They're known by a lot of interesting monikers like the big uglies, the big men up front and so on. However, a good offensive line is an often unsung part of any good offensive team's success and the Big 12 South is no different. Last year, the division featured some of the top o-linemen in the country. Reigning Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year Russell Okung of Oklahoma State is slated to be a top five pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and Oklahoma standout lineman Trent Williams also figures to be drafted in the opening round. However, even with their departure, there are still plenty of quality o-linemen throughout the South.
Art Briles' Bears will have to replace standout center JD Walton, a second-team All-Big 12 selection in 2009, starting left tackle Danny Watkins and right tackle James Barnard. Baylor will also have a new starting tight end. However, the good news is that there are plenty of holdovers who saw their share of action a year ago. At left guard, sophomore-to-be Ivory Wade started the final seven games of 2009 and his likely backup, Cameron Kaufhold, had one start.
Junior-to-be John Jones looks ready to step in at right guard, where Barnard has left a void with his graduation. BU is pretty set at right tackle, where Philip Blake returns for his junior season with fellow junior-to-be Joe Korbel likely backing him up. At tight end, Brad Taylor is ready to step into a starting role. Junior college transfer Robert T. Griffin (6-6, 345) is participating in spring drills as is incoming freshman tackle Troy Baker (6-6, 280). Other freshmen of note include Luke Burleson (6-5, 270), who played guard and tackle in high school, and Tim Smith (6-4, 285), a guard from Baytown.
Last year, the Sooner offensive line was wrought with injuries and also plagued by inconsistency. The good news is that head coach Bob Stoops can't expect another year like that in terms of injury and most of those who did play last year are back, making his offensive front more experienced. Of course, the loss of Williams, Trent Simmons and Brody Eldridge is big, but there is never a shortage of talent in Norman and that's true on the offensive line.
OU started four different centers last year but Ben Habern, who started 10 games there before suffering an ankle injury late in the year, is back and healthy. Also healthy is tackle Jarvis Jones, who played just nine games a year ago. Donald Stephenson, who played in seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2008, returns and will likely start at left tackle. Left guard Stephen Good made seven starts in 2009 there while Tyler Evans (four starts) and Tavaris Jeffries (three starts) will compete for the job at right guard. At right tackle, Cory Brandon started eight games.
The loss of Okung looms large but that isn't the hole OSU has to fill up front. The Cowboys return just one starter on their o-line, right guard Lane Taylor, a 6-2 sophomore-to-be who started the last 10 games there last fall. Junior-to-be Casey Labroe (6-3, 290) is the top candidate to step in for departed Noah Franklin at left guard. At center, junior-to-be Grant Garner (6-3, 290) looks to be an able replacement for Andrew Lewis.
However, the new starter who will have the biggest spotlight on him is Nick Martinez (6-4, 317) a talented Texan who will have the unenviable task of replacing Okung. O-State had five o-linemen, including four from Texas, in Mike Gundy's latest recruiting class: Gerron Anthony (6-3, 315), guard Eli Dickerson (6-6, 280), guard Jacob Jenkins (6-3, 255), fellow guard Daniel Koenig (6-6, 290) from Florida and Javius Townsend (6-4, 280). OSU has some big holes to fill on their line, meaning the Pokes could struggle early. However, as these new starters get their feet wet, look for Gundy's unit to gel, especially as they head into conference play.
Like most of the other teams in the division, UT lost three starters off their o-line. Center Chris Hall and tackle Adam Ulatowski were both second-team all-conference players while guard Charlie Tanner will also be tough to replace. Senior-to-be Kyle Hix returns at right tackle after playing all 14 games in 2009 and also seeing action on special teams. The Longhorns' other holdover is at right guard, where fellow senior-to-be Michael Huey, who played in 13 games, including nine starts on the right side, will anchor that spot.
The likely replacement at center is David Snow, a junior-to-be who played in 14 games last fall, including five starts at right guard. At tackle, senior-to-be Tray Allen appeared in 11 games, fellow senior-to-be Britt Mitchell appeared in all 14, Mason Walters appeared in one game before being injured while Paden Kelley is a redshirt freshman. At guard, sophomore-to-be Mark Buchanan saw time in six games last fall, senior-to-be Steve Moore played in 12 games for UT. Redshirt freshman Thomas Ashcraft is another to watch at guard. Mack Brown also added two o-linemen in his latest recruiting class in Dominic Espinosa (6-4, 295), a local product from Cedar Park, and Trey Hopkins (6-4, 280), a guard from Galena Park North Shore.
A&M has several holes to fill. At right tackle, second-team all-Big 12 selection Lee Grimes has graduated. At center, where the Aggies will need to replace Kevin Matthews and at left tackle, Michael Shumard has also graduated. However, head coach Mike Sherman has plenty of options. Junior-to-be Danny Baker, who played in 12 games last fall and made two starts at left tackle, is the top choice to replace Grimes. Junior-to-be Joe Villavisencio was Matthews' backup last fall and played in one game. Sophomore-to-be Stephen Barrera is the likely replacement for Shumard. As a true freshman, Barrera played in eight games and made three starts, all at left tackle.
At right guard, sophomore-to-be Patrick Lewis returns after an impressive freshman campaign. The Aggies are also set at left guard, where junior-to-be Evan Eike, who started the last six games there last fall, returns along with backup Brian Thomas, who played in 11 games in 2009. Last year, Matt Allen made six starts at guard to start the year and the former LSU transfer should again be in the mix. A&M signed five o-linemen, including Jake Matthews, Kevin's younger brother and son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews.
Tech returns just two starters on its o-line for 2010. Left tackle Chris Olson made seven starts there last fall and two more starts at left guard. He is back for his senior year. Also returning is left guard Lonnie Edwards, a solid junior who played in 10 games in 2009 and started the last eight on the left side. Starting center Shawn Byrnes, right guard Brandon Carter, a second-team All-Big 12 selection and right tackle Marlon Winn have all graduated.
However, the Red Raiders have some able replacements ready to step in at each position. At center, senior-to-be Justin Keown (6-4, 302) made one start in Byrnes' place last year and looks ready to see more action. It's a similar scenario at right tackle, where last year's backup, junior-to-be Mickey Okafor (6-7, 319), who made two starts in place of Carter, is poised to become the new starter. And at right tackle, sophomore-to-be LaAdrian Waddle (6-6, 350) looks ready to step up after making a pair of starts in 2009 in relief of Wynn.
Ranking the South's Offensive Lines (This is very subjective to say the least)
1) Oklahoma: Since the Sooners are the only team to return three starters, they get the nod. Last year's adversity should serve them well in 2010.
2) Texas: Longhorns lost three starters but right tackle Kyle Hix and right guard Michael Huey could both earn all-Big 12 honors as seniors.
3) Texas A&M: Right guard Patrick Lewis could become a star as a sophomore. Left guard Evan Eike is the other returning starter.
4) Baylor: JD Walton and Danny Watkins graduate but Art Briles returns three starters on his o-line, including Philip Blake and Ivory Wade.
5) Oklahoma State: Losing NFL-bound standout Russell Okung leaves a huge void. Cowboys return just one starter on entire offensive front.
6) Texas Tech: Left tackle Chris Olson and left guard Lonnie Edwards are the lone holdovers from last year's starting o-line.For more information about Big 12 sports, check out Fox Sports Southwest.