Nobody is really quite sure what to think of the Big 12's offensive line situation heading into the 2010 season. On one hand, the two teams typically responsible for accumulating the most talent, Oklahoma and Texas, return just three and two starters, respectively. On the other, half of the teams in the league return at least four starters -- Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas State and Nebraska -- with Colorado and Kansas bringing back all five main players from a year ago.
But while the overall groups should be decent, there appears to be a vacuum of top-end talent. A year after two Big 12 tackles (Trent Williams and Russell Okung) were taken in the first six picks of the NFL Draft, the conference might not have a single first-round offensive line talent for the 2011 Draft (but keep an eye on Colorado tackle Nate Solder).
Now, on to the conference's top offensive line groups:
Not only does Missouri return four starters from a line that allowed just 20 sacks a year ago, the Tigers have a talented young group of players pushing the veterans every day in practice. Center Tim Barnes is the only senior on the two-deep (none of the backups are older than sophomores), and he's the leader. Missouri's tackle group of Elvis Fisher on the left and Dan Hoch on the right, is a very good one. Fisher sat out the spring with a shoulder injury, but should be fine for the fall. Austin Wuebbels is the fourth returning starter, though he's expected to be pushed by a mound of young talent, including freshman Justin Britt. Jayson Palmgren is the only new starter at this point, taking the right guard position. With four juniors slated to start, the Tigers should be even more effective next year.
2) NebraskaFour starters return for the 'Huskers, and the newcomer is expected to be a good one. Jermarcus "Yoshi" Hardrick, a 6-foot-7, 320-pound transfer from Fort Scott Community College, is good enough that he bumped old left tackle Mike Smith, a two-year starter, to the interior. Smith's athleticism should be an asset there, should he beat out returning starters Keith Williams and Ricky Henry at guard or center Mike Caputo, a newbie to the starting lineup. Marcel Jones could be the top lineman in the group. He's a standout at right tackle. Redshirt freshmen Brent Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles have returned from injuries and will add depth.
The Jayhawks return their entire starting offensive line from the season finale against Missouri. Left tackle Tanner Hawkinson was a preseason All-Big 12 selection, while center Jeremiah Hatch is capable of playing at that level. Sophomore Trevor Marrongelli, an agile guard with a mean streak, was a revelation in the spring. Seniors Brad Thorson and guard Sal Capra gets the job done at right tackle and left guard, respectively. The loss of Jeff Spikes to injury dents the Jayhawks' depth. He started most of last season and could plug in either at tackle or guard.
The Sooners struggled as a line a season ago, and now must replace their best lineman, left tackle Trent Williams. But the line should still be better than a year ago with the return of three starters, including center Ben Habern and right tackle Cory Brandon, while left guard Stephen Good should be among the best interior blockers in the conference. Donald Stephenson, a player with talent but maturity issues, will battle Jarvis Jones for Williams's spot. Sophomore Tyler Evans is the likely candidate at right guard.
The Longhorns return just two starters, tackle Kyle Hix and guard Michael Huey. Hix is an All-Conference candidate. Both will move from the right side to the left side. David Snow will move into the center spot, and is expected to transition into a starting role smoothly. Right tackle Britt Mitchell and right guard Tray Allen, both seniors, should thrive in a more run-based offense. Allen (6-4 305) is a one-time five-star recruit who is entering his first year as a starter. Four of the five linemen are seniors, with David Snow, a junior, as the exception. Depth, especially at tackle, could be a problem.
Best of the Rest:
6) Colorado -- Perhaps no team in the country has seen its offensive line as dented by injuries in the past couple of seasons as Colorado. That trend continued in the spring when right guard Ryan Miller broke a plate in his arm and missed all but one practice. He should be ready to go in the fall, though. Nate Solder and Bryce Givens give the Buffaloes a talented tackle duo, but Givens must be more dependable off the field. Guard Ethan Adkins and center Keenan Stevens round out the group, which has some experience and depth on the second team because of the myriad of injuries suffered.
7) Iowa State -- The Cyclones return four starters, including second-team All-Big 12 left tackle Kelechi Osemele. Senior Ben Lamaak, a four-year starter, moves form guard to center. Scott Haughton also made a move inside, finding a spot at right guard after playing the last two years at right tackle. Alex Alvarez, the left guard, is the other returning starter. Right tackle Brayden Burris, the newcomer, has very little experience but plenty of athleticism.
8) Kansas State -- The Wildcats' line had its good spots a year ago, but also had moments where plays by Daniel Thomas, or elusive quarterback Grant Gregory (now graduated) made them look better than they were. The Wildcats return four starters from that line, but are missing Nick Stringer, who graduated at left tackle. Into his spot will step massive (6-8 313) junior Zach Hanson. The interior is strong, with returnees Zach Kendall, Wade Weibert and Kenneth Mayfield, all seniors. Right tackle is manned by Clyde Aufner.
9) Texas Tech -- This is one of the major question marks facing the Red Raiders this season. Gone is Brandon Carter, a big road-grader in the run game. Also gone are trusted veterans Shawn Byrnes and Marlon Winn. And one of Tech's returning starters, Chris Olson, is making the move from tackle to center. Lonnie Edwards is the returner at left guard, while sophomore Terry McDaniel returns from injury to man the left tackle spot. The right side is a much bigger question mark. Deveric Gallington and LaAdrian Waddle will likely fill those spots, but they're both inexperienced sophomores. Depth is also a concern.
10) Texas A&M -- Arguably the most important position on the Aggies' line, left tackle, will be filled by a true freshman in Luke Joeckel (6-6 290). Joeckel impressed in the spring to win the job. And the possibility exists that the tackle spot opposite Joeckel could also hold a true freshman, as frosh Jake Matthews and redshirt freshman Rhontae Scales battle it out for the right tackle position. Center will be filled by senior Matt Allen. The only two returning starters are Evan Eike and Patrick Lewis at guard. Aggie coach Mike Sherman said all five of the incoming freshmen were expected to come in and compete for immediate time. Even though it was a strong class, that's still a situation that's far from ideal.
11) Oklahoma State -- Cowboy offensive line coach Joe Wickline does a great job of putting together solid units year after year. But when Wickline's unit returns just one starter (guard Lane Taylor) from the previous season, his work is cut out for him. Two of the new starters have outstanding potential in guard Jonathan Rush and center Grant Garner, a great athlete. The tackle spots won't be as easy to fill. Juniors Nick Martinez and Levy Adcock are the likely starters there.
12) Baylor -- The Bears return three starters from a year ago, but lose their two best in J.D. Walton, one of the top centers in the country a year ago, and guard James Barnard, a three-year starter. Philip Blake is moving inside from tackle to take over Walton's center position. Senior left tackle Danny Watkins will serve as the leader of the unit, and will stand across from fellow starter Ivory Wade, a sophomore right tackle. JUCO transfer Robert T. Griffin (no relation to the Bears' quarterback), brings plenty of size (6-6 335) to the right guard spot. This line will at least bring more size than the Bears have had in the past, with all five starters topping the 300-pound mark.