Season preview: Offensive line

If the line can stay healthy, LSU is poised for a big season from the big men up front.

Soon after LSU put the finishing touches on Texas A&M in last January’s Cotton Bowl, Tiger fans had their eyes on next season.

What would revamp the offense?

While the offense struggled in 2010, the coaching staff – from Les Miles to first-year offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa – preached of change in 2011.

And for Miles and Studrawa, a pair of former linemen, change begins up front.

LSU returns a slew of veterans to the offensive line, with eight players earning at least one start last fall.

The departure of Joseph Barksdale at left tackle was the only hole Studrawa had to fill in his starting five, a spot handed to sophomore Chris Faulk – who started the final two games of 2010 at right tackle.

That was expected.

The next move Studrawa had to make wasn’t.

After the coaching staff elected to work through spring and summer workouts without starting left guard Josh Dworaczyk as a result of a lingering knee issue, the fifth-year senior went down with an injury midway through the team’s fall camp.

This time, it will cost him games.

The only question remains how many.

“We might lose (Dworaczyk) for some time,” Miles said at Monday’s first press luncheon of the season. “I think there has been an evaluation on his injury and I think he will be operated on in the next 10 days or two weeks.”

When the Tigers were without Dworaczyk last spring, Studrawa worked T-Bob Hebert at left guard and kept Will Blackwell at right guard.

This summer, freshman La’el Collins arrived to campus – giving the staff a third option at guard.

At 6-foot-5, 320-pounds, Collins was already physically ready for the college game. If there was room to make up elsewhere, the former Redemptorist High star evidently took care of business.

“Collins has the ability to step in and play as a young player,” Miles said. “You look at T-Bob Hebert and Will Blackwell in front of that, but La’el Collins has the ability. We don’t want to slow him up. We want to get him to the field quickly.”

No matter, all three have been sharing reps in Dworaczyk’s absence over the past couple of weeks.

If last year’s injury to Will Blackwell - on the first offensive snap against North Carolina - proved anything, it’s that you can never have too many bodies ready in the trenches.

“They are trying to get everyone reps,” Blackwell said. “T-Bob is even getting reps at right and left (guard). We are just trying to prepare ourselves in case of injury.”

The center and right tackle spots don’t hold as much mystery.

Junior P.J. Lonergan returns to the middle of the line after starting all 13 games at center last fall, while Alex Hurst – who started in all 10 games that he saw action in as a sophomore – will return to his post at right tackle.

“We have talent and plenty of experience,” Lonergan said. “We just have to stay healthy to be as strong as we want to become.”

 

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

 

Position coach: Greg Studrawa

Starters returning: 4

Lettermen returning: 9

 

PROJECTED STARTERS

 

76 Chris Faulk (6-6, 325, So.) - LT

53 T-Bob Hebert (6-3, 304, Sr.) – LG

-or-

78 La’el Collins (6-5, 320, Fr.) – LG

64 P.J. Lonergan (6-4, 305, Jr.) – C

60 Will Blackwell (6-4, 290, Sr.) – RG

-or-

53 T-Bob Hebert (6-3, 304, Sr.) – RG

72 Alex Hurst (6-6, 340, Jr.) - RT

 

OFF THE BENCH

 

73 Chris Davenport (6-4, 320, So.)

70 Evan Washington (6-5, 326, RS Fr.)

75 Greg Shaw (6-5, 281, Sr.)

79 Matt Branch (6-6, 287, Jr.)

74 Josh Williford (6-7, 324, So.)

71 Jonah Austin (6-6, 322, Fr.)

63 Trai Turner (6-2, 332, Fr.)

67 Corey White (6-3, 328, Fr.)

 

NOTABLES

Out of action: Josh Dworaczyk (knee)

 

Veteran difference-maker: P.J. Lonergan

 

Rising star: La’el Collins

 

Something to chew on: After Steve Kragthorpe’s bout with Parkinson’s Disease forced the first-year assistant to step down from his post as offensive coordinator, offensive line coach Greg Studrawa was handed the playbook. With Les Miles also involved, the two former college linemen will likely put a premium on running the football.

 

Numbers of note: T-Bob Hebert might be the odd man out of a starting job, but the fifth-year senior is one of the best sixth men in the country. Last season Hebert played in all 13 games and earned seven starts at right guard, and he racked up a team-high 76 knockdowns in the process. The year prior, Hebert played every snap at center through the team’s first seven games. If anyone across the middle of the line stumbles or goes down this fall, Hebert is more than able to handle their duties.

 

This unit will shine if: Everyone stays healthy. The injury bug has bitten LSU in the past and already struck this fall camp. If the front five can stay out of harm’s way, the offensive playmakers will have the stage to do what they may.

 

This unit will struggle if: Injuries take down multiple players. The Tigers have experience with nine lettermen returning and a promising newcomer in La’el Collins, but that doesn’t mean Miles wants to test the quality of his depth chart. Names like Josh Williford and Evan Washington will become involved, but anyone beyond them seeing significant action would spell bad news for the Tigers.

 

Prediction: By midseason, Chris Faulk and Collins will anchor the left side of the line – and the run game will be the staple of the offensive attack. If the pair of youngsters on the left side become comfortable, Jarrett Lee will become one of the most well-protected quarterbacks in the SEC.

 

Quotable: “When (Faulk) gets on you, he has the potential to drive you into the ground. And he does it with a very pleasant demeanor, just a big smile on his face. He can smash you into the turf.” - Miles

 

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