Spring Camp Guide 2010: Offensive Line

In this series Websider's Jeffrey Jennings will take an in depth look at the personnel of A&M's offensive line. The focus will be on their attributes, current status, what they have on the line this spring, and where they hope to find themselves at camps end. Jennings will also give a brief sneak peak at the new faces that will be joining them in August. Subscribe to Websider today!

Spring Camp Preview 2010: Offensive Line

After trying to reload the past two seasons, Texas A&M finally seems close to where they need to be up front on offense. Like last year, the interior line is stacked with talent and decent depth but they are even saltier and more seasoned this go around (minus the replacement of Kevin Mathews which is expected to go smoothly). At tackle however, they are much younger (following the loss of Michael Shumard and Lee Grimes) yet appear ready to take the next step in talent and footwork, upgrading the Ag's presence on the edge. If they come along as expected they'll give the Aggie's the best line they've had since 2007, the difference being this one will be built with more athleticism and versatility. That's not a knock on the 2007 group, they were built for a purpose and were great at what they did, but the candidates this go around are going to not only excel in the run game but give their quarterback the best pass protection he's had in a long while. By 2011 the group is going to be flat out phenomenal (maybe the best in the conference and by far the best A&M has had since they were a perennial favorite in the SWC) but for now they will be at least a level up from 2009 which is saying something (considering that scrapping bunch paved the way for the 5th ranked offense in the nation with 465.77 yards per game, 30th in rushing and 16th passing in total output, and 19th in scoring offense).

This spring the Ag's are obviously in a much better situation up front. If you recall last spring they were so decimated by injury and limited in talent that they literally couldn't even fill out both a maroon and white team without going to squad players (honestly it was a stretch to say we filled out one side). How far they come. Over the next few weeks a talented and veteran group of interior lineman look to battle it out for the guard and center spots and the relatively intense competition should make for some internal fluidity within the area. We have two tackles who have been in the program since late summer and one very talented newcomer that joined them this January. They will look to raise their stock and talent at tackle considerably this spring and get a jump on a huge crop of talent that arrives this August. In this piece we'll take a much closer look at both the interior and exterior line positions.

Like in other pieces I find it necessary to insert the obligatory spring disclaimer. The offensive line will be a very wide open area, not only in spring but quite possibly throughout fall camp as well, so read it with a grain of salt. Primarily the moves will be contained to interior and exterior (i.e. a guard like Matt Allen or Patrick Lewis getting a serious look at center or a player like Luke Joekel getting looks at right and left tackle.) but it is possible a tackle prospect (like Rhontae Scales or Stephen Barrera) moves to the interior at some point.

Offensive Tackle

As mentioned, there are three serious candidates who will push each other at both right and left tackle this spring. Two of them are wrapping up their freshmen year and the other is an early enrollee looking to get a jump on his 2010 recruiting classmates, all of them entering their first spring. By 2011 it's likely that Stephen Barrera and or Rhontae Scales are on the interior but this season their head start may give them the edge over the August arrivals (minus Jake Mathews and Luke Joeckel as I tend to think both will end up as the starting offensive bookends by fall) at tackle in the rotation.

It's clearly not ideal to start a true freshman at tackle, as it's ordinarily by no means optimal for them or the team's success. (Not just in regards to the lack of physical readiness of an 18 year old but it's also such a cerebral position.) However, given his early enrollment, Luke Joeckel has a really good shot at being successful. By the time the first game kicks off, the young lineman (who was looking fairly close to physically ready in January) will have been in A&M's strength and conditioning program for about eight months. Combine that with his technique (hands and feet), impressive quickness and footwork, football IQ, and the month of reps in spring ball under his belt and you have a player with an excellent shot of not just contributing but starting at one of the tackle spots next Fall. He is very efficient off the ball getting his set and has the requisite mean streak in finishing off opponents in the run and the pass. Joeckel is definitely a player to focus on this spring, as his success has a lot of bearing on the Aggie's success in 2010. It will also be interesting to follow his showing, specifically at left tackle. There is no doubt in my mind that he will pan out at least on the right edge but if he can show something at quick (left) tackle this early, it clearly bodes very well for the Aggie's near future.

Rhontae Scales turned the heads of teammates and insiders early, arriving at 6'6" and over 300 pounds. He is one of the rare specimens that physically showed up the part of a college lineman from day one. Scales also earned praise for his impressive quickness (given his size) and is considered one of the most athletic linemen on campus. He has superb footwork and is a lineman that brings a desirable nastiness to the field. An aggressive blocker, Rhontae plays with very good pad level and brute strength. However, the learning curve will be the big issue with Scales and by all accounts he's going to have a ways to go. Other than that the main thing I've observed that is holding Rhontae back is that he's got to get into his set much quicker off the snap. I'm hopeful those observations were just a case of him processing so much info as a newcomer and struggling with reaction time. If he's overcome that sluggishness off the ball, it will be obvious to even casual observers this spring and a great sign for the team. If not and he's still really slow off the snap he's going to have a hard time keeping up with the incoming edge blockers in August. That said it doesn't have to be an either or, he may be quick enough, without being dazzling, to man the right side but when you see him line up, it will be fairly obvious (watching him off the snap) where he's at.

A young lineman that made his way into the tackle mix early last season was Stephen Barrera who came in physically ready to play, much like Scales. The former defensive tackle brings aggressiveness, a motor and great athleticism to the position. A smart player, he also has great agility, power, wingspan and grabbed the attention of teammates this summer for his work ethic in the weight room. He had a decent start at camp and in the early going and though he got a good opportunity to prove himself (in a three game stretch as starter against UAB, Arkansas and OSU) his development wasn't where the Ag's needed it to be at the time (fair or not). That said, it is obviously early, Barrera has a lot going for him and will push his self and the others as he competes for a starting job at tackle and perhaps even guard. I expect him to get a lot of work at both spots. One thing I've noticed in practices in regards to the way Coach Turner runs drills is that all the players (not just guys getting a serious look at other positions) get a daily dose of fluidity along the line as they are constantly interchanged at each spot. If he doesn't work his way into starter status, he will be a very high quality backup on the interior or exterior. I'm optimistic that he'll do well one way or the other, but this spring will go a long ways in tipping that hand.

Danny Baker's development and emergence as a serviceable backup last season definitely helped the situation but the fact he was called on to start (first game of the year) and be a primary backup for both tackle spots shows just how much the Ag's were reaching for edge blockers last season. While he's honestly not an optimal starter, the young man works very hard and is a very versatile jack-of-all-trades cog (he's seen time in everything from TE to center to guard to tackle). Brian Thomas may also get a look at tackle in spring due to the numbers, his quickness, and familiarity with the left side of the line, but it would be surprising if he ended up staying there even in a backing capacity. He'll provide solid depth at guard and I'll detail him more in that section later.

Looking to insert himself in the tackle conversation and rotation is the large framed redshirt freshman Clint Naron. He is quick off the snap, has good footwork and plays with good pad level. Also strong with the mental side of the game, solid against the run and the pass Naron could be that player who emerges as a solid candidate at some point and at least contribute sometime in the not so distant future. I'm not trying to sound vague but injury has limited him this year and his status is unknown at the moment. However, when he can get healthy, he has too much potential to fall into the "just another body" category, especially this early in his development. Longer shots at the position include Craig Rashke and Jeffrey Hyde who in addition to size, strength, footwork, wingspan, is pretty strong in regards to the mental side of the game but has struggled as far to climb the depth chart and would be a big but obviously pleasant surprise emerge.

Interior Line (Guards & Center)

While tackle is promising but young and unproven, our interior line positions have several high quality and relatively seasoned players at starter. While not bursting at the seams with depth, A&M has a decent number of capable players in backing roles. While they definitely have work to do in further development (having already demonstrated their competence) the interesting part of following this group the next few weeks will be where they shake out and if they've finally reached a point of stability at the inside positions.

The Ag's undisputed leader on the interior and considered by his coaches, as the best blocker on the line as of last August, Patrick Lewis is walking proof a true freshman can work his way into the starting lineup and excel. A great drive blocker; he uses brute strength, balance, great hands and footwork to dominate his competition. He instantly shored up the two deep on the inside in 2009 and following the first Big XII game against Oklahoma State (where he earned his first start at Left Guard), took over as starter at Right Guard. Lewis may continue at guard but will also get a hard look at center as Aggie coaches look to replace Kevin Mathews. The young man is such a solid option that it's easy to forget he still has a lot of developing to do. While shoring up his technique this spring, the only adjustment he may need to make is working on his shotgun snaps (if at center).

Former Bryan Viking, Evan Eike did so well in starting all twelve games in 2008 that he found himself on Phil Steele's College Preview -2nd Team Freshmen All-American List. In 2009 coaches were toying with left tackle and Michael Shumard (who filled in admirably and selflessly for years at tackle when he was always meant to be a great full-time guard) temporarily replaced Eike at LG. However, with Shumard the strongest option at tackle back on the left edge, Eike resumed his spot and put together a really strong season, establishing himself as a true presence at guard. Nothing fancy with Eike, he simply plays with a real nasty disposition and is a sound drive blocker with good upper and lower body strength, balance and footwork. The road grater will enter his junior season in 2010 and like Lewis, is one of the few sure things up front for the Aggie's this spring (at left guard).

Matt Allen is currently the third strongest option on the interior and will either take over for Kevin Mathews as starter at Center or Lewis at Right Guard if he (Lewis) is moved to Center. The LSU transfer (he always wanted to be an Aggie but wasn't offered by the previous staff and jumped at the opportunity upon arrival of Mike Sherman) came off his mandated 2008 sit out year (per transfer rules) and started the first 5 games at RG and the 6th at LG before finding himself as the primary interior backup in 2009. Possessing good feet, athleticism and brute strength, Allen looks for a resurgence this spring and has the potential to take a big leap in his development and put together a very solid senior campaign (at center or right guard). I would be shocked if he didn't.

Looking to gain some ground on the top three inside options this spring will be RS-SO Brian Thomas. Upon arrival in 2008, he impressed coaches with his effort, talent and athleticism and not only did he almost practice his way out of a red shirt, he even pushed Evan Eike pretty hard for starter at guard. Since then his development has been pretty quiet but he is mentally and physically quick and the versatile up and comer will provide quality depth at guard and maybe even center (he's also filling in early at tackle this spring much like he did last year). He may not be a featured player up front but he is a very important cog in the line and will look to raise his stock further over the next few weeks.

Joe Villavisencio will likely be backing at center (where he was penciled in for most of the 2009 season and through the last game against Georgia) but could just as easily or readily be called on to provide depth at guard. He has excellent size, strength, and smarts but despite those attributes and potential, he is essentially in the same boat as Brian Thomas but with a little more urgency (he did not redshirt last year and the numbers probably won't allow it this year). Villavisencio is a very capable and quality backup but he's a junior and one that needs to raise his standing soon if he ever hopes to emerge as a higher priority option. Until then, he's another versatile and valued option backing on the inside and that is a big plus for the team at the moment.

Another player adding depth to the interior is Danny Baker who I mentioned in the tackle section. Much like Thomas and Villavisencio he can play any spot on the line. Clearly not at the highest level, but a quality component that will likely be called on at some point to reinforce the interior and perhaps even tackle.

Stephen Barrera and Rhontae Scales, who I detailed in the tackle section, are two players that could eventually excel at either guard spot. In fact when Joeckel and Mathews have their feet firmly under them I'd almost expect at least one of them (Barrera or Scales) to enter the rotation strait away. Barrera seams to be the one getting the head start there early this camp but as mentioned this is a wide open position area the next few weeks (at least) so don't read too much into that. Coaches definitely would love for him and Scales to pan out at tackle, which is still the greatest area of need. However, if Rhontae can hit the ground running at right tackle and Joeckel can do more of the same at left tackle (more to ask but possible), then the staff will be free to give Barrera more of a look at guard throughout spring. Regardless of their eventual role or position, their development this spring will be very important, even if they end up on the second team (and I'm not saying that they will, just if) they would at the least provide a huge boost to talent level of depth.

A Brief Look Ahead to August 2010: Offensive Line

A slough of talented offensive lineman will refill the pipeline upon arrival in late summer but will obviously have a ways to go in development. That said, coaches and insiders don't just hope but expect the above average (mentally and physically) Jake Mathews to step into the left tackle spot and quickly work his way to the top by the beginning of the season. Across from him at right tackle will likely be fellow freshman Luke Joeckel (detailed above) in a battle with Stephen Barrera or Rhontae Scales and possibly another newcomer Shep Klinke. Other anticipated reinforcements at offensive line include Cedric Ogbuehi and Garrett Gramling. They are younger and in need of experience but ALL promise to be much stronger talents than the Ag's have had to work with at the position in a very long time. I will detail them in much great length heading into Fall Camp.

Offensive Line Overall

While clearly in need of development, this August the pipeline will be full. In the meantime, the veterans and relative newcomers are looking to get a good jump on the bulk of the new offensive line class, not just for themselves but for a team and offensive line that is poised to make a huge jump in their overall talent, competency and efficiency. It suffices to say, there will be a lot of competition and fluidity up front and will be a very intriguing and exciting position area to follow over the next few weeks.

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