Of all the areas the Aggies must improve on, offensive line is undeniably amongst the top of that list. In 2008 the unit failed to run or pass block at a level consistent enough to give us a chance in being a competitive football team on the offensive side of the ball. They were able to pull it together here and there, but unfortunately the group that was thin and battered to begin with bore the brunt of a lot of snaps, which has translated to a number of key injuries up front. Lee Grimes and Kevin Mathews are just two of the players who will miss significant action in spring practice. Also injured and or limited this spring on the offensive line will be converted defensive lineman-now LT-Lucas Patterson and guard Leroy Chevalier.
While it's hard to find a bright side in those crucial pieces to the puzzle being constrained in their spring development, at least it opens a door for a lot of our younger developing players to get some much needed reps. I'll concede that is a slight stretch in optimism but it's definitely a plus in attaining some semblance of quality depth for us in the near future. Hopefully in addition to that fact, a couple of opportunistic guys will emerge as serious contenders for starting jobs.
As you read this bear in mind the simple fact it's early in spring drills and that Sherman and Co. don't hesitate to shake things up and are very adaptable in moving players in order to give us the best line we've got at any given point. The position battles below and the entire offensive front for that matter will be very fluid and may very well change by the time this is posted (and perhaps several times after that). The offensive line is a work in progress and we are filling in some big holes given the amount of key injuries they are working around. That said lets take a look at who's in the fray for the offensive line position battles from the opening bell of spring drills.
Our interior line will be in pretty good shape, regarding starters and depth next season. However, the magnifying glass will be on both tackle spots and hopefully we'll see the emergence of some quality starters somewhere down the line. This battle will extend through August, as talented newcomers Clint Narron, Stephen Barrera and Rhontae Scales will be making a serious run at the area of need. There is probably a good chance it will also spread into the early part of the season but let's look at where we are now, as Spring Ball gets under way.
In December, Coach Sherman made a big move switching Lucas Patterson from what is also a relatively thin defensive tackle spot to the all so important left side tackle. A healthy Patterson will be a big one to keep an eye on in August as he brings his power, athleticism, intensity and tenacious motor to the offensive edge. However for now, given Patterson's "very limited" status coming off of surgery, Michael Shumard by necessity will once again be forced away from his natural position of guard and begin the spring as starter there. Hopefully, when August rolls around, the versatile big man will be able to get back to guard. However, given the realistic depth at tackle, Shumard will most likely be called on to do both (a role he is by no means unfamiliar with), at least at some point.
Contending with Shumard at left tackle will be Brian Thomas. Many of you will recall that the quick study Brian Thomas also impressed coaches with his effort, talent and athleticism upon arrival last August and not only did he almost practice his way out of a red shirt, he even pushed Evan Eike pretty hard for starter at LG.
Coach Sherman stated at seasons end that upon Lee Grimes return, he will be moved over to tackle (he started 9 games at guard and 3 at tackle by necessity). Until Grimes gets back, Vincent Williams and Jeffrey Hyde should push each other on the right side. Given Grimes injury history, depth here we'll be even more crucial. Vincent Williams will offer his size, strength, athleticism, adequate quickness and motor to the RT mix. Though this is his first look at tackle, he came over to this side of the ball in the spring of 2007 and brings a little experience to the contest, having seen action in 12 games on the offensive line the last two seasons (though at guard). Williams will be pushed by RS-FR Jeffrey Hyde, who in addition to size, strength, footwork, and wingspan is pretty strong in regards to the mental side of the game. Needless to say I'm hoping for both of them to do well but the emergence of a young guy like Hyde would be an answered prayer here.
Also in the mix will be RS-FR Josh Ayers who brings quickness and athleticism as well as respectable size and strength. He's a guy I've been eager to see come into his own since his commitment. Though not a highly heralded recruit, he just has a lot of upside/versatility and I'm watching him as a darkhorse type candidate to step up this spring in this dire area of need.
As mentioned earlier, the interior line should be a solid group in 2009, but it will also be a very fluid one, position to position, given the injury to center Kevin Mathews and with Michael Shumard serving as a band-aid at left tackle.
If our offensive line struggles again next year, no one will be pointing at left guard as Evan Eike and Michael Shumard (two full time starters from 2008), will duke it out for the spot. Until Shumard presumably returns to guard, Eike should benefit from the extra reps that he'd have otherwise shared with him. Also benefiting from that move, in terms of more work, will be RS-FR Chris Lathrop who brings great pad level, technique, and footwork to the table.
Danny Baker, who was versatile enough to start as blocking tight end against Miami and later at right guard against Texas, will return to his familiar high school position of starting center this spring in Mathew's absence. While at center, the athletic blocker, who has good feet and technique, will be pushed by strong and quick LSU transfer Matt Allen (who prepares for his on field debut for the Aggies in 2009 following his mandated 2008 transfer sit out year). Upon Mathews' return one or the other, Baker or Allen, will most likely move back to right guard and take on Joe Villavisencio for the starting job there. With excellent size, strength, as well as above average intelligence, Villavisencio was the only one of the six 2008 offensive line signees that burned his red shirt, earning his first start in the win against Iowa State. Brian Thomas, who I detailed more in the tackle discussion, may also very well find himself back on the inside at some point given the ever fluid nature of our offensive front.
Due to injuries a lot of guys are getting the opportunity to make some big strides in their development, and increase the value of their stock in the eyes of the coaches and on the depth chart. When spring concludes we'll obviously have a clearer picture as things shake themselves out. At that time I'll take a look at the emergence of serious contributors and how they will stack up against returning starters as well as where the incoming freshmen will figure into that equation.
Spring Preview 2009: Offensive Line
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