Fall Season Guide 2010 - Offensive Line

Fall camp is over and the Texas Aggie football team is transitioning into game week. The Aggie Websider takes a look at what to expect after a competitive August camp. Special contributor Jeffrey Jennings analyzes the offensive line unit and provides insight into how the young freshmen performed

The Aggie offense has high expectations in 2010 and while they return an impressive and 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 (with a third 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 after what they've shown this off-season and in fall camp, they are ready for the task.

Returning on the interior is a solid group of salty, seasoned lineman who stepped up their individual and collective games this off-season and will be flat out nasty and effective in the trenches. Clearly, they have to prove it when the season begins, but the early returns look good for our young tackles, and despite a team wide epidemic of minor injuries throughout camp, not one offensive lineman missed a snap. Between the highly talented newcomers and skilled veterans, this will be the best offensive line A&M has fielded in at least a decade and they have the pieces in place, with a stocked pipeline, to be a force for years to come as Coach Sherman's phenomenal offensive line haul, proved this past month that they are the real deal.


Offensive Tackle

A&M has been in desperate need of strong offensive tackle play, and they have three very young but strong answers in Luke Joeckel, Brian Thomas, and Jake Matthews who look to take over both tackle spots this fall. Thomas has done a great job this off-season, and has to date held on to his starting right tackle spot. Many expected Matthews to overtake him in August, but with Thomas proving he can hold his own, Jake has been cross-trained at both tackle positions. Make no mistake, Mathews has been brilliant throughout August but he's a natural on the left side and this puts our two most athletic lineman on that all so important side. The competition is stiff as Joeckel has proven his worth there, with his talents and spring head start, but for now Matthews will cut his teeth with the second unit. But with his cross-training, it opens up several possibilities if either Joeckel or Thomas go down with an injury or one struggles early in the season and a change is made. Depending on how the season unfolds, A&M fans could see Matthews at either left tackle or right tackle but make no mistake, he will play somewhere at some point. He's simply too good. Whatever the scenario, I truthfully can't see Matthews being on the sideline for long. That's not a knock on Brian Thomas because the Aggies finally have high level competition and three really strong options at tackle, a situation Aggie fans and coaches have not seen in a long time.

It's obviously not ideal to start a freshman tackle, as 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' however, both talented young men find themselves on strong footing in those regards. Behind them depth is sparse but serviceable. (Brian Thomas or Jake Matthews being great third options before having a bit of a drop off.) 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. One week into spring 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. . . I feel very confident that he can do the job based on what he has shown me . . . He's been a pleasant surprise. . . 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 tend to temper the optimism on young players to the media. Probably the most impressive and developed freshman to date in 2010 (given his talent and head start), Joeckel continued his spring efforts throughout fall camp, where he continued as a steady performer, consistently garnering praise from Coach Turner (who's typically frugal in handing out compliments) and consistently wins his sets in drills. He does have learning ahead of him and needs to work on his inside sets but has picked up everything 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 the Ag's have one tackle spot nailed down for the next few years with Joeckel.

Much was expected from Jake Matthews, a five star recruit who chose A&M over USC (his father's alma mater) and is easily the most highly-touted lineman the Aggies have signed in over a decade. From day one he hasn't disappointed. While his power and strength will improve a great deal over the next year, Mathews is already 6'5" and an amazingly lean 295 pounds (there are not many 300-pounders out there with a washboard stomach). Jake gets into his sets very efficiently and has great footwork to follow. I'm not trying to over dramatize it, but he is ridiculously smooth and it almost looks like he's floating with his footwork, as he is very quick and balanced at all times, never having to reach for his defender because he's always in proper position. Beyond his superb athleticism, he is a sound technician beyond his years, always plays with great pad level, and has great hands blocking inside rather than outside. On top of that he has a great football IQ (as you can imagine being the son of a Hall of Famer Bruce Mathews who played the game for a long time), and on the rare occasion where he's in a bind, he makes the adjustment and seals up his man (Coach Turner was quick to praise his quick thinking on those sets).

Of course he still has a lot of learning to do but just from a physical and technique standpoint, he is flat out the best pass blocker on the roster (and will continue to be until he departs for the NFL). About halfway through fall camp Mathews was moved to left tackle and had about a four day stretch before someone finally beat him in his set. Though he could, and may, excel at right tackle at some point, it's was quite apparent from the get go that this was Mathews' natural spot. Towards the end of camp he cross trained at both spots extensively, starting at right tackle towards the end of camp, while Brian Thomas got in some good reps at center. Don't read too much into that as Sherman said, the plan all along was to cross train Thomas at center as he is Matt Allen's primary backup. Like Joeckel, Jake will obviously have growing pains, but he is far ahead of the curve and will likely make his move to start sometime in the next few weeks. Again not a knock on Thomas but Jake is too talented to be on the sidelines for long (despite what the early released depth chart reads).

An extremely pleasant surprise this off-season 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. Any other year we'd be singing Thomas' praises, and he certainly deserves a pat on the back for making this positional battle a strong one and holding off Jake Mathews this long, but while he's made it a fight, I don't see him holding off Jake (or Joeckel on the off chance Jake assumes duty on the left side) long into the season. (This is the the reason I have him listed in the depth section, despite the fact he's currently a starter.) That said, he'll be an extremely crucial component on this line this year (and for the next two years after that) whether he's starting or serving as the primary tackle and center backup (where he has looked exceptional), as he has the ability, versatility, and experience to be floating or swing lineman (capable of playing any spot on the line and doing it well). His presence also buys time for Mathews to fully come on line without rushing it.


Tackle Depth

Rhontae Scales got a hard look on the defensive line and actually appeared to have some new life there, but when it was apparent that nose guard depth was in good shape coaches put him back at right tackle, which serves him and the team best at the moment. He actually looked pretty good on the right edge and gives us another good option, adding significantly to the quality of depth here. 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 had been just how slow he seems to get off the ball and into his set. I wasn't sure if it was a simple matter of information overload rather than reaction time, but after watching him since the move back, I'm feeling better about it as it seems to have been the former, which is fixable, and he has looked a lot quicker off the ball. As that improves, with his learning and comfort, I'm confident he'll provide valuable depth at right tackle. Also filling a depth role at tackle is Jeffrey Hyde. Like 2008 classmate Thomas, he's come on lately with a silent but productive off-season, and while not stellar, will be a quality option to back at tackle or on the interior. Hyde has good size, strength, footwork, wingspan, and is pretty strong in regards to the mental side of the game. Danny Baker bears mentioning as he will also be a depth option at left tackle but I'll detail his attributes later in the interior line section.


Future Tackle

Highly heralded and talented former recruit, and Army All-American, Cedric Ogbuehi is going to be a good one but he needs to put on a lot more size and will likely redshirt in 2010. That said, he has a great skill set and looked good in fall camp. 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. Cedric went head to head with stud defensive lineman, and University of Texas commit, Jackson Jeffcoat, 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. This August Ogbuehi showed his talent on the edge, and will definitely be a key to the future of the A&M offensive line. However, as mentioned, he needs to add some beef and strength, because while his talent and athleticism were evident, he often found himself physically overwhelmed.


Interior Line (Guards & Center)

While tackle is promising though young, the interior line positions have several high quality, and seasoned players at starter and they have really stepped it up in the off-season, making an already solid unit much more nasty and effective. What's more is a few more faces have come along lately and though not bursting at the seams with depth, A&M has a number of candidates to fill in as quality backups if need be.


Right Guard

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. Patrick had a quiet fall camp but in Coach Turners world that is a good thing, as he is sound at this stage of his career and one of the strongest members of this team.


Left Guard

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, uses his hands well, has great 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 Shumard at LG last season, as A&M tried to find an answer at LT. However, when no one stepped up, Shumard 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 after having a silent but very productive off-season. His low-key presence is fitting for his workmanlike approach, but through that, he has improved a great deal, and has arrived as a standout at guard. His elevated status, as well as that of fellow grunts (Patrick Lewis and Matt Allen- who I'll detail shortly), will transform this already salty interior group into a much stronger unit in 2010.


Center

Taking over for Kevin Matthews (yes Jake Matthew'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. He has good feet, athleticism, and brute strength. Allen has really matured this off-season and has overcome some off field issues and mental lapses, putting together an outstanding fall camp and not only getting out of Coach Sherman's doghouse but endearing himself to him and Coach Turner through his play, even emerging as a team leader according to Jerrod Johnson. He is a great option here and had some epic battles with Lucas Patterson, as they sharpened each others blades throughout August. Much like Eike, Allen isn't fancy, just a solid, nasty lineman who comes to work and gets it done.


Interior Depth

Brian Thomas, who I detailed in the tackle section, is very versatile and is also listed as second team center and could be just as capable at guard if needed. Also backing along the inside and really stepping it up this August after being written off by many, is Joe Villavisencio. The junior has size, strength, and smarts and the light bulb is finally coming on for the young man (much like his 2008 OL classmates Thomas an Hyde). Villavisencio is strong as an ox, plays with good balance and has really learned to use his hands well, getting a good punch and stays engaged with his man. If need be he can step in at guard or center without the line seeing a significant drop-off.

Shep Klinke who currently checks in at 6'6"- 290, is the third freshman that could very well see time this season and may be the player that takes over for Matt Allen at center, after he graduates this year. 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, ahead of the curve for his age (a beneficial common trait amongst this class of talented linemen). Throughout fall camp he improved his technique, bending well to consistently get his pads low for leverage and providing a better base for stability and balance. The technique tweaks paid immediate dividends and garnered always hard earned praise from Coach Turner, "Klinke, you're actually becoming a pretty good lineman. How does it feel? ". He's currently backing at guard.

Another player adding depth to the interior is Danny Baker. Much like Brian Thomas, he can play about any spot on the line, and 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 or at tackle. 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. That said, he's third team center now (2nd if Brian Thomas is starting at right tackle or needed elsewhere) and is also penciled in at left tackle if need be (though the other options make it unlikely he'll be needed at this point).


Future Guards

Quickly generating a well-warranted buzz was the late recruiting pick up (a steal to be more accurate), and Navasota product Jarvis Harrison. At 6-4, 330, the young man is a mountain but he is ridiculously quick and athletic given his girth. He's got a lot of development to go, between chiseling his body (and flat out getting in shape), and working on his technique, but he showed enough the past few weeks to put people on notice that he'll be a good one down the line. After struggling for about a week, he really started to catch up to the pace of the college game. As Hop pointed out in camp, the main thing he needs to work on is getting off the ball, and using feet more and his hands less, but those are easy fixes and will come as he gets more comfortable and settled in with the system. Garret Gramling showed he is capable in August, and has a good skill set, but like Harrison has some work to do on technique and getting in better shape. Both young men will likely redshirt.


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.

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