Fall Camp Preview - Offensive Line

The Aggie Websider continues its fall camp preview by position leading up to tomorrow evening's first practice. Jeffrey Jennings takes a look at the resurgent offensive line where four starters return from 2010. Not only does Jim Turner return a bulk of his starting unit, but most of the key back-ups are also back in 2011.

It's been more than a decade since Texas A&M could boast an offensive line that goes nine deep. For Aggie followers and coaches, this unit is clearly not an overnight sensation. Upon arrival in 2008, Coach Sherman's number one priority was rebuilding the trenches. However, through effective recruiting and prudent evaluation of high school talent, exceptional development, and battle experience, he and his staff have done just that.

The Aggies needed to catch lightening in a bottle twice at tackle last season, and did so with two outstanding freshmen Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel. This August, the duo will look to take it up a notch, further securing the edges for what could be a productive rushing and passing attack. The focal point for the young tackles will be improvement on pass protection and blitz pick-up, and their two capable backups will continue developing behind them. The interior line is absolutely loaded, and will be a fun area to watch over the next few weeks. Competition will serve the group well with four starting quality guards, all slugging it out for two spots, while Patrick Lewis will make the move to the middle, as A&M looks to start its third center in as many years.

What's exciting about the future is the group that made big strides in 2010 with four underclassmen will stay together for two more seasons. Let's take a look at this deep field of linemen, who seek to raise their individual and team standing this fall. They'll also seek to establish themselves as one of the most respected offensive line units in the Big 12, supporting an offense with a wealth of difference-making skill players.

Locked In at Starter: Right Tackle

Fifteen to twenty years ago, 300-pound offensive linemen usually came fitted with a standard issue gut. These days, the lineman gut isn't as common-place, but more rare is an eighteen year old like Jake Matthews, that showed up to his first fall camp a year ago at 295 pounds, with a washboard stomach. It's also not ordinary for a true freshman to walk into their first season, at the next level, ready to get it done. From day one Matthews (son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, brother of former A&M and current Tennessee Titan center Kevin Matthews, and cousin of Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews), not only looked the part, but also proved he had the tools to get it done in short order. David Sandhop and I watched him in offensive line drills last August, and shook our heads as we watched how quick and effortlessly he got into his pass sets for a young freshman. The footwork that followed was smooth and effective. It was clear from day one that Matthews was going to be a special player.

A year later, with Dave Kennedy's help, Jake has filled out, building on his frame, adding strength and power to his game. As mentioned, he came in with very polished technique for his age, but he has only built on it through repetition and having his game pushed starting in live action against some great teams. He excelled against the likes of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and LSU (where he set up a productive rushing game off of the edge, against elite level defenders). Matthews put together an expectedly productive spring and off-season, so expectations are high for the sophomore tackle. He will no doubt show more of that in the coming weeks, and throughout the season as he locks down the right edge.

Locked in at Starter: Left Tackle

Luke Joeckel arrived with his twin brother, quarterback Matt Joeckel, as early enrollees in January 2010. Fans and staff hoped he would be able to step up soon, but had no guarantee given the complexity of the left tackle position, one of the hardest for a true freshman to play given the cerebral and physical demands. Having been a nationally recruited lineman, the Texas A&M staff knew they had a good one, but were delighted when he made a big splash early in that first spring camp. As one coach summed up, "Von Miller was virtually untouched last year, but this spring (2010) Joeckel slowed him down "90% of the time.". It wasn't all sunshine and flowers but Luke has a great football IQ to match his physical ability, and he was able to push and develop himself into a sound, starting Big XII left tackle, by the beginning of the season. Again he had expected growing pains along the way, but midway through the season Joeckel flipped a switch and never looked back. He was integral in that impressive six-game run the Aggies made to close out the 2010 season.

On the eve of fall camp, Luke has filled out physically with two off-seasons in Coach Kennedy's S&C program, and in addition to his size and strength gains, he put together a quiet, but highly productive spring and overall off-season. Possessing all the requisite attributes and technique, he has taken it to another level. Like Jake, he will hit the ground running in 2011, building on a solid foundation.

Tackle Depth

Beyond the two high-quality starters at tackle, A&M also looks solid with their depth at the position. Red-shirt freshman Cedric Ogbuehi has a great future and could push for significant playing time somewhere along the line in the near future. Cedric has really filled out physically this year, and now looks the part of a division one lineman. He has ideal length and size, and his strength has improved to go along with above average foot speed to match that was reflected in a solid spring showing. Barring injury, he won't crack the starting rotation this season but he'll give the Aggies a solid option off the bench at tackle.

Mammoth Rhontae Scales backed up Jake Matthews on the right edge this past spring. Rhontae has good footwork for his size, and has steadily improved throughout his two and a half years on campus. With quality depth options on the offensive line and a lack of depth on the defensive line, he will get an early look at nose tackle as Texas A&M searches for a replacement for JUCO signee Lemarc Strahan who was penciled in as Eddie Brown's back-up until he didn't make the grade at Blinn.

Another name that bears mentioning as legitimate tackle depth is Brian Thomas. There are other good players on the roster, but it's quite possible if something goes wrong at tackle, Brian (the jack-of-all-trades) will slide over from guard and take over, as he is the most talented, experienced and qualified. (Brian is detailed more in the guard section.) Freshmen Joseph Cheek and Nathan Gutekunst will look to get their feet wet and make their mark, but will redshirt as they develop as an integral part of A&M's future pipeline on the offensive front. In particular, Cheek received praise from offensive line coach Jim Turner in the spring which bodes well for his future in Aggieland.

Probable Starter at Center

Patrick Lewis will enter his junior year as A&M's starting center. Lewis had a brilliant true freshmen year as starter, but stumbled early in what looked to be a sophomore slump in 2010. However, like the rest of the line, he put it together about the midway point of the season, and was yet another key cog in that big run for the team. In spring he looked great, having shed some bad weight, but while he spent the first two weeks at guard, Coach Sherman moved him to what he described as, "his most natural spot at center". He asserted that , "he's started more games than any other lineman in that group so I think it's a natural swing for him to start (at center)". Patrick is smart, the strongest starter on the line, and one of the Aggies' best blockers. Hopefully his shotgun snaps are clean and consistent, and if so the move should go smoothly. The staff expects no hiccups, but obviously the next few weeks will tell the tale, as A&M starts their third center in as many years. Given his new role and his grasp on the system, look for Lewis to step up as the vocal leader of this line.

Probable Starter at Right Guard

When I highlighted Shep Klinke before spring ball, I stated he could turn some heads in camp, but quite honestly never dreamed he would wrestle away a starting job for himself that early. In fact, it's doubtful anyone did, as he was listed very low on the tackle depth chart entering camp. He still has to stave off a talented, steady senior, Evan Eike, and impressive upstart Jarvis Harrison so it's not completely settled. However, it bodes very well for the sophomore, who was talented enough to play his way out of a red-shirt (even though he didn't see significant action). Shep is huge, highly athletic, and like most Katy products, a well-coached technician, that was well ahead of the learning curve upon arrival last August. Coach Sherman mentioned at the end of the spring session that he might have red-shirted him this year (and caught him up with his class after burning his shirt in 2010), but not after what he showed coaches in camp. Sherman speaks highly of the young man and it's obvious from his comments, that he is very high on him. Keep an eye on Klinke, as he'll look to maintain the grip on his starting right guard spot, and emerge as yet another bright spot on a talented line. He will also be well served by four highly intelligent starters, that will point him in the right direction when need be.

Probable Starter at Left Guard

Brian Thomas is one of A&M's most under-rated linemen, and it's quite honestly a shame. The guy is the epitome of a team player, and he quietly put together an excellent RS-SO year and he did it at two positions. Thomas is a very sound blocker, technician, and the bottom line is, he's a high quality starter at just about every spot on the line (a big asset for a team). He came in as a right guard in 2008 and almost played his way out of a red-shirt, then was bopped around on the inside before being moved to right tackle in 2010. Brian was doing well on the right edge before Evan Eike went down at left guard, and he took over his spot and locked it down the rest of the season. In spring he was moved to center, in a move to replace Matt Allen, but shotgun snap issues gave coaches pause, and he was moved back to his left guard spot. That's a long way around the block, but it will suit him and the Aggies fine, as the intelligent, athletic Thomas is back at his most natural position. Mammoth, athlete Jarvis Harrison will be breathing down his neck in the next few weeks, but my money is on Thomas, whose experience and skill set should hold off the extremely talented youngster.

Interior Line Depth

It's a harbinger of great things to come when a solid, experienced lineman like Evan Eike is entering his senior season, fighting to earn back a starting job (after 26 starts and 31 games played). The hard-nosed Bryan native 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 staff didn't want to mess with it. With Brian Thomas having locked down his former spot at left guard, he'll now duke it out with Shep Klinke (and Jarvis Harrison) at right guard. While it's tough to see a senior lose his spot, it obviously illustrates the level of quality depth A&M has infused on the offensive line. That said it's not official yet. Now 100% healthy, look for the nasty, hard working, road grader, to go all in during fall camp in an effort to grab his job back. In fact, the battle for the starting position at guard could be the most competitive of the fall campaign.

Pushing Brian Thomas at left guard will be the aforementioned, physical standout Jarvis Harrison. Before spring camp, Coach Sherman described the young man as a "future first round draft pick", listing the 330-pounders "strength, speed, and his agility as phenomenal". What's amazing about Harrison is he was a recruiting steal, a diamond in the rough from just down the road in Navasota, that for whatever reason got little to no recruiting attention. It's proved to be a win, win, situation, as A&M landed a phenomenal jumbo athlete and Harrison finds himself under coaches that will get him to the next level. Jarvis will give Thomas a hard run, but it's likely Brian will hold on at this stage. That said, I am by no means ruling him out. Like the situation with Eike, regardless who shakes out at the top of the depth chart, A&M has at least four quality guards in its depth ranks.

Rounding out interior depth are versatile journeyman Danny Baker, who'll likely back Patrick Lewis at Center, Joe Villavisencio, who is another possible option on the interior, and has proven himself adequate in limited playing time. Two freshmen looking to make a splash are Garret Gramling and Ben Compton. Both freshmen have solid futures but will likely redshirt, given the talented crowd in front of them. It's possible you could see Compton get a look on the other side of the ball as A&M looks for quality options at nose tackle. He's definitely a young man to keep an eye on.

Offensive Position Analysis

It was no small coincidence that when things started falling in place for the Aggies at the midway point of last season, the offensive line had finally come into its own. Obviously there were several important facets, but the line was a key factor offensively. Now that they've arrived, confident, and relatively experienced, they look to take a huge collective foot forward in 2011. There is no looking back for a unit that has infused more, top-notch talent into the pipeline. The group will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come, as they pave the way for Coach Sherman and the Aggies' balanced, offensive attack, and one that is primed to make a big dent on the college football world in 2011.

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