- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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The big uglies up front on the offensive side are our focus today. There are some quality veterans out there, but teams all across the league are looking to replace some quality linemen in the trenches.
Here's how we see the league stacking up:
1. Alabama: Four of Alabama’s five linemen from a year ago return, making this one of the team’s strongest units. The returners have combined for more than 70 starts at Alabama. Barrett Jones is the star of the show. The junior has been the Tide’s starting right guard each of the past two seasons, but took reps at left tackle and could be asked to move. William Vlachos is back at center and could be the best at his position in the league. Fellow starters D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack are back and took reps at left tackle this spring.
2. Ole Miss: The Rebels’ offense isn’t getting much respect this offseason, but its offensive line returns All-SEC candidates in tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie. Seven of Ole Miss’ linemen started two or more games each on the offensive line in 2010. Last season, the Rebels were first in the league in sacks allowed, giving up just 14. Alex Washington should stay at left guard after starting eight games there and A.J. Hawkins will likely get the nod at center after playing eight games there as well. Arkansas transfer Matt Hall will compete for time at center.
3. LSU: Joseph Barksdale might be gone, but the Tigers have a very talented group of linemen returning. Tackle Alex Hurst seems primed to be a star in the league and senior Josh Dworaczky is arguably the Tigers’ top lineman with 25 career starts. Patrick Lonergan is solid at center, while T-Bob Hebert is valuable at both center and guard. Sophomore Chris Faulk has the tough assignment of replacing Barksdale, but made quite the impression on his coaches this spring.
4. Kentucky: The Wildcats return four starters on their line. Right guard Larry Warford headlines the group after gaining second-team All-SEC honors a year ago. Kentucky also returns two-year starter Stuart Hines at left guard and Matt Smith at center, who was solid in his first year there. Left tackle Chandler Burden missed spring practice, but is expected back by fall practice. Finding a suitable right tackle is the next step for Kentucky.
5. Tennessee: This group could be one of the most impressive units for the Volunteers this season. It’s deeper and more experienced in Derek Dooley’s second year and he was very pleased with its performance this spring. Junior Dallas Thomas is solid at left tackle, and sophomore Ja’Wuan James really came on strong in his first year and is one of the top linemen in the SEC. James Stone also returns at center. The surprise of the group was true freshman Marcus Jackson, who held down the left guard spot for most of the spring.
6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs must replace All-American left tackle Derek Sherrod, but most of the line is somewhat on point. Center Quentin Saulsberry will anchor the line and is versatile enough to play just about every position on the line. Left guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Addison Lawrence return and the Bulldogs will have junior Tobias Smith lining up at right guard. Blaine Clausell and James Carmon, who moved from defensive tackle, will compete at left tackle.
7. Georgia: This was supposed to be one of the strongest offensive line units in the league, but the Bulldogs lost tackle Trinton Sturdivant to a season-ending knee injury this spring and fellow tackle A.J. Harmon transferred. Georgia’s most-reliable options are Cordy Glenn, who moved from guard to left tackle and Ben Jones at center. Kenarious Gates is at left guard, but he’s athletic enough to play tackle if needed. Former defensive lineman Justin Anderson will start off at right tackle. Right guard is the next area of business and the depth all around is a problem.
8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have questions here, but there is talent across the line. Rokevious Watkins is one of the most talented guards in the league and he’ll be assisted by returning starter at center T.J. Johnson. Senior Kyle Nunn has made strides at left tackle and redshirt freshman A.J. Cann took over duties at left guard this spring. Still, the younger linemen will be counted on to contribute this fall.
9. Arkansas: The Razorbacks must replace three starters on the offensive line. Center Travis Swanson and left guard Alvin Bailey are the only returning starters. Just a sophomore, Bailey impressed his coaches last season and will be one of the top linemen in the league this fall. After that, the Hogs will have to turn to youth for help. True freshman Brey Cook could be thrust into the starting role at right tackle, while sophomore Anthony Oden could get the job at left tackle.
10. Florida: Florida’s offensive line struggled throughout the 2010 season -- and that was with a senior-laden group. This fall, the Gators will start over with a ton of inexperience. Right guard Jon Halapio and right tackle Xavier Nixon are the only returning starters. Halapio struggled at times last season and Nixon battled injuries. Florida’s line spent most of the spring in the infirmary, so little is known about the overall talent. Freshman Chaz Green left spring as the starter at left tackle, Jonotthan Harrison will battle former Notre Dame lineman Dan Wenger at center. He transferred in after spring, but has health concerns.
11. Auburn: The Tigers will go from having one of the top offensive line groups in the country to having a major work in progress in 2011. Senior Brandon Mosley is the lone returning starter, and while he was solid on Auburn’s line last season, he came from junior college as a defensive end/tight end. The good news is that tackle A.J. Greene should be fine this fall after sustaining a season-ending leg injury last year. The rest of Auburn’s linemen are very young and inexperienced. Don’t expect many redshirts from this group.
12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores might return all five starters, but this unit had trouble keeping things together last year. The offense needs this group to improve mightily. Wesley Johnson is Vanderbilt’s best option, despite only being a sophomore at left tackle. There will be size on the right side, with 300-plus pounders Kyle Fischer and Ryan Seymour over there. Simply put, this unit has the experience, but it requires a lot of improvement.