If there's one thing Kansas fans have learned never again to underestimate during the previous two seasons, it's the importance of steady offensive line play.
The Jayhawks were masters of trench warfare in 2007. Led by junior All-American Anthony Collins – now of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals – that line was big, talented and above all else, experienced. Including Collins, it was a group comprised of four juniors and a senior.
In hindsight, it should come as no surprise that unit experienced the success it did. Capable of paving the road for Brandon McAnderson or protecting Todd Reesing with equal efficiency, the 2007 offensive line was the foundation upon which 12 wins and an Orange Bowl championship were built.
Things have been a little different for the past two years, however. With the loss of Collins to the NFL Draft and right tackle Cesar Rodriguez to graduation, the 2008 offensive line incorporated two redshirt freshmen at the tackle spots in Jeremiah Hatch and Jeff Spikes.
The 2008 offense still put up big numbers, largely through the air, but nobody who watched that team perform would have called them consistent. Unable to exert their will on opponents like the line of a year prior, they nonetheless found an identity in time to earn an Insight Bowl bid (and victory) on the road to an eight win season.
The trouble was this: Fans wondered how much of that identity was built on Todd Reesing's almost supernatural talent for escapability. Though the offensive line frequently broke down in 2008, Reesing eluded danger and avoided sacks with effortless grace, turning groans to cheers in the span of a few heartbeats with astonishing frequency. Though not smoothly, the offense still hummed along and lit scoreboards aflame every week.
The outlook was brighter for 2009. Gone were the interior trio of center Ryan Cantrell and guards Chet Hartley and Adrian Mayes, but the athletes replacing them were largely considered to be more talented – an optimistic belief commonly harbored by college football fans of their respective teams. Hatch shifted to center, junior Wisconsin transfer Brad Thorson and junior Sal Capra filled the guard spots. Spikes maintained his spot at right tackle and was expected to have a breakout year, and redshirt freshman Tanner Hawkinson completed his transition from tight end to left tackle, where he is believed to have NFL potential.
If only things could have worked so smoothly.
An early-season injury to running back Jake Sharp hampered the 2009 Jayhawks' big play ability right off the bat, but it wasn't until Reesing suffered an undisclosed injury that things took a turn for the worse. As the offensive line shuffled new players in and out and rotated others, in the hope of finding that right combination, #5's ability to dodge opposing defenders was severely hampered – and the offense suffered.
With a porous defense giving up points in bunches, and Reesing's magic seemingly failing, the 2009 Jayhawks stumbled home to a disappointing 5-7 record.
But what about 2010? What can Kansas fans expect from their offensive line in the weeks ahead? Like so many positions on the two-deep right now, it's a unit suffering from a lack of depth though, perhaps a bit strangely, not experience.
Of the 10 athletes listed on the two deep, five started multiple games together in 2009; a number that would have stood at six if Spikes hadn't suffered a season-ending leg injury prior to the start of fall camp.
Here, Phog.net takes a look at those athletes expected to be key contributors in the trenches for the Jayhawks this season:
Tanner Hawkinson – Redshirt Sophomore – Left Tackle – 6-foot-6, 293 pounds:
All things considered, 2009 was a huge success for the big left tackle from McPherson, Kan. Still undersized – weighing approximately 275 pounds when the season began – and a greenhorn at the position, he nonetheless provided a stable force protecting Reesing's blindside, and it wasn't only the fans who noticed. Named to Freshman All-America teams by a host of publications, Hawkinson was also an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention selection.
Recruited as a highly-rated tight end, the switch to left tackle is proving to have been a no-brainer. Hawkinson is the total package at the position. Tall with a large frame and long arms, he has maintained much of the quickness and agility that made him so tantalizing at tight end, allowing him to shadow opposing defensive ends and blitzing linebackers with ease.
If he struggled in any aspect of his game in 2009, it was run blocking, through no fault of his own. It was a matter of size and experience more than anything else, and both of those ailments, so to speak, appear to have been remedied in 2010. With another 20 pounds sitting easily on his frame, Hawkinson now falls just a hair's breadth shy of 300 pounds.
If recently-named starting quarterback Kale Pick is going to breathe easy while dropping back in the pocket this season, Hawkinson is going to be a big reason why. Fans have every reason to expect big things from this talented left tackle as the season approaches.
Duane Zlatnik – Redshirt Sophomore – Left Guard – 6-foot-4, 326 pounds:
Looking at his bio, it's hard to miss the similarities between Zlatnik and Hawkinson Both are Kansas products – though Zlatnik hails from Rossville rather than McPherson – and both were recruited to play positions other than those in which they are currently performing.
Most fans expected Zlatnik to be a monster at defensive end for the Jayhawks by this point, and with good reason. Possessed not only of great size (260 pounds as a high school senior) and strength, he was also a state championship wrestler.
The best wrestlers possess not only outstanding agility, but an almost instinctive understanding of how to use leverage to their advantage. Zlatnik has this ability in spades, and it's a big reason why he has earned a spot in the starting lineup – despite only switching to offense in the spring.
The one concern where Big Z is concerned has to be experience. Players with his natural ability can get by without knowing all the technique tricks of a wily veteran, but there's no substitute for in-game action when the lights are shining and the crowd is roaring. This being the case, it will help his own development to have Hawkinson on his left and senior leader Sal Capra on his right at center.
It may take him a few games to settle in, but one would be hard pressed to find a candidate better suited physically to make an impact in Head Coach Turner Gill's revamped, run-heavy offense. Big, strong and athletic, all the tools are there for Zlatnik to be a monster in the trenches for the Jayhawks for years to come.
Sal Capra – Senior – Center – 6-foot-2, 295 pounds:
It should tell you a little something about a player when he wins a team award given to the athlete with the most courage. That was Sal Capra in 2009, as he took home the program's "Gale Sayers Award" at the end of his junior campaign.
A quick glance at the senior from Kansas City, Mo. doesn't reveal anything special physically. Listed generously at 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds, Capra doesn't have outstanding reach or quickness. He's not the best athlete on the line. Which isn't to say, of course, that he's without the tools for success.
What he does have is experience (started all 12 games in 2009, and served as the team's top backup at guard in 2008), versatility (has played both guard positions before landing at center in recent weeks) and toughness.
Want a player who knows the assignments of every position on the line on any given play? That's Sal Capra.
What about one who can answer the bell at virtually any position, should one of his teammates go down? Yep. That's Capra, too.
And what about a player who absolutely will not quit, not for a second, until the final horn sounds and the clock reads 00:00?
He and fellow senior Brad Thorson, the starter at right tackle, are the equivalent of Old Faithful along the offensive front. Smart, experiences and savvy, to hear offensive line coach J.B. Grimes tell it, they are the unit's unheralded heroes.
When the pressure is at its most intense, Sal Capra can be counted on to bring it with everything he's got. Rare is the offensive line capable of succeeding without one or two of those players to serve as its foundation.
Trevor Marrongelli – Redshirt Sophomore – Right Guard – 6-foot-2, 293 pounds:
There may be no higher praise for an offensive lineman than to characterize him as "nasty."
It's a descriptor that evokes some very specific imagery where the sport is concerned. Images of pancake blocks, of gloved hands ripped and bleeding from being stepped on, and a glowering, menacing force of a football player who doesn't quit until the whistle blows.
Trevor Marrongelli? Well, dude is straight up nasty.
The Jayhawks landed a bevy of talented offensive linemen in the 2008 recruiting class, but Marrongelli's may have been the most impressive. In the process of steamrolling defensive tackles and linebackers at Austin (TX) Westwood High School, the big sophomore displayed excellent punch off the line of scrimmage and a penchant for finishing blocks in a big way.
Marrongelli doesn't enter the 2010 season completely green. As one of the top backups on the interior in 2009, he saw action in a number of contests, and started a pair of games – first versus Kansas State and second in the season-finale versus Missouri.
Still, as with Zlatnik and even Hawkinson to a degree, one of the key ingredients to his success will be how quickly he can adjust to life as an every-down offensive player. How well does he understand the playbook? How good of a feel does he have for the tendencies of his brothers-in-arms on the right side of the line, Capra and Thorson?
Jayhawk Nation is waiting with breathless anticipation to answer those question, and many more, during Sept. 4's season opener versus North Dakota State.
Brad Thorson – Senior – Right Tackle – 6-foot-5, 310 pounds:
This season represents the end of a long journey for Thorson. Hailing from Mequon, Wisc., he committed to the University of Wisconsin out of high school, and in fact saw playing time at center for the Badgers in 2007, following a redshirt campaign in 2006.
A series of events led to his transfer to Lawrence following his redshirt freshman season, however, and since arriving on campus he has been one of the Jayhawks' most versatile linemen. Capable of playing anywhere from center to tackle, Thorson started all 12 games as a junior in 2009 – first at left guard before landing at right tackle for the last four games of the season.
Though more suited for the interior line physically, Thorson's intelligence and experience allow him to succeed at offensive tackle, and a great deal is expected of him in 2010. Like Capra, Thorson will be counted on to provide leadership on the field and potential depth at multiple positions.
On the field, he is the equivalent of a "glue guy." While perhaps not possessed of elite skills in any one area, he is extremely well-rounded as a lineman. Smart, tough and physical, he possesses all the veteran tricks one might expect from a fifth year senior.
The key for him will be staying healthy. After breaking his foot in the summer prior to training camp, he has returned to the practice field in recent weeks and appears to be working at full strength. If he's healthy, he and Hawkinson provide an outstanding pair of bookends for the Kansas offensive line.
Others likely to see significant playing time:
Jeremiah Hatch – Redshirt Junior – Center – 6-foot-3, 332 pounds:
Though he recently lost his starting spot to Duane Zlatnik, who slid into the spot at left guard while Sal Capra took over duties at center, Jeremiah Hatch is nonetheless one of the most talented and experienced linemen Kansas has at its disposal. Plagued with bouts of inconsistency in 2008 and 2009, fans can be assured he'll see the field plenty in 2010, likely at center and guard.
Heading into 2010 his 24 consecutive starts are tops among current players, while his 24 total starts rank second behind Chris Harris (29).
2009 (So.): Started all 12 games at center... Played tackle as a freshman in 2008.
2008 (Fr.): Earned Rivals.com Freshman All-America Second Team honors... Started at right tackle in games two through five before moving to left tackle where he started the final nine games of the year... One of two redshirt freshmen tackles on the line along with Jeff Spikes... Had to replace current Cincinnati Bengal and 2007 All-American Anthony Collins at this position.
Riley Spencer – Redshirt Freshman – Tackle – 6-foot-7, 300 pounds:
Though he has yet to see the field during a game, Spencer possesses more potential than perhaps any lineman on the Jayhawks' roster – including Tanner Hawkinson. At 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, he possesses ideal size, strength and reach for the tackle position. When Brad Thorson was out with a foot injury during the early stages of training camp, it was Spencer who stepped into handle the repetitions.
Expect him to see snaps as Thorson's backup in 2010, particularly in goal line and short yardage situations.
Filling out the two deep:
Gavin Howard – Redshirt Freshman – Left Tackle – 6-foot-5, 292 pounds:
2009 (Fr.): Redshirted the season.
High School: A three-year letterwinner at Owasso HS... Played offensive tackle... A Tulsa World all-metro second team selection as a senior... Team was 6-5 his senior season and finished second in the district with a 6-1 record... Also an all-state basketball player... Named an Oklahoma Academic Scholar.
Alex Smith – Senior – Left Guard – 5-foot-11, 266 pounds:
2009 (Jr.): Saw time as a backup against Northern Colorado in the season opener.
2008 (So.): A backup offensive lineman who provided depth up front for the Jayhawks.
Michael Martinovich – Redshirt Junior – Right Guard – 6-foot-5, 279 pounds:
2009 (So.): Saw time as a backup lineman and special teams player.
2008 (RS): Redshirted after transferring from the Air Force Academy, where he played tight end in 2007.