Fall Camp Guide 2010: Offensive Line

The 2010 recruiting class has filled the pipeline on the offensive front, and compliments a sound group of returning veterans. Though young on the edges, this offensive line is poised to make a huge jump in their overall talent and potentially gives A&M it's best group here in at least a decade. Jeffrey Jennings of Aggie Websider continues his in-depth look into the 2010 season.

The Aggie offense has high expectations in 2010 and while they return a complete set of skill players with experience, their success is contingent on an offensive line that looks to replace three seniors. Ordinarily that would be much more than a hiccup, but in this case A&M's front will actually see an upgrade, trading experience for premium talent as a phenomenal 2010 offensive line recruiting haul looks to field two highly-touted true freshmen starters at tackle (possibly a third contending for an early role on the interior or backing at tackle and perhaps another bolstering depth on the interior). Given the physical development and skill set needed to play on the offensive front at this level, competent first year linemen (especially tackles) are a rarity, but this is an above average batch of newcomers and they appear ready for the task. Returning on the interior are a solid group of salty, seasoned lineman who will be flat out nasty and effective in the trenches. Clearly, they have to prove it, but the early returns look good and between the highly talented newcomers and skilled veterans this should be the best offensive line A&M has fielded in at least a decade.

Offensive Tackle

A&M has been in desperate need of strong offensive tackle play, and they appear to have two very young but strong answers in Luke Joeckel and Jake Mathews who are the likely starting bookends heading into fall. It's obviously not ideal to start freshmen tackle. Ordinarily the physical readiness of a typical 18 year old isn't up to par with the size and strength requirement of the position, nor are they usually ready for such a cerebral position. Fortunately for the Ags' both talented young men find themselves on pretty strong footing with both hurdles. They'll also have a resurging role player contending for the right tackle spot in Brian Thomas. Behind them depth is sparse but relatively serviceable. Lets take a look at what we've got.

Luke Joeckel enrolled early, and while he arrived close to the part physically, he has been in the Ags' S&C program for eight months and is legit from that standpoint. In fact, he's reportedly been amongst the players generating most of the noise out of the weight room. Our staff, team, and fans needed him to hit the ground running in his month of spring reps, and he immediately impressed all concerned. He has great balance, is quick into his set, has great footwork, and has great technique with his hands. In addition he has a very high football IQ and the requisite mean streak in finishing off opponents in the run and the pass. Yes he is green and will have growing pains but as Hop stated in spring, "he's the most talented offensive lineman this program has seen in a decade". Not only was his early development a pleasant surprise, but he was actually one of the strongest performers in camp. One week into camp and he was holding his own against Von Miller, as one coach summed up, "Von was virtually untouched last year, but this spring Joeckel slowed him down "90% of the time." He also dominated the ends and was effective in picking up edge blitzes by the OLB's and safeties. Coach Sherman summed up his spring performance:

"He has played that position this spring as well as anybody we've had there. Last spring, as you guys saw, we couldn't block #40 at all . . . I feel very confident that he can do that job based on what he has shown me . . . He's been a pleasant surprise. I knew he would come in, I knew he would compete, I knew he would be pretty good. I didn't know how well he would handle the mental aspect and the speed of the game. He doesn't get phased. The game is slow to him in my mind. He sees everything, does the right thing, and doesn't get flustered when he makes a mistake. He gets right back and pulls the next snap. From a freshmen standpoint, going back to the years when I was here, he is right up there."

That's high praise from a man who coached the best linemen A&M has seen in it's greatest era and even more impressive a statement taking into account the fact coaches (especially ones as brutally honest as Sherman) tend to temper the optimism on young players to the media. He does have learning ahead of him and needs to work on his inside sets but has picked up everything admirably so far. Fans might like the fact he's not screwing up snap counts and committing false starts, which is a mental thing that could easily happen while processing so much. Again, he'll have his stumbles, but it looks like the Ag's have their man at left tackle for the next few years.

Coaches don't just hope, but expect the above average (mentally and physically) Jake Mathews to work his way into one of the starting tackle spots (likely right at this point, given Luke Joeckel's head start and spring showing) either by the beginning or early into the season. The five star recruit chose A&M over USC (his hall-of-fame OL father Bruce Mathews' alma mater) and is easily the most highly touted lineman the Aggies have signed in ages. He proved himself well in the Army All American All Star game shutting one the years best defensive line recruits Jackson Jeffcoat (a feat shared by his fellow stellar incoming OL classmate Cedric Ogbuehi, who I'll detail later). Mathews' athleticism is superb and has phenomenally polished technique for this stage of his career. He gets into his set quickly and clean, has great footwork to follow, and always plays with great pad level and hands. On top of that he has a great football IQ (as you can imagine being the son of a Hall of Famer who played the game for a long time. Does that mean he'll arrive complete? Of course not, but the young man has the physical tools, skill set and mind to get up to speed as well as can be expected. Jake will still have his growing pains but the main thing he needs is size for the next level. He's got a great frame and has had plenty of time so he should be close, but that's the question everyone wants to see answered upon arrival this Sunday.

An extremely pleasant surprise this spring was RS-SO Brian Thomas. Upon arrival in 2008, he impressed coaches with his effort, talent, athleticism, and almost practiced his way out of a redshirt before Evan Eike edged him out. Quiet since then, Thomas is not stellar size-wise and honestly not an elite talent but he is very quick, smart, and effective in run and pass blocking. Until this spring he's spent most of his time on left side of the line at guard but when he got the chance on the right edge this spring he shined. He gets into his pass set quickly, has great balance, plays with effective finesse, and is good at keeping the end in front of him. However, he can also get into defenders as an effective run blocker as well. While he'll make it a fight, I don't see him holding off Jake Mathews long into the season (if past August) but he is going to be a very crucial component on this line this year (and for the next two years after that). His presence not only serves to push Mathews a bit in camp, but also buys Jake time to come on line before we really get into the meat of the schedule. Brian will be a very capable tackle early this season, and provide quality depth on the edge, but he also has the ability, versatility, and experience to be kind of a floating band-aid (on the interior as well) for a thin line in terms of depth.

Tackle Depth

Filling depth roles at tackles are Jeffrey Hyde and Craig Rashke. Also bringing his efforts to shoring up tackle is Jeffrey Hyde. Like 2008 classmate Thomas, he'll be a quality option to back at tackle or at guard. Hyde has good size, strength, footwork, wingspan, and is pretty strong in regards to the mental side of the game. He silently and surprisingly put together a decent spring and emerged as what should be a decent option off the bench. Rashke surprisingly started a few games last season and highlighted the Aggies' desperation at the position. I mean in no way to disparage the young man who is simply giving his all for his school, but when a squad player is starting at tackle, that's an issue. Still, he's got experience and proved himself strong enough an option to start at left tackle, despite the lack of talent at the spot, so he bears mentioning as a backup here.

Another name that bears mentioning is Rhontae Scales. He's been moved to the defensive line but as most moves this staff makes, if they can tell early it's not shaking out they don't hesitate to pull them out and get them back where the individual and the team are served best, so Scales could well be back at tackle. If so, I actually expect him to really add significantly to the quality of depth. He's not starting, and I think that's the reason for the move, but he could be a really good backup if we need it. Scales is mammoth and has excellent agility and quickness for his size (hence the move to DL). Though he's surprisingly nimble and light on his feet, once he gets going, my only knock on him so far has been just how slow he seems to get off the ball and into his set. In fairness that may have been a simple matter of information overload rather than reaction time, as he's struggled to learn the intricacies of the spot so far. Again, he could be a very good option off the bench at right tackle, if it doesn't work out for him on the defensive line.

Interior Line (Guards & Center)

While tackle is promising (though young and unproven), the interior line positions have several high quality, and seasoned players at starter. They are not bursting at the seams with depth, but A&M has a number of candidates to fill in as serviceable backups if need be.

RG

Patrick Lewis is the Ag's undisputed leader on the interior, and considered by his coaches as one of the best blockers on the line. He is walking proof that a true freshman can work his way into the starting lineup and excel, as he instantly shored up the two deep, on the inside in 2009 (following the first Big XII game against Oklahoma State). Lewis was given a hard look at center (where coaches ideally wanted the bright young man), but too many issues with snaps found him back at guard about a week into spring ball. It may be for the best, as he'll have less to worry about at guard. Just let him maim defenders as a great drive blocker with brute strength, balance, great hands and footwork. The young man is such a solid option, that it's easy to forget he still has a lot of developing to do. He'll work on cleaning up the finer points of his game, but Patrick is sound at this stage of his career and one of the strongest members of this team.

LG

There is not much to update with Evan Eike and nothing fancy about his game. He simply plays with a real nasty disposition, and is a sound drive-blocker, with good upper and lower body strength, balance, and footwork to handle his business in the passing game. 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. The former Bryan Viking, temporarily backed Michael Shummard at LG last season, as A&M tried to find an answer at LT. However, when no one stepped up, Shummard went back out of his natural position, Eike resumed his starting duties, and has locked the spot down. The road grater will enter his junior season in 2010, and like Lewis, is one of the sure things up front for the Aggie's this spring.

C

Likely taking over for Kevin Mathews (yes Jake Mathew's brother), at center will be Matt Allen. The LSU transfer started the first 5 games at RG, and the 6th at LG, before finding himself as the primary interior backup in 2009. He plays the game in a flat out mean, and agitated state. Allen is a great option here when he can keep his head together. Because of that concern, I was actually surprised that he would be taking over center (which is usually one of the most "with it" guys up front), but he's settled into fine so far. He's a senior, but so is Jerrod Johnson, and there is no need to try a younger guy in there to maintain chemistry down the line. Like Eike, Allen isn't fancy just a solid lineman. He has good feet, athleticism, brute strength, and as mentioned plays angry.

Interior Depth

Another player adding depth to the interior is Danny Baker. Much like Brian Thomas, who can play about any spot on the line, Baker has seen some live action at center, tackle, and even as a blocking tight end. While not the highest level of talent, he still gives quality depth, and has valuable seasoning, if called on at some point to reinforce the interior. Baker ran with the first team early in spring camp and did a commendable job at center, actually handling Lucas Patterson coming off the nose about as well as anyone, and sprang a few solid runs up the middle. The young man works very hard, and is a very versatile jack-of-all-trades depth player, who will serve us well in that role this season. Already detailed and another possible option at guard (again if things don't work on the DL), is Rhontae Scales. I could actually see him doing really well on the interior. Also backing along the inside, is Joe Villavisencio who has had a very quiet career so far. The junior has size, strength, and smarts but none of it has translated to the field so far. If the light bulb ever comes on (and it's possible, see his 2008 OL classmates Thomas an Hyde), I could see him doing well off the bench at center.

Other Talented Newcomers

Finally, two other members of the stellar 2010 offensive line class (that could potentially play on the inside or on the edge) are highly heralded recruit, and Army All-American, Cedric Ogbuehi or Shep Klinke. One of these freshmen will likely redshirt but Sherman has said that he plans on playing three of the incoming linemen. If I had to guess I would say it would be Shep Klinke due to his readiness size wise and the fact coaches are considering looking at Cedric early on at defensive end due to his "strength, speed and frame" as Websider reported this summer. There may be concerns he can fill out to 300 pounds soon enough (he's currently around the 275-285 mark). That said, I would much rather see him as part of the future of the offensive line given his history, and skill set. He dominated at the position in the top ranks of Texas high school football. He's quick into his set, has great balance, remarkable speed, good hands, and plays with a nastiness and aggression. As mentioned, when discussing Jake Mathews, Cedric went head to head with stud defensive lineman, and University of Texas commit, Jackson Jeffcoat. However, it was not in an all-star game, he did it in a widely talked about battle during his senior season, and completely shut down the son of former NFL and Cowboy legend, Jim Jeffcoat for four quarters.

Shep Klinke who currently checks in at 6'6"- 290, has gotten all of his early reps in at center. He and Allen, have reportedly been splitting reps with the first and second team this summer. I would doubt he'll start, but that would provide a solid long term option there, as Mathews and Joeckel solidify the edges for the next four years, Patrick Lewis locks down RG for the next three seasons, and Eike closes out his two remaining years at LG. Klinke wasn't as highly sought after and didn't have the "stars" of his counterparts but he shows Sherman's evaluating edge. As long as he's here, we'll find players that aren't rated great by the services, but are every bit as good where it counts. He's got good feet, is strong, has the frame to add much more mass, possesses an effective reach, and like most Katy products, is well polished at his position given his age (a beneficial common trait amongst this class of talented linemen).

Offensive Line Overall

The 2010 recruiting class has filled the pipeline on the offensive front, and compliments a sound group of returning veterans. Though young on the edges, this offensive line is poised to make a huge jump in their overall talent, competency, efficiency, and potentially gives A&M it's best group here in at least a decade. Their timing couldn't be better as the pieces are just about in place, for the Aggies to have one of the most dangerous, balanced, and effective offenses in the nation (not just on the stat sheets, but it will be reflected in the win column, if the defense can compliment them to a reasonable extent).


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