Spring Practice Preview 2012 - Offensive Line

The Texas Aggie football program heads into the Kevin Sumlin era when spring practice kicks off on Saturday. The Aggie Websider previews each position heading into camp. Today, we take a look at the offensive line and the young prospects that will need to provide quality depth in 2012.

The starting Aggie offensive line will be one the strongest units on the team, although the new staff needs to develop additional depth in the offseason. However, despite well-built talent, experience, athleticism and strength, the group will have its work cut out in the Aggie's inaugural SEC season. This is a league that is won in the trenches. It's also a league that rewards those who can run the ball and punishes those who can't. However, a powerful offensive attack led by an experienced and talented offensive line has a good chance to leave their mark on the toughest conference in the nation.

With left guard Jarvis Harrison out for spring camp and Brian Thomas off the team, Texas A&M will go through spring relatively thin on the line. Harrison will be fine in the fall, but losing a versatile swing lineman like Thomas, who can play all three positions, was an unfortunate blow from a strategic depth standpoint. That said, the group is still very capable and the biggest victory over the next few weeks is the group emerging relatively sound in the new system and more importantly healthy. Let's take a deeper look at the offensive front, who looks to start, and who looks to position themselves for a possible leap frog on the depth chart.


Starting Tackles

It's hard to believe that Luke Joeckel is entering his third spring camp. Upon an early enrollment in 2010, Joeckel arrived with unfair expectations. The program had been ridiculously thin for years at the tackle spots, and was forced to pin all its hopes on him (and Jake Mathews). With an eight-month head start, he put on the weight and quickly lived up to the hype, the hope, and has solidified the left edge of the Aggies' offensive front for two years now. Joeckel is superb in pass blocking, run blocking, and the future low round NFL draft pick has done it against the stiffest competition (Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, and LSU). This spring, Joeckel will look to adjust to a new system, and further polish his game, as he sets his sights on the SEC, and setting himself up for an early NFL draft spot following this season.

Jake Mathews enters his second spring camp, as he prepares for his junior year. He has locked down the right edge for almost two seasons, and has a bright future ahead. His pass blocking is phenomenal, with great hands and feet, but if nit-picking, he can stand to improve his consistency in his run blocking at times. Don't misread that, as he is really good, and like Joeckel has put together magnificent games against the best he's faced excelling against the likes of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and LSU (where he set up a great rushing game off of the edge, against elite level defenders), as a freshman. Still, as good as he is, there is room for growth, and the highly talented, high character, hard worker, is no doubt primed to put together a solid spring, as he likewise settles into Coach Sumlin's new system, and readies for the stiff weekly competition the SEC brings.


Tackle Depth

Swing lineman, Cedric Ogbuehi, who is detailed under "Guards", will be the main backup to Joeckel and Mathews, but he starts at guard, an area that is thin this spring, and that sets the table for young prospects Nathan Gutekunst and Joseph Cheek to get a lot more work at tackle. Gutekunst's body has really responded to the first year of physical development, and he checks in at 6'6" and north of 320 pounds. He's a solid run blocker, is fairly quick into his pass sets, and brings a desired nastiness in finishing. With a year in the program, it will be interesting to see where he is with his footwork, pad level, and his hands. One thing you cannot knock Coach Sherman for and that was offensive line evaluation. I see Nathan really coming along and putting together a good career. Again he'll get a lot of work this next month, and it will tell a lot as to where he is currently. Cheek has a huge ceiling, but is more of a project early, and this spring will likewise tell how much he's progressed, after a year under Jim Turner's excellent tutelage.


Starting Guards

A great talent who could excel at guard or tackle, highly touted Cedric Ogbuehi came along really well physically during his redshirt freshman year in 2010. Adding the size and strength to match his skill set, it came as no surprise when he forced his way onto the field, splitting time with Jarvis Harrison, as they replaced Shep Klinke following the OSU game. He has a great wingspan, uses his hands well, and shows great technique and nastiness in finishing blocks. The big, athletic sophomore is looking to take it to the next level this spring, as he readies for the trench warfare of the SEC. As mentioned, Cedric also needs to be prepared as a versatile swing lineman, in the event he is called on at tackle, as he's the current number three option there.

Jarvis Harrison is out for spring but will be back, and likely lock down the left guard spot upon return. After a redshirt freshman season, he came on strong and overtook Shep Klinke for a guard spot early last season. Mike Sherman described the young man as a "future first round draft pick", listing the 330-pounders "strength, speed, and his agility as phenomenal", and coming from a man that knows offensive lineman and was frugal with praise, I'd take that to the bank. Quite a story, an un-recruited diamond in the rough, from just down the road in Navasota, to a likely starting road grater in the SEC. He'll need to catch up to the new system a bit in August, but the athletic big man should excel.


Guard Depth

Junior Shep Klinke surprised last off-season, when he wrested away a starting job on the inside, but couldn't quite hold onto the gig and was benched in favor of an eventual guard by committee with Jarvis Harrison and Cedric Ogbuehi. This spring, with Harrison's injury, the mammoth interior lineman, has another crack at getting his job back, and he could also see reps at tackle as well.

Having chosen A&M over offers from Arkansas and Nebraska, Garret Gramling has been developing for two years. Like other linemen deeper on the chart, he'll benefit from a lot of work this spring, and will tell a lot as to how far he's come and how solid an option he'll be for the Aggies off the bench. With a new staff, this is his second chance to move into the rotation. Now is the time to make his move with a talented group of freshman interior linemen arriving this summer.


Center

For the first time in recent memory, A&M returns a starting center, Patrick Lewis, finally giving the anchor and quarterback of the line some steadiness. A new system could pose a problem for a lot of players in this spot. However, Lewis is smart, one of the strongest starters on the line, and one of the Aggies' best blockers. He's no stranger to shotgun snaps; something he had a slight issue with in the off-season, but never became an issue when it mattered in 2011. He's not a "rah, rah" leader, but is a level and respected voice amongst his crew. Always a steady performer and hard worker, the senior will no doubt lay his best on the line this spring.

Due to thin depth on the interior defensive line, it came as a mild surprise that Ben Compton was shifted back to center after moving to defense as a true freshman. It's understandable for depth reasons at center however. Incoming Mike Mathews is going to step up as a great center one day, but he'll need a redshirt year for physical maturation, so Compton must come online in the next few weeks. No stranger to center, Ben will bring his substantial size and strength, athleticism, quickness and burst off the ball that made him a successful defensive lineman. He also has great feet and hands, knows how to play with great leverage, and ices the cake with nastiness in his play. He's going to have some learning to do, no doubt, but don't be surprised to see this smart and natural athlete start putting it together and give the Aggies another strong option at center, and anywhere on the interior line for that matter, by camps end.


Summer Arrivals

This summer A&M will welcome three highly talented linemen to the fold, a tackle, a guard, and a center. Germain Ifedi is going to arrive physically the part and likely will develop, bolstering tackle depth. His progress will be extremely important as one or both of Luke Joeckel or Jake Mathews turning pro, following the season, is a possibility. Ifedi's size, athleticism, and fairly strong technique out of high school, are very encouraging early indicators for his college career and A&M's success on the edge. Another newcomer, arriving physically ready and possessing good technique early is Kimo Tipoti, who will play guard and could immediately jump into the two deep given his size, ability and relatively thin depth. Finally rounding out Hall of Famer, Bruce Mathews' legacy of sons all playing for the Aggies, is Mike Mathews, who will line up on the interior, likely at center. Mathews will need a year to add size and strength, but once he has that, it would be no surprise to see him push to start in 2013, given his athleticism, smarts, and technique at this stage.


Offensive Line Overall

While not a big blow to the superb starting cast, losing a key swing player Brian Thomas, who played well inside or outside, adds a little more anxiety to the offensive line situation. The recovery of Jarvis Harrison further adds to the concern but looking for the bright side, it does force depth guys to get a lot of developmental reps, and hopefully a few respond well, and come along. Despite that, it bears repeating, the starting group is extremely talented, and will do more than just hold their own for the Aggies, in their first SEC season.

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