With the exception of a couple good years in the early part of this decade, the Canes have often struggled to recruit and develop impact players up front. Art Kehoe was fired after the 2005 season but things didn't get any better under former line coach Mario Cristobal last year. Now, it's up to Jeff Stoutland to get things going.
After the incoming freshmen arrive in the fall, the Hurricanes will go at least 15 deep on the offensive line. However, there isn't much in the way of proven veterans and perhaps his biggest task will be trying to find the right mix of players.
"(We) split the teams up," Stoutland said after the spring game. "We had players playing next to each other that didn't play next to each other all spring."
The main reason for that is because of the injuries to several key players in this group.
"It's gonna get real interesting," he said. "You got (A.J.) Trump, got (Derrick) Morse, got (Jason) Fox, got these players who didn't even participate in spring. Well, two of them were starters last year."
With three potential starters out because of injuries, the Hurricanes were able to get a lot of younger linemen some reps in the spring. Chris Rutledge, a part-time starter in 2006, was able to work in at both guard and tackle. Matt Pipho, a player with very limited experience, was able to start in a couple of the scrimmages.
Perhaps the biggest question is who will protect the quarterback's blindside? The Hurricanes have really only had two real good left tackles since Leon Searcy left school after the 1992 season (Bryant McKinnie and Eric Winston). That's the most important position along the line and while Reggie Youngblood played there last season, it looks like Jason Fox could have the inside track.
"We had planned on putting Fox at left tackle until he got dinged up," Stoutland said.
Fox brings a tremendous amount of athletic ability to the position and has the quick enough feet to keep pass rushers off his quarterback's back. A year's worth of experience will be huge as he prepares for his sophomore season. If Fox assumes the left tackle spot, Youngblood will switch over to the right side, his more natural position.
Both guards, seniors Derrick Morse and Andrew Bain, have starting experience. Bain had a solid spring and Morse is expected to win the starting center position in the fall after he returns from injury.
At that point, the question becomes who will take Morse's spot at guard?
Chris Rutledge, a tackle in 2006, was given plenty of opportunities at guard this spring. Trump, who was switched to guard after he struggled early in his career at center (he's left-handed, which makes it tough for the center-quarterback exchange). That'll be an interesting competition to watch.
Matt Pipho, despite being 6-foot-6, will likely be given a chance to backup the center position, a spot he played in the spring.
Cyrim Wimbs, a fifth year senior, hasn't been able to play with any consistency up until now. He'll be a reserve tackle. Tyrone Byrd, a 6-7 junior, has shown flashes in practice but has never been able to make any type of impact on the field -- even as a reserve. Sophomore Chris Barney and redshirt freshman Ian Symonette are working hard to keep their weight down so they're able to make a difference by providing quality depth. Joel Figueroa is a massive guard prospect coming off a redshirt season.
Two players to keep a close eye on are incoming freshman Orlando Franklin and Harland Gunn. Franklin's a mountain of a prospect who is talented enough to push for early playing time in the fall. Gunn, an All-American in high school last season, will be able to push some of the younger guards. Tyler Horn is likely a redshirt candidate.
15 players, a new coach, and not much as far as proven difference makers means there's a lot of work to between now and opening night against Marshall.
Fox has all the tools to be a real good one at left tackle. Youngblood is one of the more talented youngsters UM's had up front in awhile. They should be able to protect the quarterbacks pretty well. The question is whether the Canes will be tough enough inside to open up enough holes for the running game.
It's time to find out why Stroutland was so well respected in Big 10 country before being hired by Randy Shannon.