TSD returns with the fifth installment of our early position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 LSU football team. Today we're looking at the offensive line, which battled through a plague of injuries to become a consistent unit in 2012.
At the bottom of this post are the links to our four previous position previews.
Returning Players: Josh Williford (Sr.), Chris Davenport (Sr.), Chris Faulk (Sr.), La'el Collins (Jr.), Elliott Porter (Jr.), Evan Washington (jr.), Trai Turner (So.), Vadal Alexander (So.), Jonah Austin (So.), Derek Edinburgh (R-Fr.), Jerald Hawkins (R-Fr.)
Added Recruits: Fehoko Fanaika (Jr.*), Ethan Pocic (Fr.), Josh Boutte (Fr.), Andy Dodd(Fr.), K.J. Malone (Fr.)
* = Entering from JUCO, will have two years of eligibility
Starting Line (left to right): Chris Faulk, La'el Collins, Elliott Porter, Trai Turner, Vadal Alexander
Darkhorse: Josh Williford, Fehoko Fanaika
The offensive line dealt with about as much adversity as one unit can possibly handle in 2012. Of the five anticipated starters heading into the year, three were unable to finish the regular season. By the Arkansas game, the offensive line barely resembled what most expected it would look like in August.
Starting left tackle Chris Faulk was the first casualty, suffering a season-ending knee injury during preseason practices. LSU attempted to replace him with sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk, but when that experiment initially failed, the coaches opted to switch Alex Hurst from the right side to the left and insert true freshman Vadal Alexander at right tackle.
Alexander shined in his first year at LSU, cementing himself as a possible four-year starter at right tackle. But the switch didn't have the same results for Hurst, who eventually left the team for still unconfirmed reasons. Hurst reportedly struggled with personal issues throughout the year, and a combination of injuries and discomfort at left tackle eventually sent him over the edge.
Hurst's departure reopened the door for Dworaczyk to step back into the starting lineup. He performed much better in his second chance, taking over full-time duties against South Carolina.
Josh Williford suffered a concussion against Florida, and did not return to the field during the regular season. Les Miles said this past week that he expects Williford to play in the bowl game, but it likely won't be in a starting capacity. Redshirt freshman Trai Turner replaced Williford, and like Alexander, played admirably in his first season of action.
Turner and Dworaczyk's steady play after each took over for the remainder of the season starting against South Carolina helped bring a sense of stability to an offensive line that struggled to get its feet steady early in the year. After the line allowed four sacks in consecutive games against Towson and Florida, LSU only surrendered one against the highly touted defensive line of the Gamecocks.
That game served as the turning point of the season for the line as the Tigers surrendered an average of just 1.8 sacks per game the rest of the way. That serves as a promising note as the Tigers move forward into 2013.
LSU will lose Dworaczyk to graduation but should regain the services of Faulk at left tackle. Faulk underwent knee surgery in September, but all reports seem to show that he's recovering quite well and will certainly be full-strength by the summer. If Faulk can return to his sophomore form that earned him a spot on the All-SEC team, LSU should be very comfortable with its two tackles.
Williford could potentially serve as a backup to both tackle and guard spots on the offensive line, but he will likely stay on the inside and replace Collins or Turner if they go down with an injury. Faulk's likely backup heading into the spring is current freshman Jerald Hawkins. He's listed at 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, though some that have seen him around the football facility predict he may be bigger than that. Despite his size, he's shown considerable mobility that will project well to left tackle.
Current freshmen Derek Edinburgh and Jonah Austin could also figure into the mix in the two-deep at either tackle position. Incoming freshman Ethan Pocic could also factor in if he excels in the spring as an early enrollee.
Both Collins and Turner played consistently well enough in 2012 to merit the starting nod in 2013. That gives LSU the luxury of having probably one of the better backups in the conference in Josh Williford, who played decently before his concussion. Behind Williford, there aren't any interior linemen with actual field experience.
Evan Washington projects to the inside, but after three seasons on campus, he has yet to take a snap (he missed all of 2012 due to academic ineligibility). That could open the door for some of the incoming recruits to work their way onto the depth chart.
Josh Boutte is one of the more talented commits along the offensive line and he has probably the highest probability of the current recruits to earn a backup role in 2013. Both Andy Dodd and KJ Malone will also probably cross-train at center to provide depth at that position.
Elliott Porter appears to be the favorite to take over for PJ Lonergan at center. Porter played sparingly in 2012, coming in a handful of times when Lonergan suffered the occasional minor injury. Porter struggled at times, particularly with the snap, as he and Zach Mettenberger didn't quite have enough chemistry. A full offseason of first-team reps with Mettenberger should cure all those concerns.
I listed Fehoko Fanaika as a darkhorse for 2013, because he could possibly come in next season as the second-string center. If Porter goes down with an injury, he would probably be the favorite to take over that starting spot. A big-bodied lineman, he was expected to come in as a center when he signed in 2012. That's likely still the case, and he'll be a player to keep an eye on when he arrives in January.
LSU has a wealth of depth along the offensive line in 2013. When the coaching staff can utilize experienced starters as backups, that just points to the amount of young talent in this group. Injuries are always a concern, but LSU should be in good position to handle adversity next season, and if the players can maintain health and consistency, expect this to be the Tigers' best unit next season.
2013 Position Preview: Offensive Line
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