NCF Nation: Kevin McCaskill

Now by popular demand, we begin ranking the positions across the Big East. I know I am a little late to the party on this one, but better late than never, right? I asked on Twitter for suggestions on which position to start with today. There was no consensus. But I did like one suggestion: to work our way up from the line.

So first up is the offensive line. To make these rankings, I considered returning starters, accolades for returning starters, position switches and depth. The truth is, this is not an area of strength for the league as a whole. Most teams have depth concerns and questions at one or more positions.

[+] EnlargeJustin Pugh
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Justin Pugh earned all-conference honors last season as a freshman.
1. Syracuse. The Orange have four returning starters, including two seniors. You have Justin Pugh, who made second-team All-Big East last year as a freshman. You have a more mature and experienced unit than the one last year, which had to replace four starters. There also is depth to have a nice eight-man rotation. The concern is at center, where Macky MacPherson is undersized. Actually, when you look at the entire group, it is undersized. Andrew Tiller is the only one who tips the scales at more than 300 pounds.

2. West Virginia. The offensive line was an area of strength under Rich Rodriguez, but has struggled the past few years. It was hard to get a gauge on this unit in the spring, with both starting tackles Jeff Braun and Don Barclay out because of injuries. Starting guard Josh Jenkins also got hurt and is still not 100 percent. But the potential is there for this group to be significantly improved.

3. UConn. The strength of this unit is at tackle and center, where the Huskies return first-team All-Big East selection Mike Ryan (20 career starts) and Adam Masters (18 career starts). Moe Petrus, a second-team all-conference pick, has 39 career starts. Their experience should help along the guards -- nobody on the roster has started a game at the position. The good news is that Gary Bardzak does have starting experience, but it came at center.

4. Pittsburgh. The Panthers made so many position shifts during the spring that it is hard tell how this unit is going to shape up come fall. Chris Jacobson moving to center was one of the biggest moves, and Pittsburgh hopes it pays off with more stability there. Jacobson and starting tackles Jordan Gibbs and Lucas Nix have a combined 49 career starts, but Pitt has to make up for losing first-team Big East selection Jason Pinkston.

5. USF. The Bulls are going to be young on the offensive line this season after losing first-team All-Big East center Sampson Genus, along with tackles Jamar Bass and Jake Sims (second team All-Big East). Chaz Hine and Jeremiah Warren are a solid tandem at guard, and Mark Popek at left tackle and Kevin McCaskill at center do have playing experience. But at right tackle, USF plans to go with redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon. He does have loads of potential, but there will be a learning curve. Depth also is an issue, and the Bulls could have true freshmen in the rotation.

6. Cincinnati. The Bearcats had their share of problems last season, ranking second-to-last in the Big East in sacks allowed (31). This year, they have to replace three starters on the offensive line with unproven players. Senior right tackle Alex Hoffman has taken on some leadership responsibility with the loss of Jason Kelce, but players like Austen Bujnoch, Andre Cureton, Sean Hooey and Evan Davis are going to have to step up. Depth could also be an issue here.

7. Louisville. The Cardinals return just one starter in center Mario Benavides, who has been hampered with a knee injury. Ryan Kessling and Alex Kupper have playing experience, but most everybody else is pretty unproven, and that makes for one of the biggest question areas on the team headed into the fall.

8. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights own the bottom spot until the season starts and we can see how much this unit has improved. It is a well-known fact that they finished last in sacks allowed and were one of the worst rushing teams in the country last season for that reason. They suffered a blow when junior college transfer Dallas Hendrikson went down with a season-ending injury in the spring, but coach Greg Schiano said he saw plenty of improvement from this group. They certainly will have more experience, but how much better will they be?
Statistically speaking, there were no obvious reasons why South Florida had a successful season in 2010. But one of the Bulls' main strengths came from the guys who don't generate many stats for themselves.

A veteran offensive line that stayed healthy for the most part played a key role in the eight-win campaign. Sampson Genus was a first-team All-Big East center, while tackles Jamar Bass and Jake Sims were very solid, holding off Clemson star Da'Quan Bowers in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

With those three guys gone, the Bulls have some reshaping to do up front this spring.

[+] EnlargeJeremiah Warren
Kim Klement/US PresswireGuard Jeremiah Warren will be counted on to be one of the offense's leaders.
"It's very much a work in progress," USF offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler said. "I think this group has a chance to be pretty competitive, but we're replacing those three with guys who have not played very much."

Let's start with the known quantities. Jeremiah Warren and Chaz Hine are two seniors who have the guard positions locked down. In fact, the only real problem at those spots is they don't have a lot of competition behind them. Shankweiler said he's challenging both to be leaders and to motivate themselves.

"Sampson, Jamar and Jake were great leaders, so it will be fun to try and follow in their footsteps," Warren said.

At left tackle is junior Mark Popek, who started four games last year. Kevin McCaskill is Genus' replacement at center, a role he's undertaken before.

"He came into the Miami game when Genus got hurt, and you never noticed a difference," Shankweiler said. "On our touchdown to tie it and the touchdown to win it in overtime, we were running right behind him."

The most intriguing story among the current first unit is right tackle Quinterrius Eatmon, a redshirt freshman. He has dropped nearly 65 pounds since arriving on campus, now weighing in at 297. Shankweiler loves his potential.

"He's committed to working hard," Shankweiler said. "Last year, I made him the second-team right tackle the whole season, so I got him ready to play every game. He doesn't have wide eyes like most freshmen. He's a very bright kid. He probably learns better than anybody I've got."

So the Bulls feel good about their first-team front five, and head coach Skip Holtz said after Saturday's spring game that he's confident the Bulls will be able to run the ball well. It's depth that has Shankweiler a little nervous. Unless South Florida can avoid the injury bug again, it will have to rely on some untested linemen this fall.

"Our depth is not very good, truthfully," Shankweiler said. "We signed five high school linemen this year, which is more than most people do. We just don't have any. Our numbers were down when we got here, for whatever reason, and it takes two years to get caught back up."

Shankweiler is cross-training players at different positions to help the depth, and he said there's a good chance that an incoming freshman will crack the two-deep this fall. That means the veterans will have to be really good and the youngsters will have to come along in a hurry. If so, then the Bulls can count on the offensive line as a strength again in 2011.

"We can be one of the best around, I believe," Warren said. "We just have to fix some little things here and there and get better."

SPONSORED HEADLINES