Position Preview: Offensive Line

TSD.com's fall camp position analysis heads into its fourth feature today, as we finish up the offense by taking a look at the offensive line. With a pair of green quarterbacks and a stable of workhorse tailbacks, this unit is going to be the key to a successful attack. By all indications this bunch is not going to disappoint.

A Look Back


Last year’s unit did a fantastic job of paving the way for the ground game. The 2007 Tigers finished with 2,998 rushing yards, an average of 214.1 yards a game. Those numbers were good enough for second in conference behind the dynamic duo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, and 11th nationally. The line also finished with 30 sacks allowed, an average of two per game. Not too shabby for a unit that was replacing two starters.


Herman Johnson and Ciron Black set the tone for the 2008 season as they (amazingly) topped 1,000 snaps on the season. Despite the injuries to departed guard Will Arnold, this was one of the few units on the team that managed to stay mostly intact throughout the season.


This was an offense that averaged nearly six yards per play, and everyone knows it started with the guys up front.


With center Brett Helms, guard Lyle Hitt, and Black all returning, Johnson’s decision to forego the NFL draft assured Tiger fans that 2008’s O-line would be just as, if not more dominant than 2007’s. Johnson’s decision to stay definitely lessened the pain of right tackle Carnell Stewart’s graduation.



Spring Camp


Behind the quarterback battle, the scramble for the open right tackle spot was the second-most controversial topic in the Tiger Nation. It was tough to tell who was gaining the upper hand in the battle between sophomores Joseph Barksdale and Jarvis Jones, and the debates likely would’ve continued into the fall had it not been for the unfortunate dismissal of Jones just a few weeks ago.


Meanwhile, the rest of the line seems poised for a season of steamrolling opponents. Black and Johnson have been near-unanimously considered the best left side of any SEC line since the spring, and they furthered those sentiments as recipients of LSU’s Iron Man awards for spring conditioning. Entering his senior season, Johnson also earned an award for leadership.


Tiger fans were also happy to hear that Barksdale earned one of three awards for most improved player on the roster, an encouraging sign considering the expectations he will be carrying into the fall. Brett Helms rounded out an impressive spring for the line by securing one of just two awards for overall leadership, effort, and improvement.



Fall Camp


It seems now that although the line will enter camp with significantly less depth, they will at least have a clear idea of what the front five will be. As a special teams starter and a prominent backup for Stewart, Barksdale was more experienced than Jones with double the starts. Having seen the field in all 14 games in 2007, the sophomore has the tools (6-6, 315) to go to work right away, not to mention he has the experience of such a close-knit group to fall back on.


With a month to go before the season, the SEC media has made its expectations known. Just last week Johnson was named first team All-SEC, while Helms and Black were nominated to second team. This gives Barksdale a month to gel with an All-Conference caliber line, and the sophomore has no real competition breathing down his neck with the departure of Jones.


Speaking of Jones, depth has suddenly become a concern heading into the fall. Senior Ryan Miller is a more than adequate and experienced backup at the center spot, but what about the rest?


For nearly every other spot along the line, the Tigers will be looking for redshirt freshman to step up. Ernest McCoy certainly has the build to play tackle in the SEC (6-5, 333), but absolutely no game experience. The same goes for fellow redshirt Josh Dworaczyk, who may be looked at to fill in if Hitt or Johnson goes down. Scary as it sounds, Miller is the only upper classman reserve to go to in case of emergency, so these young players need to grow up quickly in the coming month.



My Take


Depth issues aside, this line is going to do whatever it wants against 10 of the 12 teams it is going to play.


Johnson and Black are sure-thing first day draft picks if they can stay healthy and produce. A great season from Black could see the junior become the next big money tackle taken in the NFL Draft, similar to Michigan’s Jake Long and Wisconsin’s Joe Thomas, provided he exhausts all of his eligibility.


Lyle Hitt is dwarfed by the massive Johnson (but who isn’t) but is still as tenacious a lineman as you’ll find with a penchant for knocking defenders on their backs. Barksdale served as Black’s backup in eight games last fall, and found himself as the No. 1 right tackle on the field goal and punt teams. Upside like his, combined with some decent game experience, leads me to believe the new guy will be just fine. Even better than fine by the middle of the year.


Brett Helms just might be the heart and soul leader for this team, similar to Jacob Hester or Glenn Dorsey in ’07. However, the third-year center likely won’t get anywhere near as much attention from the fans or the NFL scouts. At 6-2, 283 pounds, he’s an average of two inches short and 16 pounds lighter than the other 11 starting SEC centers.


Still, the Arkansas native enters the season on the 2008 Rimington watch list, and he returns as the unit’s leader in knockdown blocks. If that’s not absolute nastiness and tenacity, there’s the fact that he didn’t miss a single snap in any of the games against Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Helms enters the season having already attained his LSU degree in business management, which is a nice coincidence since, as center, he’ll be managing the business of rolling over anyone in the backfield’s way.


There is the small matter of the tight ends. This line is certainly going to miss the blocking ability of big guy Keith Zinger. Zinger is off to join the Atlanta Falcons, and while Richard Dickson is a phenomenal weapon, his blocking is something that he is working on and will continue to do in the coming camp.


Aside from Dickson, there is not much experience at tight end. Redshirt freshmen Mitch Joseph and Alex Russian will likely get a chance to show their stuff as valuable backups. I recall from the spring both players working with coaches separately on their blocking and route-running. Joseph was recruited as an excellent blocker and will likely be Dickson’s top backup but two true freshmen are waiting in the wings in Tyler Edwards and Matt Branch.


The tight ends and the depth issues are minor concerns in the long run. 2008’s unit has been together about as long as one could hope for, and has good luck staying healthy (knock on wood). LSU’s front line is entering the season as the SEC’s top line, and shouldn’t take long in establishing itself as one of the best in the nation.

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