Foremost among the UW linemen not returning in ‘07: ex-Cowboy powerhouse and current Minesota Viking Chase Johnson at the left tackle position. A 6-foot-8, 325-pound giant, Johnson started 47 consecutive games for Wyoming and earned all-conference honors his last two seasons. It isn't likely that any of this year's starters will reach a Johnson-esque level--especially early on--and coaches are concerned about the squad's lack of experience.
In fact, inexperience seems to be the theme of the last two positions we've covered in our preseason series. Head Coach Joe Glenn has done a superb job recruiting size and athleticism on both lines, and it will likely pay off in a big way within two to three years. But with two juniors, two sophomore and a freshmen rounding out the starting squad in ‘07, whether this year's o-line can step up to the task of protecting an up-and-coming quarterback and open holes for a talented tandem of running backs remains to be seen.
Perhaps no other group of players on the field rely more on cohesion than linemen, and with just two returning starters, it may take the squad several games to get a feel for each other. That will be a concern heading into a difficult--and important--set of season-opening battles that feature the likes of Virginia, Boise State, Ohio and TCU in the first five games.
On a positive note, one of the strengths of this year's line might be its depth, with at least three fairly solid (and big) youngsters sure to battle for playing time and a possible starting position. Sophomore Zack Kennedy, at 321 pounds, and redshirt freshman Jack Tennant, at just over 300, both have a chance to push for time at the guard position, while 288-pound redshirt freshman Garrett King logged time at right tackle during spring ball. On the other hand, the whole squad is so young, its depth is relative, and no reserve will be dominant. For that matter, with the lack of experience at three of the line's starting positions, it will likely be a challenge for many of the Pokes' regulars to assert themselves.
In today's feature, we'll take a look at the most promising and proven player on the squad, starting right tackle Kyle Howard.
Howard earned the nod last season at the left guard position, but with more experience than any other offensive lineman, he'll be moving to the right tackle spot this year. There, he'll have the vital responsibility of protecting the blind side of left-handed quarterback Karsten Sween.
Howard's performance will be critical to the Cowboys' success, as every missed block will carry with it the inauspicious possibility of potential injury and a change in the quarterback position.
Last year, UW struggled in pass protection, giving up 40 total sacks--an average of more than three a game. Fortunately for the Cowboys, Howard has shown to be athletic, versatile and strong. At 6-foot-7, 312 pounds, he has the size to be a dominating force against the run, and Glenn is confident the junior has the agility to make the transition to tackle and hopefully soften the blow of opposing teams' passing attacks.
"He did miss some of spring training with a finger injury," Glenn said, "but he passed the test (of moving to the tackle spot) with flying colors. He is a very good football player."
In 2005 as a redshirt freshman, Howard earned the starting job at left guard for the last four games of the season. That makes 16 consecutive starts heading into '07--the most by far of any player on either line.
Still, the big question with Howard centers on his speed. As a guard, he was one of the best run-blockers on the team, but lining up against far quicker opponents this year, he'll have to prove he has the athleticism to keep himself in front of any blitzing defenders opposing teams send at him. And given Wyoming's past struggles against pass rushers, there's no doubt Howard will be tested early and often by scheming defensive coordinators.
It's tough to tell for sure whether Howard has the kind of agility coaches see in him, having only showcased his skills at the guard position, but UW's media guide reminded us of at least one play in 2006 that showed off the big man's footwork:
"He showed his athleticism on a screen pass versus Utah," the guide points out. "Howard caught the…pass and took it nearly 20 yards down the sideline before being tackled just shy of scoring a touchdown. Unfortunately, (he) wasn't an eligible receiver…and the play ended in a penalty on the Cowboys."
Whether that proves he has a future at the tackle spot or not, if things don't work out on the line, coaches can always try suiting the big man up as a tight end and letting him bowl over a few linebackers in the passing game. They'll just have to make sure they give him a different jersey number.
For now, however, we'll content ourselves with seeing if the imposing tackle has more than just a really cool first name.
Howard's 2007 Keys to Success:
1. Foot speed. Howard is massive at 6-7 and 312 pounds, but he'll need to be able to move laterally to be effective against the pass rush. All it takes is one fleet-footed defensive end to blow by him, and the whole outcome of the 2007 season could change.
2. Staying healthy. Like all of last week's featured linemen, Howard has seen a few injuries this spring, and although they didn't slow him down much, the team can't afford to lose the big man for even one game.
Check out tomorrow's feature for a look at Chase Johnson's replacement, sophomore Ryan Otterson.
O-line at a Glance: Kyle Howard
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