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How recruiting has changed expectations for playing OL early

A new crop of bigger, faster and much stronger offensive linemen will sign on Wednesday. Many will be expected to play right away.

Attitudes and expectations toward young linemen have shifted over the last decade, a noticeable trend that has only grown in recent years. Let’s use last year as an example. Of the 14 offensive linemen listed in the ESPN 300, nine played.

ESPN.com Freshman All-American Mitch Hyatt led the way as the only player among them to start every game last season. His whopping 1,067 snaps as Clemson’s starting left tackle were the most among freshmen offensive linemen. The Tigers made it to the national title game, so that impacted his snap count, but that should not discount the job he did protecting Deshaun Watson as a first-year starter.

Hyatt was not the lone true freshman starting at tackle in the ACC. Three-star Geron Christian started all 13 games for Louisville at left tackle and played 852 snaps. Three-star Aaron Monteiro started the final five games of the season at left tackle for Boston College, and played 314 total snaps. The scope extends beyond ACC country.

Three-star Connor Williams, who made the ESPN.com All-Freshman team at tackle, started every game for the Longhorns, too and played 805 snaps.

So why have teams opted against what was once a surefire redshirt for offensive linemen? There are a few reasons. The burgeoning skill camps offered for high school athletes have been game-changers, because they give players an opportunity to work on their game at a much younger age.

High school linemen are also bigger than they were 20 years ago, mainly because the size for starting offensive linemen has grown. Among the top 12 offensive linemen in the ESPN 150 in 2006, the average weight was 294 pounds. In the 2016 class, the average weight of offensive linemen in the ESPN 300 is 301.

To better illustrate this point, consider former Pro Bowl lineman LeCharles Bentley was 270 pounds out of high school two decades ago. He signed with Ohio State in 1998.

“If I were to superimpose myself in today’s recruiting world, I would be too short, I would be not big enough and I would probably be labeled either a two-star or three-star recruit, which would yield me potentially a small Division I scholarship opportunity,” Bentley said. “You know the first coach to offer me a scholarship out of high school? It was Nick Saban. But you look at what Nick Saban is doing now. All these kids are 6-5, 305, 310, 315.”

Many also enroll in school early, like Hyatt and Williams.

“These kids are getting into school so early now,” said Bentley, who runs a training center for pro linemen. “A lot of these kids aren’t going to prom anymore. These kids from a skill-set perspective have been influenced from so many different resources, at a much earlier age. They’re much bigger than they ever have been. They’re doing less because you have to know less. Now you’re entering college much earlier than you ever have before, and it creates a perfect storm for kids to have an opportunity to play at an earlier age.”

Recruiting also has played a role, with players labeled as soon as they set foot on campus.

“It has desensitized the average fan or even coaches from the level of expectation and the level of preparation that is really involved with developing an offensive lineman,” Bentley said. “Physically, you look at a player and you’re looking at what you’d consider a grown man and then you couple that with all the top media outlets have branded this particular person as the second coming of whomever, they’re going to be the potential first-round pick all this and all that. ...

“But you don’t see all the things that go on behind the scenes and what’s truly required to develop those boys into young men first and then you put them on the football field.”

Not everybody is Hyatt or Williams. And many linemen still take redshirts. But more and more are playing early, making offensive line a position just like all the others on the football field. The old rules no longer apply.