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Retooled KU offensive line set for growth

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Jeremiah Hatch finally feels like he's back home.

After trying to adjust to playing tackle last season, Hatch has been moved inside during spring practice with the Jayhawks. He starts the spring as Kansas' No. 1 returning player at center, which was his normal position in high school and a spot he expected to be able to play once he arrived in college.

"I played my whole career [in high school] there," Hatch said. "I just switched because that's what the team needed at the time."

The move will help the Jayhawks replace graduating center Ryan Cantrell and hopefully upgrade their talent after struggles at tackle last season.

Jeff Spikes started the season as the starter at left tackle before he was moved to the other side and Hatch switched from right tackle to left tackle after five games. Heralded transfer Nate D'Cunha was also expected to challenge for playing time, but never developed and has decided to transfer to another school.

Those changes have led Kansas coach Mark Mangino into switching converted defensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson into the new starter at left tackle to replace Hatch at the start of spring practice.

"We think those moves will improve our offensive line tremendously," Mangino said. "Tanner is a very big, quick, athletic guy. He's very talented and could play a lot of positions for us. We think that he has a chance to develop into one of the next great left tackles here."

Hawkinson came to Kansas as a 240-pound tight end who has bulked up throughout his career. He now weighs 266 pounds but projects to be a 290-pounder with continued weight training work.

"Obviously, he needs a lot of work because it's a foreign position to him," Mangino said. "But I think that move helps us get better in a lot of ways."

Hawkinson's development and Hatch's quick return at center will be critical in helping Kansas' evolution into a North Division contender. The Jayhawks must produce a more consistent running game and do a better job of protecting senior quarterback Todd Reesing if they are to challenge for their first undisputed North title.

The Jayhawks ranked 85th nationally in rushing and 97th in sacks allowed. They particularly struggled late in the season, producing only 70.3 yards rushing in their final three games.

Pass protection at times was as a challenge, too. Kansas allowed 31 sacks -- next-to-last in the Big 12. After allowing only nine sacks in the first six games of the season (1.5 per game) the Jayhawks permitted 22 in their final seven games (3.1 per game) including losses to Oklahoma and Nebraska in which they gave up 5 sacks.

Reesing has confidence his new offensive line can jell and do a strong job protecting him as the spring progresses with a little prodding.

"We have some younger guys and we are always looking for leadership on the offensive line," Reesing said. "Those guys play as one, and if they're not playing well, we can't play well. We're going to have to push the young guys along and get them to mature a little bit faster than they might like to. I have a lot of confidence in them. They've been working hard."

Hawkinson says that the challenge is a little intimidating for him, considering he's never played the position before. But he's still excited about the responsibilities that coaches have given him.

"It definitely is because you're the guy who has to protect the quarterback a lot of the time," Hawkinson said. "It's widely known to be a tough position to play."

Despite those challenges, Mangino is confident in his offensive line's ability to develop.

"He'll be fine," Mangino said. "Tanner's a kid that has a powerful build to him. He's not a guy who is a bag-of-bones. [Former Kansas tackle] Cesar [Rodriguez] played at 275 for years and at the end of the day, Tanner will be much bigger and stronger than that. He'll be fine to go in the fall and he'll have adequate weight. He'll be ready"