2015 Draft: Offensive line injury concerns

The center position suffered some serious injuries that could impact their draft status, but there were some mid-round tackles and guards that will also get heavy medical attention in the offseason lead-up to the draft.

While several other positions have early- and mid-round selections that could be injury concerns heading into the draft, the tailbacks and fullbacks that will need further medical testing are mostly late-rounders.

After looking at the offensive skills positions that have injury concerns, I take a look at the trenches, where the biggest battles take place on the football field. Most offensive linemen will stay the “full term” (four years) with their college team before heading to the pro ranks, feeling they need the time to develop technique and allow their bodies time to fill out and mature.

Teams looking for a quality center might have to rely upon their doctors and training staff to give them the thumbs up before drafting any of the top-level snappers. While red-shirt sophomore Dan Voltz was not expected to leave school after this season for the NFL, most within the scouting industry regard him as the best underclassman in college at his position.

The Pacific Northwest was particularly hit hard, with Oregon center Hroniss Grasu a late-season injury casualty on a front wall that also lost offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone early in the schedule and saw fellow tackle Jake Fisher play through an assortment of injuries. Their in-state rivals, Oregon State, not only received bad news when a September foot injury downed starting center Isaac Seumalo, but they also lost his replacement, Roman Sapulu before they could get into the meat of their conference schedule.

Further South, Pac-12 Conference rival Southern California was also without the services of two projected starters – tackle Aundrey Walker and guard Chad Wheeler – for extended periods. Two injuries were so severe that Minnesota’s Caleb Bak and Auburn’s Eric Mack were both forced to retire. Mack has been sidelined for several seasons after he was a shooting victim near campus.

THE OFFENSIVE CENTERS
PLAYER SCHOOLCL HTWT 40-YDPRO RND
#BARRON, Austin Florida State Sr06:03.0 2925.17 4.5FA
#ESPINOSA, Dominic Texas (OG) rSr06:03.4 3055.06 4.7PFA
#GRASU, Hroniss (OG) OregonrSr 06:03.2295 4.966.1 2-3
#SAPOLU, Roman (OG) Oregon State rSr06:01.5 2845.44   
#SEUMALO, Isaac Oregon State Jr06:02.5 3055.14 7.01
#VOLTZ, Dan Wisconsin rSo06:02.6 3135.44 7.11
#WALDROP, Cody South Carolina rSo06:01.5 3155.23  

THE OFFENSIVE TACKLES
PLAYER SCHOOLCL HTWT 40-YDPRO RND
#GOINES, Simon UCLAJr 06:06.5330 5.43   
#JOHNSTONE, Tyler (OG) OregonrJr 06:05.6292 4.976.6 2
#KEEBLER, Cory Cincinnati Sr06:06.4 2875.18 4.4FA
#SALM, Kyle IdahorSr 06:05.1294 5.292.5 FA
#SPRIGGS, Jason IndianaJr 06:05.6307 5.27   
#WHEELER, Chad Southern California rSo06:06.1 2825.16  
THE OFFENSIVE GUARDS


PLAYER SCHOOLCL HTWT 40-YDPRO RND
#BAK, Caleb Minnesota Sr06:02.4 3005.30 2.50RET
#DIEFFENBACH,Miles George Penn State (OC) Sr06:03.7 3005.31 5.64-5
#KOZAN, Alex AuburnrSo 06:03.2300 5.33   
#MACK, Eric AuburnrSr 06:02.6319 5.232.50 FA
#MATULIS, Michael South Carolina rJr06:04.6 3075.14   
#WALKER, Aundrey (OT) Southern California Sr06:04.5 3185.21 6.32-3
#WILLIAMS, Harris Boston College Sr06:02.6 2965.29 4.6FA

No relation to former Florida State All-American offensive tackle, Alex Barron, Austin Barron was hoping to be the Seminoles’ full-time starter in the middle of the line in 2014. He captured the job with a stellar preseason, but entered his final campaign having earned just five starting assignments during his first three years with the team.

Barron started the first five games on the 2014 schedule, but he was one of four offensive starters to suffer significant injuries during the 43-3 rout of Wake Forest. The center suffered an arm fracture vs. the Demon Deacons and would sit out the next five games. It was not until early November before he could get clearance to return to practice. He suited up and played briefly vs. Boston College, but experienced a setback in his recovery.
He is currently curtailed from doing any football activities until doctors say he will be good to go. There was some worry that Barron would miss the rest of the season, but head coach Jimbo Fisher decided to activate him for the BC game, stating at the time, "he's healing a little quicker than we thought, but (it's) not a stunner."

Barron took over as the starting center for his senior season in 2014 but had played in 30 games during his first three years. He joined four returning senior starters from the 2013 National Championship team on the offensive line, but if he does return for the National Championship playoffs, he will reside with the second unit, as left tackle Cameron Erving has performed at an All-American pace since shifting to center for the last four contests.

With a taskmaster of a head coach, Charlie Strong, having taken over the Texas Longhorns program, there was a mass exodus of “troubled” players who were soon shown the door. Strong was determined to change the culture of the team and was heavily counting upon his senior center to be a calming influence in the huddle for a very young offense. It did not take long for Strong to find out just how invaluable Dominic Espinosa was to the team.

In the Longhorns’ season opener vs. North Texas, Espinosa suffered a broken ankle in the second half of the Longhorns' win over the Mean Green. Espinosa rolled the ankle and needed to be carted off the field after being unable to put any weight on the ankle. X-rays were taken with an MRI also performed, revealing that the center had indeed suffered a broken bone and would have season-ending surgery.

Losing Espinosa for any length of time was a major blow to a young Texas offensive line, which returned only one other starter and was expected to rely heavily on the four-year starting senior's experience and leadership. The injury broke the Cedar Park, Texas native's streak of 40 consecutive games started (most for any active Longhorn), a streak that began with the first game of the 2011 season and has included every Longhorn game since.

Redshirt freshman Jake Raulerson replaced Espinosa following the injury. As a fifth-year senior, Espinosa would need to pursue an NCAA medical waiver for a sixth year of eligibility if he elects to continue his Texas career. He had earned honorable mention All-Big Twelve Conference honors in 2013 after helping the offense rank 36th nationally in rushing (196.2 yards per game), and aiding the line in surrendering just 16 sacks (1.3 pg), which ranked tied for 17th fewest in the FBS.

Espinosa completed his undergraduate degree in corporate communication in the spring of 2014. He has been named to the UT Athletics Director's Honor Roll and was a 2011 second-team Academic All-Big 12 choice.

Injuries have greatly tested the depth and fortitude of the Oregon offensive line. Even before the season began, projected left tackle and preseason All-American Tyler Johnstone, returning from knee surgery, again tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a mid-August scrimmage and it wiped out what many expected would be his final season in college and leaving school as an All-American and early-round draft choice as a potential pro guard.

Johnstone was coming back from surgery to repair the same ACL after he was injured during Oregon's 30-7 victory over Texas in last season's Alamo Bowl. At the start of training camp, the tackle said he was hoping to start in the Ducks' season opener vs. South Dakota. The junior has started 26 straight games for the Ducks.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota called Johnstone one of Oregon's spiritual leaders.

Oregon shifted Jake Fisher from his customary right side to the left side, giving Mariota an experienced blocker on his blind side. However, Fisher, who had earned 23 starting assignments as the Ducks’ right tackle during the 2012-13 campaigns, suffered a knee sprain vs. Wyoming that forced him to miss the next two games vs. Washington State and Arizona.

With Fisher in the lineup, Oregon compiled a 9-0 record. Without him, the team suffered their only defeat, at the hands of the UA Wildcats. The rash of injuries continued all year for the Oregon front wall, as the team started the same offensive line just five times during the 13-game schedule.

As hard as it was for Oregon to lose Johnstone for the season and Fisher for a couple of games, a late-season injury to Hroniss Grasu saw the All-American center’s 50-game starting streak come to an end. The injury also further depleted the depth up front, as left guard Hamani Stevens had to shift into the pivot for the season finale vs. Colorado and the Pac-12 Conference title clash and rematch vs. Arizona. That would leave the team with a front wall that featured two freshmen, one sophomore and two seniors – none starting at a position they had played to close out the 2013 schedule.

Grasu, despite sitting out Oregon’s last two games, still earned the team’s Outstanding Lineman Award. He suffered a lower leg injury Nov. 8 vs. Utah and it remains doubtful that he will be able to return in time to play in the college playoff series.

Even if Grasu doesn't appear likely to play anymore for the Ducks, his body of work this season earned him an award from the Pac-12 Networks, as he joined Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright and Utah punter Tom Hackett as the league's USA Football Fundamental Players of the Year. The award is said to honor players who "employs proper technique and strong fundamentals, which foster inherent safety benefits and better on-field performance."

Staying in-state, Oregon’s struggle keeping their offensive linemen healthy trickled down to rival Oregon State. While the Ducks’ Hroniss Grasu received all the accolades and attention from the media, pro scouts actually felt that OSU’s junior, Isaac Seumalo was by and far the better prospect, with more than a handful regarding him as the best center in college. Seumalo became an instant starter for the Beavers the day he stepped onto the team’s practice field as a true freshman.

However, it is anyone’s guess when Seumalo might ever play again, as he is still hobbled by a broken foot that he suffered during the 2013 Hawaii Bowl. He missed all of spring practice due to his recovery, and Oregon State head coach Mike Riley never had a definitive timetable for the center’s return. Prior to the season opener, the coach was hopeful, but also cautious when discussing his star player’s rehabilitation.

Oregon State opened the season vs. Portland State and closed it vs. Oregon, with no sight of Seumalo in a Beavers uniform. Prior to their final game vs. their in-state rivals, which would also be Mike Riley’s final appearance as OSU’s head coach, Seumalo was still using a medical scooter to stay off his foot.

Seumalo, who was named to the Outland Trophy watch list this summer, is one of the nation’s top interior blockers. He’s already considered the top center prospect for the 2016 NFL draft, but there is talk of moving him to offensive guard, once he gets clearance to return to the field next season.

The loss of Seumalo was one of the major reasons the Beavers slipped to a 5-7 record in 2014. He was not the only blocker to suffer serious injuries that saw the Beavers forced to use six different starting alignments on their front wall this season. In addition to losing Seumalo, a hairline ankle fracture by right tackle Gavin Andrews and a left leg injury by guard Garret Weinreich also cost the team valuable performers in the trenches.

Those injuries forced Roman Sapolu, who was expected to fill in for the injured Seumalo at center, bounce along as a fill-in up front. However, after nine games, Sapolu was forced to retire due to a serious neck injury. Doctors checked the senior offensive lineman's neck after multiple stingers popped up in the California game. They cautioned that the injury was significant enough to cause long-term effects if Sapolu continued to constantly bang in the trenches.

What the Beavers lost was a fifth-year senior who had recovered from a foot injury that ended his 2013 season to work his way into the starting lineup. At 6-foot-2 and 276 pounds, he was undersized, yet steady, while playing both guard spots and backing up Josh Mitchell at center. And Sapolu's sudden retirement has already served as a life lesson to players and coaches.

The Pac-12 Conference saw several other top-level offensive linemen suffer injuries this year. Southern California lost the services of both of their star linemen on the left side - tackle Aundray Walker and sophomore standout Chad Wheeler. The Trojans had entered the season needing to replace three starters from their 2013 front wall.

Walker, who started at right guard last year, was penciled in as the new left tackle, but be was slow to recover from a late 2013 ankle fracture that kept him on the sidelines throughout spring drills and most of fall camp. He sat out the first three games on the 2014 schedule, as doctors could not give him clearance to practice.

Walker appeared in USC’s next five games, earning one start before he was again side-lined for three contests when his left ankle injury flared up again. He returned briefly for the regular-season finale vs. Notre Dame, but due to his issues staying healthy, it is highly unlikely that he will leave school early to test the NFL waters in the 2015 draft.

Wheeler had to take over at left tackle, but vs. Utah, he suffered a knee injury vs. Utah that forced him to miss the final four regular season games and any postseason action.

Further impacting the Trojans offensive line is the slow recovery from 2013 hip surgery by right tackle Zach Banner. Guard Jordan Simmons missed the second half of 2013 and all of 2014 spring camp with a knee injury. He re-injured the knee in the Trojans’ 11th game vs. UCLA, missing the season finale vs. Notre Dame. He is listed as questionable for the bowl season.

At Penn State, the draft stock of guard Miles “George” Dieffenbach took a big hit when it was thought that the senior would sit out the 2014 season due to a left knee anterior cruciate ligament tear.

He wasn't going to allow anything to snuff out his final season in a Penn State uniform, not even something as serious as a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Not one to wallow in misery or have anyone throw “pity parties” for him, the 303-pound fifth-year senior used his resolve, fortitude and grueling hours in rehabilitation to return to the gridiron before the “close of business” this year.

After less than eight months on the sidelines, Dieffenbach returned to the Nittany Lions' lineup vs. Indiana and emerged from the game pain-free, giving an emotional boost to his teammates and coaches, and to himself.

Dieffenbach's return saw the Nittany Lions win their next two games with the senior coming off the bench. Back in the lineup at right guard, Penn State would lose their final two contests to close with a 6-6 record. He had suffered the injury during camp in March, forcing the Lions to play most of the year without its most experienced player.

The co-captain was a regular at practices, encouraging his younger teammates, and he also stood on the sideline during games wearing a headset. Dieffenbach said the idle time gave him a new appreciation for coaches, but it was also important to him to actively participate with his teammates to feel like a true leader.


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