One of the favorite statistics to parrot when talking about an offensive line is combined starts. And in six players, including backup guard Adam Shead, the Sooners have a whopping 102 combined starts. That's cohesiveness. Add in arguably the Big 12's top interior with center Ben Habern sandwiched between guards Gabe Ikard and Tyler Evans, and the Sooners are good-to-go. Ikard may be the league's best returning offensive lineman. It's not quite as settled at tackle, where returning starter Lane Johnson will switch over to left tackle from right tackle, opening a spot for sophomore Daryl Williams. But as always, the Sooners are packed with tough, versatile players at the point of attack offensively.
The Longhorns return four starts from an offensive line that paved the way for one of the Big 12's top running games when Texas had the healthy backs to exploit those holes. Texas did see a need to get better in pass protection, and went out and landed arguably the country's top junior college offensive lineman in left tackle Donald Hawkins, who should be an immediate starter. Him winning that spot would improve several others. Last year's left tackle, Josh Cochran, moves to right tackle, which in turn bumps Trey Hopkins to a more natural guard spot. Guard Mason Walters is the unit's top returnee and a potential All-Big 12 caliber player. And Dominic Espinosa returns as the starting center, though he needs to get stronger at the point of attack. The Longhorns should also be deeper than a year ago, including emerging freshman Sedrick Flowers at guard.
How are the Cowboys this high after losing four starters? The cupboard isn't entirely bare, as Oklahoma State returns four players with at least five career starts. The best of the bunch is guard Lane Taylor, the lone returnee from last year's group that didn't allow opposing defenses to breathe too heavily on Brandon Weeden. Jonathan Rush returning from a medical redshirt solidifies the other guard spot, while tackles Michael Bowie and Parker Graham have each started and have the ability to become the next in coach Joe Wickline's group of standouts. Center will be manned by Evan Epstein, one of four seniors out of the five projected starters. Graham is the lone junior.
Well, the right side of the Mountaineer line should be strong. West Virginia returns three starters in center Joe Madsen, right guard Jeff Braun and right tackle Pat Eger. Madsen is the offensive line's most special player, an ideal middle-man for the explosive Mountaineer attack with toughness and moxie. Can WVU replace Don Barclay at left tackle? That question will probably be answered by massive sophomore Quinton Spain (6-5 335). Left guard is in a better position with the return of Josh Jenkins who missed last season with a knee injury. If Jenkins comes back strong, and Braun continues his play from the end of 2011, the 'Eer's have a chance to be solid up the middle.
For all the talk about how the Bears threw the ball last year, they also led the Big 12 in pure yards per carry (removing sacks from the equation). The Bears averaged 5.92 yards per rushing attempt a year ago, and should pave the way for more holes this year after returning all three interior starters. That includes left guard Cyril Richardson, a shoo-in on every preseason All-Big 12 list this summer. Richardson (6-5 335) leads a group that averaged 6-5 312 per man, including the oversized Ivory Wade (6-4 310) at center and Cameron Kaufhold at the other guard position. Spencer Drango (6-6 305) was a great recruiting keeper for the Bears after schools like Texas came calling, and he's set to start at left tackle as a redshirt freshman. Troy Baker, a local product from Waco, is the likely starter on the right.
Best of the Rest
6) Kansas State — The Wildcats were the worst Big 12 school at protecting the passer a year ago, allowing a sack per 7.7 passing attempts. In fact, the Wildcats allowed 28 sacks in their last six games, more than that of pass-happy Oklahoma and Oklahoma State combined over the entire 2011 season. Replacing both tackles doesn't help, though center B.J. Finney is a burgeoning star. Manase Foketi, the likely starter at left tackle, did start 13 games in 2010, so he could provide an upgrade, while Nick Puetz is a returning starter at left guard.
7) Kansas — Statistically speaking, the Jayhawks had the league's worst offensive line a year ago, though three returning starters should help matters. Guard Duane Zlatnik is a pro prospect, while left tackle Tanner Hawkinson, a third-year starter, may have the most potential. Trevor Marrongelli moving to center should help to solidify the interior. Can Riley Spencer handle a full-time load at right tackle? And can JUCO transfer Aslam Sterling factor in positively? Those are two of the major questions for a group that should be improved.
8) Texas Tech — The Red Raiders were fourth in the Big 12 in passing attempts per sack, but just ninth in yards per rushing attempt. From that group, Tech lost three senior starters, including arguably three of the top four linemen on the team. The lone returnee of that group is senior left tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Deveric Gallington is set at center, and Texas A&M transfer Brian Thomas will take over for three-year starter Lonnie Edwards at left guard. Terry McDaniel has the versatility to fill in where needed. Former blue chipper Le'Raven Clark may have the toughest task: replacing Mickey Okafor, who had some injuries last year, but was the line's best player when healthy.
9) TCU — Blaize Foltz is one of the Big 12's best interior guys, but other than he and center James Fry, the Horned Frogs are looking for a largely-new line. BYU transfer Tayo Fabuluje could help at tackle, as could James Dunbar, a starter heading into 2011. But TCU could put together a strong starting line — the main question is depth after four graduations (including three starters) and the loss of Ty Horn to the February drug scandal.
10) Iowa State — It will be difficult to replace Kelechi Osemele, one of the Big 12's top linemen over the past few years. But the Cyclones can count on center Tom Farniok, as well as offensive tackle Brayden Burris, who is returning from injury. Add in Ethan Tuftee, and the are three players with at least 10 games starting experience, though none is the talent Osemele was.