In 2011, Texas A&M's offensive line anchored the 7th most productive offensive unit in the nation, allowing just thirteen sacks in nine games. However, there were also some concerns and weak points. Inarguably, they had bouts of inconsistency, specifically at guard where two first year starters were cutting their teeth, and in the spring, linebackers were shooting those big offensive line splits effectively and often. Fair observations, but both can be answered with one word. Experience.
When four underclassmen are starting on an offensive line, two players in their first active year, it's not always going to be pretty, or more specifically, consistent, in spite of the talent level. Secondly, the spring blitzes were effective, but not surprising considering it was week three, of a vastly different system implementation (switching from a zone-blocking scheme, to manning the new dramatic splits that go with the spread offense). I subscribe fully to the line that, "you can have excuses or you can have success, but you can't have both", that said, in college football, by nature players are constantly growing and learning, and it has to be taken in context.
It's also bears mentioning, that even as green as they were, it was a pretty sharp group of youngsters that paved the way for "an average of 490.2 yards of total offense per game, including 291.1 passing, 199.2 rushing, and 39.1 points, one of a handful of teams, to rank in the top 25 in all four major offense statistical categories.
The simple fact remains, they are highly talented across the board, and the next few weeks should find them much more solid, in their new offensive setting. They are fully capable of drive blocking in the run game, and across the board, will be extremely athletic in working their splits in the passing game. In fact, once they click in their new set, it could be the most talented unit to ever run this style of system. Looking back to those Mike Leach teams, those lines were highly effective, but with frankly not much talent, and essentially just extremely "large pylons" creating distance to the quarterback. Figure in a high level of athleticism, skill, and technique into that equation, and the potential is very real and exciting.
From starters, to depth issues that spring injuries exposed, lets take a look at the offensive line that will face the ultimate challenge. On their backs, a powerful offensive attack has a very good chance to leave their mark in the inaugural season of the toughest conference in the nation.
Junior, Luke Joeckel, is amongst the most talented linemen to ever suit out for the Maroon and White. The potential 1st round draft pick, could be entering his final season for the Aggies in 2012, and the young standout, has dominated from his left tackle spot ever since cutting his teeth, in the first half of his freshman year. With tremendous feet, and technique, Joeckel is excellent in quickly getting into his set, and follows with superb balance and power, as both an excellent run and pass blocker. He has done it against the stiffest competition (not only the vaunted Oklahoma and Nebraska defenses, but he had a brilliant game against LSU as a freshman). In fact, Joeckel's track record has already earned him respect from his new conference foes, recently being named as a 2012 Pre-Season Media Days All Southeastern Conference, 1st Team Selection at Left Tackle. One of the hardest workers on the team, he'll look to further his comfort level in the new offense, and will be largely instrumental in the success of the Aggies this season, and hopefully beyond.
Like Joeckel, Jake Matthews' talent is only equaled by his work ethic, and could potentially try his hand as possible first round draft pick, following his junior year as well. A tremendously talented and versatile blocker, he brings excellent hands, feet, and overall technique to his right tackle spot, that he's manned since taking over halfway through his freshman year. His consistency in run-blocking needs to improve, but he's done it against the best several times over (posting brilliant games in that regard against, Oklahoma in his 2nd start, Nebraska, and LSU, where he set up a great ground game against elite level defenders). It's not a major concern, he's a junior, a worker and he will clean-up those things, but it must be addressed, for as great as he can be, there are games like Texas last year, that he'd probably like to have back. The son of a Hall-of-Famer, and middle of three brothers (all of which played for A&M, and all of which are likely to enjoy NFL careers), is no doubt, primed to put it all together, as a key member and leader of this unit, and team.
Here the loss of Brian Thomas to off-field issues hurts the team as he was an effective and versatile lineman. Without him the Ag's will have to rely on younger interior line depth, especially if starting right guard Cedric Ogbuehi (who is detailed under "Guards"), is needed at tackle if either Joeckel and Matthews goes down with an injury.
Providing further tackle depth are Nathan Gutekunst and Joseph Cheek. Gutekunst's body has really responded to the first year of physical development, as he checks in at 6'6" and north of 310 pounds. He's a solid run blocker, is fairly quick into his pass sets, and brings a desired nastiness in finishing. Cheek has a huge ceiling, but is more of a project early. The two had a lot of opportunity is spring, and while they showed promise, the drop off was evident, and both have work in front of them.
First and foremost, Germain Ifedi has David Sandhop's requisite enormous hands, arriving physically the part (6'5, 330 as a true freshman), and has room to develop further. His progress will be extremely important, as one or both of Luke Joeckel or Jake Mathews turning pro after 2012, 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. Obviously, he will ideally redshirt this season, but if situation dictates, if there's freshman to be called on, Ifedi would be at the front of the line, and needs to lay down strong groundwork in August.
Starting Guards & Center
Texas A&M's interior line will have it's work cut out against the nations best defensive linemen, week in and week out. Fortunately, they bring a pretty salty group of starters to the table themselves.
Cedric Ogbuehi is the heir apparent to take over one of the tackle spots, if either or both Joeckel and Mathews depart for the NFL following the 2012 season (or if Heaven forbid, one goes down with injury in 2011). Again, and I'll underscore, it's not just lip service, but he is the real deal, and doesn't give up much, if anything, in the way of talent comparable to those two. In fact, the primary reason he's third on that totem pole is more a matter of physical maturity coming in, putting him off the pace in that race. That lack of size is about the only thing that has hindered him a tad as he mans the right guard spot. However, this off-season, between an intensive effort with the new strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson, and his third year of maturation, Cedric has put on some really good weight and finally looks the part. He has a great wingspan, uses his hands well, obviously as a natural tackle has fluid, quick feet, and shows great technique and nastiness in finishing blocks. However, coupled with the added size, Ogbuehi needs to play lower, as it was evident several games last season when he struggled (namely against Texas) playing high, which often put himself in a bind and overwhelmed. He's taken a big leap in development this off-season, and while one day he'll be a big time tackle, for now, he must prepare to be a top-notch interior lineman, as he enters the trench warfare of the SEC.
An un-recruited, true diamond in the rough, Jarvis Harrison, is a yet another potential "first round draft pick" as described by Mike Sherman who went on to praise the 330-pounders "phenomenal strength, speed, and agility". Harrison overtook Shep Klinke for a starting guard spot early last season (ultimately splitting time their with Ogbuehi). The primary concern is that he missed spring with a shoulder injury (the last injury you want to hear about with a promising lineman), but more pressing is that he missed so much time in implementing the new system, and will be playing catch-up in August. However, once up to speed, Jarvis is a perfect fit for line play in the SEC, and will undoubtedly benefit long-term, from the tempering he undergoes the next few years, not to mention what it will do for the Aggies' offensive efforts, in their early years of the new league.
This will mark the first time since the "Fran Era" that the Aggies have fielded a returning starting center, finally providing stability to the middle of the line. Senior Patrick Lewis is not the most dynamic of the starting five by any means, but he is a steady leader and brings a center's requisite smarts to the table (great in identifying defensive looks and adjusting calls). In addition after struggling with shotgun snaps during the 2011 off-season, he's cleaned it up and put it behind him, which is obviously a good thing, considering that will be the primary set for this offense. Patrick is a humble, under-stated young man, but received some nice recognition from his new conference, recently being named as the 2012 Pre-Season Media Days All Southeastern Conference 3rd Team Center, and earned Big 12 Honorable Mention Honors, following his first season at the position. The fourth-year starter will have weekly bouts with big, quick-twitch defensive tackles, but he should be up to it.
If Jarvis Harrison falters, coming off of the shoulder injury, and fails to get up to speed with the offense in time, junior Shep Klinke definitely has the potential, to return the favor and reclaim the guard spot he lost to a guard by committee manned by Harrison and Ogbuehi early last season. Another Katy product that arrived ahead of the learning curve, Klinke surprised with a surge last off-season and wrested away a starting job entering his sophomore season, but following the OSU game, he couldn't quite hold onto it. Now with another year under his belt, and some hard lessons learned, Klinke is plenty talented enough to give Harrison a serious run, and the mammoth 6'7", 310-pounder, at worst, gives A&M an excellent option, to back along the interior wherever needed.
Due to thin depth at defensive tackle, it came as a mild surprise that Ben Compton, who did a solid job at nose tackle as a freshman last season, was moved back along the interior offensive line. No stranger to center, Ben will bring his substantial size, strength, athleticism, quickness, and burst off the ball that made him a successful defensive lineman. Compton also has great feet and hands, knows how to play with leverage, and ices the cake with nastiness in his play. A smart and natural athlete, he'll give the Aggies another strong option at center, and anywhere on the interior line for that matter. I'll assert that defensive tackle seems a more pressing need for quality talent, and he's proven he can do extremely well there, but this looks like a long-term move. Assuming A&M loses one of Luke Joeckel and Jake Mathews, Cedric Ogbuehi will slide to tackle, and Compton will assume a starting role at guard. In the mean time, he sures up depth on the inside. (I'm not discounting depth need here, as spring proved it is needed, simply underscoring the defensive side being more pressing).
Finally rounding out Hall-of-Famer, Bruce Mathews' legacy of sons all playing for the Aggies (and likely the NFL), is Mike Matthews, who sets the table for his career in August. Like his brothers before him, his athleticism is only matched by, "beyond his years" technique. A truly remarkable phenomenon in that family, especially considering it extends to his should be, Hall-of-Fame uncle (and his excellent NFL linebacker sons). Needless to say, it's in the genes, but obviously each young man has grown up amidst a wealth of knowledge, ingrained value of hard work, and it's obvious each has every ounce of it to heart. Mathews has surprisingly put on a lot of good weight and arrives close to the part. Look for Mike to attack August with the same fervor his brothers before him have, as he readies to come online at center, as soon as he can. He will likely take over for graduating Patrick Lewis in 2012.
Kimo Tipoti, arrives physically ready and is also relatively technically sound. He will play guard and could immediately jump into the two deep given his size, ability and relatively thin depth. Having chose A&M over offers from Arkansas and Nebraska, 6'6", 310 pound, Garret Gramling has been developing for two years and rounds out the depth chart on the interior.
Offensive Line Overall
A&M has an extremely solid foundation of talent along the offensive front, but they are by no means a finished product. While well on their way, they simply must take the next steps, if Coach Sumlin and the Aggies, hope to enter the SEC the way they want to. This is likely the most talented and athletic group to ever work the requisite wide splits of the spread offense, but they clearly must clean up what they understandably lacked in it, back in April. Further, while strong at starter, Coach must also harvest depth amongst his promising upstarts, as spring exposed depth concerns in fairly short order. Again there is no reason to think that the offensive line will be anything short of a team strength, but like everyone else, there is work to do and it's starts in the next few days.
2012 Fall Camp Guide - Offensive Line
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