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February 28, 2011

Monday with Mike: Laying it on the line

On the past two Mondays, we spotlighted key offensive skill-position position battles for the spring.

This week, we'll look at 10 teams that could contend for their conference titles but have issues along the offensive line heading into spring practice.

The buzz: The Wildcats were a prolific offensive team last season, but they have to replace all five line starters, with the most notable departure at center (Colin Baxter, a four-year starter). There's also a new line coach. Kyle Quinn is the front-runner to replace Baxter at center, though he will have to hold off JC transfer Addison Bachman, who already has enrolled. Quinn, a junior, has one career start -- and that is the most of any lineman on the roster. Gs Chris Putton and Trace Biskin are likely to get first dibs on the vacancies, and Bachmann could switch to guard if need be. Redshirt freshmen Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele look to be first in line for the open tackle spots. Coaches are especially high on Baucus. Redshirt freshman Trent Spurgeon and junior Shane Zink also will get opportunities at tackle. Sophomore Eric Bender-Ramsay can play guard or tackle and could force his way into the lineup if he can play with some consistency this spring. The skill-position talent is on hand for Arizona, which means the pressure really is on the line to come through.
The buzz: Replacing four starters on the line is just one of a number of key makeovers for the Tigers, who also have to replace their star quarterback, three of the top four receivers, three-fourths of the starting defensive line, their two best linebackers and their best defensive back. The only returning starter along the offensive line for the Tigers is RT Brandon Mosley, who was a JC transfer last season. Redshirt freshmen Eric Mack and Ed Christian will vie with senior Jared Cooper at guard; true freshman Thomas O'Reilly already has enrolled and could get into the mix as well. True freshman C Reese Dismukes, who also has enrolled, is the leading candidate at center; he is vying with former walk-on Blake Burgess for the starting job. The other tackle spot is a question.
The buzz: The Gators lost three full-time starters, along with a part-time starter. In addition, there's a new offensive scheme and new offensive coaches, including a new line coach. Junior T Xavier Nixon looks to be the only guy who's a for-sure starter. The health of T Matt Patchan, a fourth-year junior who has yet to play a full season because of injuries, is important; if he's recovered from a wrist injury, he'll be the other tackle. Sophomores Jon Halapio and Jonotthan Harrison and senior James Wilson are the leading contenders at guard, though Wilson -- a former five-star recruit -- has had trouble staying healthy in his career. Center could be troublesome. Junior Sam Robey looks to be the leading contender, but the former staff seemed reluctant to use him. Redshirt freshmen Ts Chaz Green and Ian Silberman were big-time recruits who will get every opportunity this spring; so will sophomore Nick Alajajian, who could play center, guard or tackle. Sophomore Kyle Koehne has good size but doesn't have a set position. Along with implementing a new scheme and breaking in some new starters along the line, Florida is looking for a starting quarterback, a feature back and a go-to receiver.
Fresno State
The buzz: When the Bulldogs historically have been at their best under coach Pat Hill, they've been able to line up and run right at opponents. That could be difficult this fall. TB Robbie Rouse has 1,000-yard potential, but he'll be running behind a line with four new starters. T Bryce Harris is the only returning starter, though Gs Leslie Cooper, Matt Hunt and Austin Wentworth -- who also can play tackle -- have some starting experience. Richard Helepiko looks as if he will be the new center.
Michigan State
The buzz: The Spartans lost three starters along the line, and each was a fifth-year senior. QB Kirk Cousins and a deep group of tailbacks return, but will the line get the job done? Both starting tackles will be new, and coaches are high on sophomore David Barrent. Senior Jared McGaha has three career starts at guard but also could play tackle. Sophomore Nate Klatt, a former four-star recruit, looks like he'll get first crack at the starting center job. Depth at tackle could be problematic.
The buzz: The Huskers struggled with offensive consistency last season, especially in the passing game. In an effort to change things, the offensive coaching staff was reshuffled, and a key for the staff this spring is adequately replacing three line starters. Both guard spots and right tackle are open. Yoshi Hardrick and Marcel Jones will vie for the tackle spot, while Andrew Rodriguez, Brent Qvale and Brandon Thompson are the top candidates at guard. Rodriguez, who played as a backup as a true freshman last season, looks to have the most upside. The Huskers also are looking to develop depth at tailback and to find some receivers, so this is a big spring on offense for the Huskers.
The buzz: The Ducks lose three starters who made a combined 94 career starts. Senior Darrion Weems, who has played a lot, gets first dibs on the vacant tackle job. Everett Benyard, Jamaal Burrell and Nick Cody also will get their chances. But the vacant guard and center spots look a lot more troublesome. Center appears to be a three-man race among Ryan Clanton, Karrington Armstrong and Hroniss Grasu, while the guard spot left vacant by the graduation of C.E. Kaiser is a wide-open competition. Oregon will have QB Darron Thomas and one of the deepest tailback groups in the nation, but the amount of room they have in which to operate could become a concern.
The buzz: As with Michigan State, the Cardinal lost three line starters and each was a fifth-year senior. QB Andrew Luck returns and there is a nice group of running backs. But will there be time to throw or room to run? Junior G David DeCastro has All-America potential, but he's the only proven commodity in the interior. In addition, depth at tackle is questionable. The guy most on the spot is sophomore C Khalil Wilkes, who's replacing All-America Chase Beeler.
The buzz: The Horned Frogs lost four line starters, including stars Marcus Cannon at tackle and Jake Kirkpatrick at center. They're also replacing QB Andy Dalton and three key receivers. The lone returning starter up front is G Kyle Dooley, but T Jeff Olson and G Spencer Thompson have starting experience. Junior James Fry gets first crack at replacing Kirkpatrick, and he must play well.
The buzz: The Trojans look good at quarterback with Matt Barkley and have a nice group at tailback. But they must develop depth at wide receiver and are looking for three new starters on the line. Senior-to-be Michael Reardon, who likely would've started somewhere on the line, decided to bypass his senior season after earning his degree. G Khaled Holmes and T Matt Kalil are the returning starters. With Kris O'Dowd gone, center is the biggest question and Holmes could slide there instead. Abe Markowitz, a former walk-on who has earned a scholarship, and Giovanni Di Poalo also are in the mix at center. If Holmes moves inside, DiPoalo could play guard, and if he moves, he will battle John Martinez and JC transfer Jeremy Galten, who already is enrolled. JC transfer David Garness (also already enrolled), senior Martin Coleman and sophomore Kevin Graf look like the top candidates to start at the other tackle spot. Graf, though, will miss spring drills with a shoulder injury. USC signed an impressive group of freshman linemen, and expect one or two of them to see time this fall.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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