Draft picks at the defensive end position over the last few years, it's crucial. And, because of the relative inexperience of whomever wins the starting tackle jobs, Morgan says he can see why every preseason preview questions the strength of the line.

"We lost three starters from last year so people naturally think we are going to be the weak link in the offensive unit. That's good. We know we need to prove them wrong and it gives us a pretty big chip on our shoulders."

And, through the offseason and preseason work, Morgan believes the line has actually taken some major steps forward and could end up being a strength for this year's team.

"We really trust each other. Unlike the skill positions, no one offensive lineman can make individual plays and be successful. You have to move as a unit. You have to think as one and support each other. We have terrific chemistry and we really trust one another. Guys are in the best shape of their lives right now and some of them have really changed their bodies and their approach to the game in the last year. Everyone is maxing out their potential."

Three players have made a push to earn the starting nod at tackle this season. However, injuries appear to have slowed down Pontus Bondeson which has thrust Holt and Lederman to the forefront. Both have terrific size - averaging 6-foot-6 and 308 pounds between them and both appear to fall into the category of players who have made tremendous strides in the weight room. Holt, in particular, has shown flashes of being able to move quickly off the snap, and entered Duke with extremely high expectations after fans saw his brother shine at NC State. Now, as a senior, it's time for him to put everything together.

One piece of good news in regards to injuries is that Bondeson is expected to recover and play this season. In addition, reserve Rob Drum has seen time at tackle with the second team as well as second year freshman Conner Irwin. Another player who has seend significant time with the second team on the interior of the line is redshirt sophomore Jon Needham. At nearly 6'7 and 300 pounds, Needham is a load to move off the line.

True freshman Joey Finison has also seen time with the second team, but like most linemen he's expected to spend this season learning the various assignments and responsibilites as a redshirt. The team's long snapper and third year player, Chris Shannon, will likely find his way on to the two deep as well.

Overall the group is as deep and naturally talented as any group the Blue Devils have trotted out in recent memory. The one nagging concern - and it's a big one - the lack of experience up and down the two-deep. Throughout the preseason, the line has been able to protect the quarterbacks well enough, but the real test for this group will have to come in the running game where Duke struggled immensely a season ago. If the line can open some holes and take some pressure off the passing attack - it'll have been a successful season and one to build on for 2010.


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