Know Thy Team 2011: Offensive Line

The one constant on offense last season was the offensive line. With four quarterbacks, 10 players who carried the ball at least once as a running back, and 11 receivers, the offensive line was pleasantly consistent in 2010. That should pay dividends even though there were times things looked shaky. The season opener at Notre Dame saw Robert Marve running for his life most of the game as the Fighting Irish had a dominant pass rush. Still, the line allowed us to rush for over 2,100 yards and only gave up 18 sacks.

As long as the passing game improves, our offense as a whole should improve with similar numbers. It will help that the group has carry over from last season. Four guys return as starters and the lone new starter is a guy that has started plenty of times in his career. I expected something like this because Danny Hope is an excellent line coach. It appears that his efforts there are paying dividends as he enters year three.

Starters:

Left Tackle: Dennis Kelly (Sr.), Left Guard: Rick Schmeig (Jr.), Center: Peters Drey (Jr.), Right Guard Ken Plue (Sr.), Right Tackle Nick Mondek (Sr.)

This group is very long on experience. Kelly and Plue are entering their fourth year of playing, with Plue starting 29 games and Kelly 24. Mondek and Drey started every game last year and were more than solid in the running game. Scmeig is the new full-time starter, but he does have three starts in his career with two coming last year. We're not going to get a better unit in terms of cohesiveness.

The downside, of course, is that we must break in three new starters next season when Plue, Kelly, and Mondek graduate. Let's not worry about that at the moment. It is a very good thing that our three senior starters on the line have some definite NFL potential. Each player weighs at least 306 pounds with Plue topping the group at 6'7" 366 pounds. They can definitely plow the road for guys like Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers, but can they keep Rob Henry clean in the passing game.

Plue, in particular, is a concern. He served a one game suspension last season for a "violation of unspecified team rules" and all offseason coach Hope has questioned his commitment both on the field and in the classroom. He was even demoted to second team, and has yet to cement himself back on the first team. Coach Hope has said he has improved, but he is not totally out of the doghouse. To be frank, this kid is a senior and he needs to get it. He has an excellent opportunity to play in the NFL next year, but it won't come unless he makes the attitude adjustment coach Hope is asking of him. We need him too. He was a huge reason that Bolden was a second team all-Big Ten pick in 2009. As a pulling guard Bolden had plenty of holes because Plue got out in front and flattened people with his size. He is our most experienced lineman having played in 35 career games.

The tackle spots should be secure with Kelly and Mondek, who played nearly every offensive snap. Drey is in the same boat at center. Schmeig, while not a starter, still played in all 12 games and is incredibly versatile as an interior lineman.

Top reserves:

Justin Kitchens (So., Tackle), Trevor Foy (So., Tackle), Jack DeBoef (Fr.-R), James Shepherd (Sr., guard), Eric McDaniel (So. Guard)

This is a group that will likely see some time mostly to gain experience for next season. DeBoef was a center in high school, but we have him listed as a tackle. A recent practice report listed Shepherd and McDaniel as among the top guards in camp with Plue and Schmeig. It hinted that any of those four could start, though I would give the edge to Plue and Schmeig, especially Plue. Of this group of five only Shepherd is a senior. He has five games of experience, but has never started.

McDaniel and Kitchens are converted over recently from the defensive line. Kitchens made the more recent move after playing in 10 games on defense last year.

What concerns me about the second group is the lack of size. McDaniel, Kitchens, and DeBoef each give away about 25 pounds to their counterparts on the #1 offense. Should McDaniel win the battle over Plue that number jumps to about 85 pounds. There also is not a lot of experience past those starters. DeBoef is coming off of a redshirt, Kitchens and McDaniel have barely played on offense, and Shepherd is a fifth year player with little experience. Foy played in seven games last year, but he is also under 300 pounds.

It seems like a big risk, especially given the problems of last year, but we have to pray for health among the starters. It feels like most of the top reserves are about a year away from being starters and they need the experience as reserves before getting thrown into the fire as front line guys.

The rest:

Cody Davis (So.), Henry Lorenzen (So.), Austin Moret (Sr.), Dan Barry (Sr.), Connor Snapp (Sr.), Josh Davis (Fr.-R), Matt Huene (Fr.)

Most of these guys have seen little to no playing time in their careers. Moret probably has the most experience, but that is as a special teamer in 25 games. Barry has played in just one game as a reserve. Huene is the lone freshman of the group and therefore is almost destined to redshirt. Lorenzen is a walk-on that has never played, while both Davis' are still developing without having seen the field.

Of this group Moret would likely see the most action since he is already entrenched on special teams. Snapp is huge at 6'7" 324, but he has yet to play. The sheer lack of available bodies after this season with so many seniors has me very concerned going forward.

Final Analysis:

The front line guys are excellent and could be one of the better groups in the Big Ten. After that, however...

It is a grave concern that Trevor Foy is the lone backup that seems ready to step in if needed, especially with Ken Plue still in Coach Hope's doghouse. We give up a lot of size once we get into the second teamers, and there is almost nothing behind them if a disaster happens. I like guys like the Davis' and DeBoef for the future, but they desperately need some experience. Kitchens and McDaniel need to show they can adapt to the offensive side of the ball too.

I can't waive a magic wand and give these backups the size and experience we need. Shepherd and Foy are really the only two backups with game experience, so we're going to have to go with them. As long as the #1's stay healthy we'll be fine, but that is a big if with this team.

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