NCF Nation: Matt Luke

Ranking offensive linemen is not easy. But hey, either is being an offensive lineman. Here are your best "big uglies."

1. North Carolina: Three starters and one part-time starter return from last year’s team, and this line could be the biggest and best since Butch Davis was hired. Guard Jonathan Cooper (22 starts), center Cam Holland (20) and tackle James Hurst (12) have combined for 54 career starts. Travis Bond has four starts and is the leading candidate to take over at the other guard position.

2. Miami: The Canes return nine of their top 10 offensive linemen including four starters from last year, and Joel Figueroa was granted a sixth season of eligibility. Even with the coaching change, the Canes should be strong up front. Center Tyler Horn is a veteran, Brandon Washington is a difference-maker, and there’s enough competition that Seantrel Henderson spent most of the spring as a backup.

3. Clemson: First-year offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell has four returning starters to work with in Landon Walker, Antoine McClain, Dalton Freeman and David Smith. They also have top reserve Mason Cloy, who has 19 career starts and has played in 38 games. There is plenty of depth for a dependable rotation.

4. Virginia Tech: All four returnees started every game last year, and there is enough depth that the Hokies should be able to rotate the most players up front they ever have. It’s a veteran group led by Blake DeChristopher, Andrew Lanier, Jaymes Brooks and Greg Nosal.

5. Florida State: Despite the losses of Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon, there’s experience up front. This fall, the starting lineup will consist of tackle Andrew Datko, left guard Bryan Stork or David Spurlock, center Jacob Fahrenkrug, right guard Spurlock or Stork, right tackle Zebrie Sanders. Just how good they’ll be remains to be seen as the majority of them were out with injuries this past spring.

6. NC State: The Pack lost Jake Vermiglio and will be without injured left guard Andrew Wallace for about half of the season, but Zach Allen, Camden Wentz and R.J. Mattes are returning starters. There’s also a lot of talent waiting to emerge with young players like Duran Christophe, Rob Crisp, Tyson Chandler, Torian Box and Andy Jomantas.

7. Virginia: Four players return with a combined 64 career starts in Anthony Mihota, Austin Pasztor, Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses, who started the final seven games of the season as a true freshman. Pasztor is in his fourth season as a starter and has 32 career starts.

8. Boston College: Despite the losses of Anthony Castonzo, Thomas Claiborne and Rich Lapham, the Eagles are almost settled up front, it’s the experience behind the starters that’s reason for concern. The No. 2 offensive line is comprised entirely of redshirt freshmen. Mark Spinney returns at center, the projected starting guards are Nathan Richman and Ian White, who started three games as a freshman, and the tackles are Emmett Cleary and John Wetzel.

9. Maryland: It’s been an injury-prone group the past two seasons and that didn’t change this past spring. Left tackle Justin Gilbert, one of the top linemen on the team, reinjured the same knee he had ACL surgery on and will be out until October. R.J. Dill was also injured this spring, though he played in the spring game, and Justin Lewis was rehabbing from offseason surgery. Pete White also missed practices, so the group needs to solidify the two-deep roster.

10. Georgia Tech: The Jackets return three starters in guard Omoregie Uzzi, guard Will Jackson and tackle Phil Smith. Sophomore Jay Finch played extensively last season and Ray Beno and Nick McRae were key reserves. Redshirt freshmen Catlin Alford and Morgan Bailey could also work their way into the rotation. Uzzi will be the leader of the line, but they were outplayed by the defense this spring.

11. Wake Forest: Four starters are back, but the Deacs will sorely miss the experience and leadership of former center Russell Nenon. Garrick Williams started the final three games of 2010 -- two at guard and one at center, but he struggled with the snaps towards the end of spring and isn’t where the staff needs him to be yet.

12. Duke: The Blue Devils should take another step forward this season under offensive line coach Matt Luke, and they need to -- Duke’s running game was last in the ACC last year and 104th in the country. Brian Moore replaces a three-year starter at center, but given his experience at right guard the past two seasons, it should be a smooth transition. That will leave a hole, though, at the right guard position, where Laken Tomlinson and John Coleman are the top candidates.
Practicing snaps with Duke’s quarterbacks every day have become as routine as breakfast in the morning for Duke center Brian Moore.

“I make him snap every day here,” said Duke offensive line coach Matt Luke. “I don’t think he likes me very much for that.”

Duke’s offense will appreciate it, though, this fall.

One of the best (and most unheralded and unrecognized) position changes in the ACC this offseason was at Duke, where Moore moved from right guard to center. Moore had played almost every snap at right guard for the past two seasons, but he is talented enough that he was one of 42 players and four ACC centers on the 2011 Rimington Trophy Watch List. As a true freshman, Moore practiced as a backup center, but the fact that he hasn’t played the position in a game situation speaks volumes about what others think of his potential.

“He’s well-respected in the league,” Luke said. “He’s played a bunch. People probably view him as a better center prospect than a guard prospect as far as the NFL goes, but he plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Despite the fact he’s replacing a three-year starter at a position he never played, Moore’s move could actually be an upgrade to a line that returns four starters. His knowledge of the offense coupled with his size makes the position a better fit for him than guard. At 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, he’s a prototypical center and won’t be overmatched as much as he was at guard.

The only problem with Moore’s move is that now the offensive line loses significant experience at the right guard position. John Coleman and Laken Tomlinson are the top two candidates to take over.

“That’s always a concern,” Luke said. “We have some bigger bodies that we’re able to put in there that I think have a chance to be a good combination. They just haven’t played a whole bunch. That right guard spot is going to be one that somebody is going to have to step in there and do a great job just because we lose a bunch of experience.”

Duke’s passing game has flourished under coach David Cutcliffe, but the running game has consistently struggled. Improvement up front will help the Blue Devils, who ranked 104th in the country and last in the ACC last year in rushing offense.

“We’ve been getting better steadily,” Luke said. “They need to have the confidence they can physically take over a game instead of just get by. … We are a very athletic offensive line. We’ve gotten so much better just from a physical standpoint. Now they have to take it to the next level and have the confidence they can take over a game. I’m hoping they can take it to that level this year.”

Dear Duke fans ...

October, 12, 2009
10/12/09
4:01
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich


Dear Duke fans,

I know you’re out there. You’re not the most vocal fans (unless it’s March), and you’re not the most visible (unless we’re in Cameron Indoor). But it’s football season, you have a team and it’s time to start paying attention. I don’t know if Duke will make it to a bowl game this year or not, but a road win over NC State and Russell Wilson marks significant progress in coach David Cutcliffe’s second season.
 
 AP Photo/Gerry Broome
 Duke had plenty of reasons to celebrate after Saturday's win at NC State.


You should have heard the locker room after the game. They were tired. They were emotionally drained. And yet they were singing. It’s a victory song Cutcliffe said was “designed through the years,” a song those within the program will never reveal. A song they’d like to sing more, even if the tune is, by Cutcliffe’s standards, a little dull.

“We don’t have a chance to do that a lot,” Cutcliffe said.

No, they don’t. The Blue Devils beat NC State for the first time in 11 tries. They snapped a 20-game road losing streak against ACC opponents.

“Everybody keeps talking about streaks,” Cutcliffe said. “Our streaks don’t look too good, so we’ll just keep it at one game at a time and see what happens when the dust settles. ... You can’t play good and let it defeat you.”

This wasn’t improvement, though, that happened overnight.

Over the past three weeks, the coaching staff made a concerted effort to practice the fundamentals on both the offensive and defensive lines -- steps, base, footwork. After watching Thursday’s practice tape alone, Cutcliffe told offensive line coach Matt Luke on Friday it was the best the group had looked “by far,” and it showed on Saturday. The defensive line has improved its ability to maintain gap control and isn’t constantly getting knocked off the ball. That showed against Virginia Tech, when the Blue Devils also contested almost every catch.

The wide receivers might be the most-improved group on the field. They’re making tough plays and have increased their yards after catch. The one area that is still lacking is the running game, and that will be addressed during the bye week.

Cutcliffe said this team is “better equipped” to handle its success than it was last year, when Duke jumped out to a 3-1 start, but cautioned there’s still a long road ahead. Last year’s September win over Virginia created a similar buzz, but turned out to be the one-hit wonder of the season. Could this year be different?

“What it means is we’re playing better,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s what it means. Whether it computes to wins, I can’t focus on that. ... I think last year our kids just didn’t know how to take it one at a time and understand the focus and intensity of each ball game.”

They certainly have the quarterback to win another game.

Behind a jaw-dropping performance from quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, Duke racked up 502 yards of total offense and converted 13 of 19 third downs.

In other words, Duke finally gave you something to cheer about. Something to talk about. And it could happen again on Oct. 24 against Maryland. But if Duke wins two ACC games for the first time since 2003 and nobody was there to see it, did it really happen?

“If you don’t think a venue that’s loud and crazy is not effective, then look at Cameron Indoor Stadium,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s a pretty effective atmosphere for our basketball program. When you can turn that type of atmosphere into a football stadium -- because I’ve seen them -- it ignites teams. I know the Duke people believe that. I hope they’re able to come, and I believe that they will.”

Will you?

I know you’re out there. I’ve seen you in March.

-- Heather

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