1. BOSTON COLLEGE
All of the offensive lines that appear on Notre Dame’s schedule have their issues, but the Eagles appear to have the best chance at succeeding. It won’t be easy though, as BC will have to replace the entire left side of its offensive line, including left tackle Gosder Cherlius, who was a first round draft pick. The Eagles are going to attempt to fix that by simply shifting last year’s right side to the opposite side. Senior guard Clif Ramsey and sophomore tackle Anthony Castonzo combined to start 27 games last year and will now work on the quarterback’s blind side. Junior Matt Tennant is back for his second year starting at center and was part of a unit that allowed just 22 sacks, although some of that can be attributed to the quick decisions of Matt Ryan. Sophomore Rich Lapham beat out junior Pat Shiel for the right tackle position and will be joined by former defensive lineman sophomore Thomas Clairborne, who will start at right guard. The group will be in its second year of a zone blocking scheme that was implemented by head coach Jeff Jagodzinski. The Eagles will need to build depth and get solid play from the two newcomers, but Castonzo could be the key at left tackle and they should impove in the second year of the scheme.
The Huskies would be the clear number one on this list had they not lost their anchor, center Juan Garcia to a foot injury in the spring. Garcia was told at one point that his career was over, but he has worked and doctors have upgraded the possibility of a return, although he is still a long way to go. With Garcia out, Washington still brings back three good-sized starters in junior left tackle Ben Ossai, sophomore left guard Ryan Tolar and senior right guard Casey Bulyca. Sophomores Matt Sedillo and Cody Habben are expected to move into starting positions at center and left tackle respectively. Injuries last year provided Sedillo and Habben and a number of reserves with playing time last year, so depth shouldn’t be a major issue. If Garcia can somehow return from his injury to the player that he was, this position will be a strength for the Huskies.
3. MICHIGAN STATE
As Boston College moved to a zone blocking scheme last year, the Spartans did the exact opposite, switching from the zone to a power running attack with the arrival of Mark Dantonio in 2007. The Spartans lost four key players from last year’s group and while the 2008 unit may be thin, Michigan State does have some players back. The Spartans have seniors Roland Martin at left guard and Jesse Miller at right tackle along with junior center Joel Nitchman. The newcomers figure to be junior left tackle Rocco Cironi and junior right guard Brendon Moss. Cironi played a bit in 2006 and was impressive enough this spring that the coaches are hoping for two solid years from him, while Moss struggled a bit, prompting the staff to try other options. The Spartans are admittedly not deep up front, but they are hoping that they can find a solid group and remain healthy.
4. SOUTHERN CAL
The Trojans graduated four of the five starters from last year’s offensive line, but do bring back senior All-American candidate Jeff Byers at left guard. While USC will just plug in former high school All-Americans junior left tackle Charles Brown, sophomore center Kristofer O’Dowd, sophomore right guard Zack Heberer and junior right tackle Alex Parsons, experience will be an issue. Combined, the Trojans’ offensive linemen have started just 26 total career games. Depth will not be an issue as USC just has more former top-ranked recruits behind the starters, but the Trojans will need to grow up in a hurry. While that group may not be running smoothly when Ohio State comes to town on Sept. 13, they should be fine by the time they meet the Irish on Nov. 29.
5. NOTRE DAME
This could be an ambitious ranking for the Irish, but the thinking here is that Charlie Weis knows that without a big improvement up front nothing else will matter and will do all he can to ensure that happens. It appears that junior Sam Young will be staying at right tackle. While it's good that Young can concentrate on one position, it means that the Irish are still looking for a left tackle. Senior Paul Duncan currently has the job, but if his improvement does not mirror the kind that is needed for the unit as a whole, he could see himself passed by sophomores Matt Romine or Taylor Dever. The coaches have liked what they have seen from Dever and the question for Romine may only be one of health after he was hobbled all spring by an ankle injury. Junior guard Eric Olsen is expected to be the starter at the right guard spot with senior Michael Turkovich and junior Chris Stewart competing at left guard. Whether a starter emerges from the Turkovich-Stewart competition or they rotate doesn’t really matter as long as the Irish get more solid production than they did last year. Junior Dan Wenger replaced four-year starter John Sullivan at center in the final two games of the season and now has the position full time. Wenger is expected to bring some of that “nastiness” that Weis has talked about bringing and could develop into one of the leaders on the team. Senior Thomas Bemenderfer could provide depth at any of the interior spots along with freshman Trevor Robinson and sophomore Andrew Nuss. The Irish have plenty of talent and have brought in quality recruits every year that Weis has been here, but they allowed more sacks (58) than any other team in the country and averaged just 75.3 rushing yards per game last year, so there is a long way to go.
6. NORTH CAROLINA
In some areas, the Tar Heels and the Irish are almost scarily similar. Like the Irish, the Tar Heels bring back a number of young, but talented offensive linemen from a group that stunk up the joint last year. But like Notre Dame, North Carolina has some reasons for optimism and Butch Davis is trying to instill a sense of toughness to the unit. Senior Bryon Bishop had an impressive spring and is the only new starter at left guard. Returning are junior left tackle Kyle Jolly, junior Aaron Stahl, who moved from guard to center, senior right guard Calvin Darity and senior eight tackle Garrett Reynolds. Junior Lowell Dyer has some starting experience at center and redshirt freshman Kevin Bryant will see some time at guard. Like the Irish, now is the time for the Tar Heels to prove that they can get the job done.
Much of the turmoil that came with the hiring of Rich Rodriguez at Michigan surrounded the transfer of the Wolverines' top offensive lineman Justin Boren to rival Ohio State. Along with Boren, Michigan lost overall number one draft pick Jake Long and All-Big Ten center-guard Adam Kraus to graduation while guards Alex Mitchell and Jeremy Ciulla elected not to return for their fifth seasons. Michigan’s top lineman will be sophomore right tackle Stephen Schilling, who was a Freshman All-American in 2007. Junior Cory Zirbel will line up next to Schilling at right guard while redshirt junior David Moosman is expected to win the center job along with juniors Tim McAvoy at right guard Mark Ortmann at right tackle. With all of the desertions, Michigan returns a total of 16 career starts along the offensive line, fewer than all but one team in the nation. Still, the previous regime recruited quality talent and the ones that are left are the ones that fit in best with Rodriguez's offense that relies on linemen who can run. Along with just about every other offensive position on the Wolverines’ 2008 offense, there will be questions up front, but they are still talented.
The Boilermakers lost two three-year starters, but they still bring back seven of their top ten offensive linemen from last year. Five of those offensive linemen were out at various times during the spring which allowed some younger players to get some much needed experience. Fifth-year senior Sean Sester is recovering from a back injury, but will be back for his fourth season as a starter and will anchor the line at left tackle. Junior left guard Zack Reckman and junior right tackle Zach Jones are the other returning starters. Senior center Cory Benton and junior guard Justin Pierce will be in their first full years starting up front. The reserves do not have much game experience, but with Sester, Reckman and Jones out the entire spring, they did get meaningful reps. The first key for this group will be to protect quarterback Curtis Painter and once they do that, they will focus on run blocking.
The Cardinal are in a similar situation as Washington, with the health of one of their top linemen in question. Senior left tackle Allen Smith seemed to be on his way to becoming one of the top linemen in the conference before an injury sidelined him for all but three games in 2007. Smith had successful surgery, but fractured his kneecap lifting in February, leaving Stanford with senior Ben Muth again listed as the starter. Senior Alex Fletcher was a Second Team All-Pac-10 selection as center-guard and will take over full-time at center for last year’s anchor Tim Mattran. The other returning starter is junior Chris Marinelli, who was an all-conference honorable mention pick last year. Junior Andrew Phillips and senior Gustav Rydstedt lead a group with no experience at the guard positions. Oklahoma transfer Chase Beeler could see some time at any of the interior spots while junior Matt Kopa provides depth at tackle. With Smith in the lineup, the Cardinal could have their best line in years, but without him, they could mirror last year’s mediocre production.
With the loss of three starters from last year’s squad, including two to the NFL, the Panthers obviously are short on experience. Senior left guard C.J. Davis is back for a fourth year as a starter while junior Joe Thomas, who has moved from right guard to right tackle, is the other returning starter. Sophomore left tackle Jason Pinkston, who started three games before an injury last year is back, but it is clear that Dave Wannstedt was not comfortable with the roster beyond that. Wannstedt brought in junior college transfer Robb Houser to fill the open center position and moved junior John Malecki from nose tackle to right guard. It goes without saying that the Panthers are thin up front and cannot afford many injuries.
The Midshipmen lost three full-time starters from last year’s group, including an anchor at center in Antron Harper. Senior Ricky Moore has been moved from tackle, where he was a part-time player, to center to replace Harper. Junior Andy Lark was moved from nose tackle to center at the start of spring and could challenge Moore for playing time at center. Of all of the positions on Navy’s roster, center could end up being the most crucial. Senior right tackle Andrew McGinn and senior left guard Anthony Gaskins return and will be looked to for leadership. Junior Austin Milke is slated as the starter at left tackle and with junior Curtis Bass expected to be the number one guy at right guard. While the starters have little experience, the reserves have even less, making health a big concern for the Midshipmen.
New offensive coordinator Mitch Browning has made the overhaul of the offensive line his number one priority. If Syracuse is going to get better as a team, it needs improvements from last year’s unit that rushed for only 62.8 yards per game and allowed fewer sacks (54) than just one other team in the country: Notre Dame. Browning has made sure that all of his linemen have slimmed down in order to change their techniques. Senior right guard Ryan Durand and sophomore center Jim McKenzie are returning starters and are the only ones who have claimed their positions. At tackle, sophomore Joanthan Meldrum is recovering from knee surgery and if he is not ready by the beginning of the season, look for senior Corey Chavers and sophomore Tucker Baumbach to start. Sophomore guard Ryan Bartholomew is the leader for the left guard position, but sophomore Adam Rosner or freshman Ollie Haney could push him. Browning is correct in identifying the line as the major offensive problem, but can he fix it?
13. SAN DIEGO STATE
Of all of the questions that the Aztecs have on their offense, the line is probably the biggest. San Diego state has to replace four of their top five linemen from last year and have no experience at the tackle position. Senior left guard Mick Schmidt has the most experience and will be joined by sophomore center Trask Iosefa, who started 12 games last year, but Iosefa has been beaten out by redshirt freshman Tommie Draheim. Converted tight end Lance Louis is the only other senior in the group and is battling with junior Ikaika Aken-Moleta for the position at right guard. Junior college transfer Taylor Wallace figures to have the best chance of starting at one of the tackle positions that also features redshirt freshmen Kurtis Gunther, Kellen Farr and Mike Matamua. Chuck Long’s offensive line looks like it has the potential to be solid in the coming years, unfortunately for him, he may not be around to see it.