Spring Camp Guide - Offensive Line

Spring practices begin next week for the Aggies. Aggie Websider contributor Jeffrey Jennings takes a look at one of the most improved positions since the arrival of head coach Mike Sherman. With four starters returning on the offensive line, expectations are high that the Aggies can control the point of attack in 2011.

Spring Camp Guide 2011: Offensive Line

Upon his arrival in 2008, one of Coach Sherman's first priorities was the complete rebuild of a shoddy offensive line. By last off-season, the unit was finally starting to come together, but had several unknowns, namely two highly touted newcomers at tackle. It was not an overnight sensation, but once they got their feet under them, the Aggie offensive front became a force to be reckoned with by mid-season, offensive line coach Jim Turner finally had a unit with high-level talent, depth, and battle experience across the line. With most of the pieces from that line coming back for 2011 and newcomers developing in the pipeline, the future does look bright for the next several years and it will make for a competitive spring.

In 2010, the young offensive line group jumpstarted an impressive six-game winning streak, including victories over three ranked teams and also a win over Texas in Austin. Perhaps more impressive, the offensive unit established a consistent running attack against LSU, between the tackles and off the edges (the latter a near monumental task against a defense as talented and fast as the Tigers). Leading the way were four underclassmen along the line including the two true freshmen book-end tackles. A&M must replace Matt Allen at the center spot, but have experienced candidates ready to fill the one void.

Let's take a look at this deep field of linemen. The spring will be an important time for the unit to gel and come together. Despite the four returning starters, the two freshmen will certainly benefit from another spring together with the veterans. In addition, the spring camp will be critical in developing quality depth and identifying the 8-9 linemen that will go to battle in the fall. The line remained relatively healthy in 2010, but depth in the physical Big 12 is essential especially if the Aggies hope to dominate through the season.

Locked in at Starter: Offensive Tackle

Last season, A&M gladly traded experience for youth in an infusion of high grade talent at the tackle spots. Fortunately, Luke Joeckel was able to enrollee early and get a good jump on his strength and development. Thanks to his above average football IQ, sound fundamentals, and his quick feet, Joeckel nailed down the most difficult spot on the line at left tackle. Luke had some stumbles here and there, but was able to put together a solid first half of the season.

At that point, taking a parallel look at his freshman counterpart, the highly-recruited Jake Matthews made his much anticipated debut at the right tackle spot midway through the 2010 season. He had some catching up to do with the learning curve, since Joeckel had been on campus for seven months and participated in spring workouts last year, but it was soon apparent that the Aggies had caught lightening in a bottle twice. From day one, Jake was clearly a cut above. He showed up at a lean 295 pounds and his attributes were accented by extremely proficient technique, quickness, and balance. Following the Missouri game, Joeckel really flipped a light switch about the same time that Matthews got his first start against Kansas. Both played brilliantly and continued their efforts against some of the best defensive fronts out there, putting on great performances and played beyond their years in impressive outings against the likes Oklahoma, Nebraska and even in the losing effort against LSU.

The duo are obviously solid in pass blocking but they also are phenomenal in the run game as noted earlier sparking the outside rushing attack against a top-flight, upper echelon LSU defense. The scary part is that both young men still have a high ceiling for physical and mental growth and they have the work ethic to maximize their potential. With both turning heads in this year's off-season workouts, it will be interesting to see just how much farther along they have come when they strap the pads on for the spring.

Tackle Depth

The primary backup left tackle is Cedric Ogbuehi, a player expected to land a starting role on the line in the near future. The former Army All-American had a productive fall camp in 2010, and he's furthered his efforts by putting on some good size in his redshirt year. Barring injury, he won't crack the starter rotation this season, but he'll give the Aggie's a solid option off the bench at tackle in 2011.

Mammoth Rhontae Scales will back Jake Matthews on the right edge, and I'm curious to see where his game is this spring. Rhontae has excellent footwork for his size, and has steadily improved throughout his two and a half years on campus to date, giving A&M a very quality option at strong tackle. Early enrollee Joseph Cheek will cut his teeth and get a jump on his A&M career. He has a lot of physical growth ahead, but was a highly heralded recruit and is a big component of A&M's future offensive pipeline for the near future.

Probable Starters at Guard & Center

Texas A&M is loaded on the interior line, and while any notable changes to the expected starting lineup are highly doubtful, the competition should serve the group well. At right guard, Patrick Lewis will prepare for his junior campaign. Entering the 2010 season, he was considered one of the team's best blockers, but Lewis struggled in the first half of the year and seemed to be stuck in a sophomore slump. However, in the second half of the year, he improved his performance and played up to his potential against some of the toughest defensive fronts in the nation. Looking to be in good shape in early workouts, I fully expect Lewis to continue the momentum he closed the 2010 season with. Evan Eike went down with an ankle injury against Missouri, costing him the last half of his junior year. He probably could have played the last few games but with the hard earned chemistry finally set, the coaches didn't want to mess with a good thing and closed the season with Brian Thomas doing a solid job at left guard. With his job back, look for the nasty, hard working, road grater, to go all in during the spring and offseason as he prepares for what will be, barring injury, a productive senior year.

For the second year in a row, A&M will be forced to reload the center position. The odds on favorite will be Brian Thomas. The experienced Pearland product really started putting it all together last off-season. Brian surprised many as he was able to stave off Jake Mathews as starter at right tackle for the first half of the season until the situation demanded his services at left guard, where he closed out the 2010 season with high marks. With Matt Allen now gone, Thomas looks to be the best option in anchoring the line. Thomas performed exceptionally well at center last off season, and the versatile lineman was actually considered the Ag's number two man there in 2010. Assuming his transition to the position is smooth, the returning line has a chance to start where they left off at the end of last season without missing a beat. This will definitely be the area to focus on up-front in the coming weeks.

Interior Line Depth

It was obvious last August observing Jarvis Harrison that Coach Sherman found a true diamond in the rough with the Navasota product, but it was still surprising about a month ago when Coach Sherman described the young man as a "future first round draft pick" during an offseason press conference. Listed at 330 pounds, Harrison has a rare combination of sheer size, agility, and quickness that has the staff excited about his future. Harrison will get the majority of his reps at left guard backing Evan Eike, and though it's doubtful he'll take over for the senior, he could definitely give the veteran a run for his money this spring.

Another promising redshirt who could really turn some heads this spring is Shep Klinke, who will likely see most of his time at right guard behind Patrick Lewis. Shep is huge, highly athletic, and like most Katy products, well-coached and ahead of the learning curve upon arrival last August. He has the length to cross-train at the tackle spots if needed.

Garret Gramling is another member of the 2010 signing class that looks to make his mark this spring at guard. He has taken on the challenge getting himself in great physical shape but it remains to be seen in the coming weeks, just how far along the developmental curve he'll end up. Joe Villavisencio seemed to be putting it together last offseason so his development in his last spring camp will be worth following.

Danny Baker and possibly the aforementioned Villavisencio should get extensive reps at center behind Thomas. Baker is a senior who is experienced at every spot on the line, but is specifically akin to center. Look for him to get the majority of his reps as the second team center, and provide experienced depth when needed at the position.

Offensive Line Overall

Coach Sherman's biggest challenge when he took the Texas A&M job was rebuilding a depleted offensive line. With good recruiting and adept prospect evaluation, the unit started to finally flourish at the midway point of the 2010 season. Now established, confident, and relatively experienced, the unit looks to take another collective foot forward in 2011. Poised to be one of the top units in recent program history that could be recognized as one of the best in the Big 12, the offensive line hopes to do its part in complementing a returning signal caller, two blue chip running backs, and a deep arsenal of playmaking receivers in what some pundits are calling one of the best returning offensive teams in the country.

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