First Rate: Offensive Line

Only USC returns an undisputed starting five, and the Trojans struggled running the ball, protecting the QB. Duke, Texas and Nevada possess three of the most underrated units.

It’s a relatively down year for offensive lines on Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule.

The most experienced unit belongs to USC, which was a hit-and-miss offense en route to six losses in ’15. Stanford and Michigan State, usually boasting one of the top offensive lines in the country – which they ultimately will again -- return just two starters apiece.

Even Notre Dame’s unit, albeit anchored by two really good ones in LG Quenton Nelson and LT Mike McGlinchey, has less experience than normal.

There’s plenty of room for growth with these 13 offensive lines, although the Irish can’t afford to sleepwalk against Duke and Nevada.

13) Navy (No starters returning) – The First-Rate series will not be kind to the Midshipmen this year on offense with just one starter returning…and that’s a receiver (Jamir Tillman). At least Navy has some older players up front, including two seniors (C-Maurice Morris, LG-Adam West) and two juniors (RT-Robert Lindsey, RG-Evan Martin), although starting experience is sparse.

12) Army (LG-Victor Nieves, RG-Mike Houghton) – Officially, just two starters return for the Black Knights. But LT Justin Gilbert is back after suffering an ACL injury in 2015. OT Rick Kurz saw some starting action last year. By West Point standards, 244.3 yards rushing per game is not nearly enough for an option-based attack. Progress is anticipated.

11) Syracuse (RG-Omari Palmer, C-Jason Emerich) – Although three seniors are projected to start – Palmer, Emerich and LT Michael Lasker – it’s an offensive front shy on experience and a proven history of success, although the 21 sacks allowed last year was good for 44th in the country. An aggressive offensive attack featuring a hurry-up spread should help ease the burden up front.

10) N.C. State (C-Joseph Scelfo, LG-Tony Adams, RT-Will Richardson) – The Wolfpack struggled mightily protecting QB Jacoby Brissett, allowing 39 sacks in ’15. But HC Dave Doeren’s squad can run the football, led by RB Matt Dayes, who was well on his way to a 1,000-yard season in ’15 before a foot injury. The rushing attack will be impacted by the inexperience at QB, the loss of Brissett.

9) Nevada (LT-Austin Corbett, C-Nathan Goltry, RG-Jeremy Macauley, RT-Jake Henry) – You better come ready to play against this front. It’s a veteran group, albeit one that’s a bit vulnerable to quality pass rushes. Last year’s group help develop two 1,000-yard rushers. The depth is aided by the emergence of sophomore LG Sean Krepsz, who pressed incumbent Ziad Damanhoury in the spring.

8) Miami (LT-Trevor Darling, LG-KC McDermott, C-Nick Linder, RG-Danny Isadora) – Tons of experience and an equal amount of failure. At least four starters return with sophomore RT Tyree St. Louis battling incumbent Sunny Odogwu for the fifth spot. But the Hurricanes’ front was a sieve to the pass rush in the spring while the unit paved the way for just 119.9 yards rushing per game last year. Look for HC Mark Richt to get the line headed in the right direction.

7) Virginia Tech (LT-Jonathan McLaughlin, LG-Wyatt Teller, C-Eric Gallo, RG-Augie Conte) – Four starters return, but there’s much to prove for a team that averaged less than 160 yards rushing per game and allowed 34 sacks (No. 102). Look for first-year HC Justin Fuente to take advantage of the Hokies’ experience up front as he reshapes the offense.

6) Texas (LT-Connor Williams, RG-Patrick Vahe, RT-Kent Perkins) – The Longhorns are reaping the benefits of playing young last year. Sophomores Williams and Vahe should continue to progress. Only one senior, Perkins, projects as a starter. C Zach Shackelford is a freshman. The 32 sacks allowed in ’15 are alarming, but the 224.8 yards rushing per game was impressive.

5) Duke (RT-Casey Blaser, LG-Tanner Stone, LT-Gabe Brandner) – When you think of solid, consistent offensive fronts, the Blue Devils likely aren’t one of the first units to come to mind. Yet Duke ranked No. 38 nationally in rushing (192.9 ypg.) while finishing 22nd in sacks allowed with 17. The core of the unit returns with experience on the edge.

4) Stanford (LT-Casey Tucker, RG-Johnny Caspers) – By Cardinal standards, this is a pretty thin unit with just two starters returning and more doubts than usual. But with Christian McCaffrey toting the rock, it’s a good bet this group finds a way to excel. A lesser running threat at QB (6-foot-5, 237-pound Keller Chryst in place of Kevin Hogan) will make it difficult for the Cardinal to reach last year’s 223.7 ypg., even with the elusive McCaffrey.

3) Michigan State (C-Brian Allen, RT-Kodi Kieler) – The talent drain was significant with the loss of first-round draft choice LT Jack Conklin and C Jack Allen, although the Spartans had difficulty running the football with consistency (No. 95 nationally at 151.3 ypg.). Allen’s brother Brian takes over in the middle and Kieler returns for a unit that will lean on 327-pound LG Benny McGowan. A backfield-by-committee, led by RB L.J. Scott, will emphasize the run with the loss of QB Connor Cook. The rushing numbers will increase as a result.

2) Notre Dame (LG-Quenton Nelson, LT-Mike McGlinchey) – Despite just two starters returning, the Irish are a worthy No. 2 on this list with Nelson and McGlinchey legitimate All-American candidates and the key insertion of RT Alex Bars, who will begin the ascent that Nelson/McGlinchey made in ’15. Sam Mustipher is unproven at center, but he brings tenacity to the position. Less confidence exists at right guard where Hunter Bivin must prove himself. Notre Dame should be able to approach last year’s 207.6 yards rushing.

1) USC (RT-Zach Banner, LT-Chad Wheeler, LG-Damien Mama, C-Toa Lobendahn, RG-Viane Talamaivao) – The only offensive line on Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule with five undisputed starters returning, led by right tackle Banner – son of the great OL Lincoln Kennedy – and massive/massively talented Mama. While USC still has much to prove running the football (No. 70 at 168.2 ypg.) and protecting the QB (38 sacks allowed in ’15), the upside with this unit is higher than anyone else on the slate.

1. USC (7 – QB 3rd, RB 2nd, WR 1st,  OL 1)
2. Notre Dame (12 – QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 6th,  OL 2nd)
3. Stanford (21 – QB 5th, RB 1st, WR 11th, OL 4th)
4. Michigan St. (22 – QB 8th, RB 4th, WR 7th, OL 3rd)
5t. Virginia Tech (25 – QB 9th, RB 7th, WR 2nd, OL 7th)
5t. Texas (25 – QB 4th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 6th)
7t. Nevada (29 – QB 7th, RB 8th, WR 5th, OL 9th)
7t. Miami (29 – QB 2nd, RB 10th,  WR 9th, OL 8th)
9. N.C. State (30 – QB 10th, RB 6th, WR 4th, OL 10th)
10. Syracuse (31 – QB 6th, RB 11th,  WR 3rd , OL 11th)
11. Duke (33 -- QB 11th, RB 9th, WR 8th, OL 5th)
12t. Navy (50 – QB 13th, RB 12th, WR 12th, OL 13th)
12t. Army (50 – QB 12th, RB 13th, WR 13th, OL 12th)


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