College Football Preview: Top Five Offensive Linemen
There is a reason that six of the top eleven selections in the 2013 NFL Draft were offensive linemen. The position is crucial to a team's success. Although the "big uglies" are often overlooked, these massive linemen will be cornerstone's for their programs in 2013:
1. Taylor Lewan 6’8” 309lbs. Michigan, Senior- A dominant road grader, Lewan has a high ceiling and has shown steady improvement throughout his career. The Wolverine is likely to be a top five pick in next April’s NFL Draft and showed glimpses of what he is capable of when he slowed down Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. This season, Lewan’s toughest task will come against Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt, who is not nearly the nightmare Clowney is. As one of only two returning starters on Michigan’s offensive line, Lewan will be leaned on heavily to help quarterback Devin Gardner and freshman running back Derrick Green make the plays necessary to battle Ohio State for the Big 10 title. With a reputation for playing with a mean streak, Lewan’s potential is limitless and footwork/pass protection skills will be integral for him moving forward.
2. Jake Matthews 6’5” 305lbs. Texas A&M, Senior- There is little sunlight separating Matthews and Lewan and either could lay claim to the top spot. Lewan’s upside is a little higher, but Matthews could play a more significant role in the national title hunt. If Johnny Manziel is cleared to suit up, the Aggies will be in the thick of the national title hunt, and Matthews will be instrumental in serving as the anchor of Texas A&M’s offensive line. Matthews, the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, nephew of Clay Matthews, and cousin of Clay Matthews, Jr., has an outstanding pedigree and great agility with a natural ability to protect the quarterback. This was on display last season when he more than held his own against LSU’s Barkevious Mingo. With last year’s bookend Luke Joeckel gone, Matthews will need similar performances against LSU and Alabama to keep the Aggies’ title hopes alive.
3. Cyrus Kouandijo 6’6” 311lbs. Alabama, Junior- The Crimson Tide lost Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, and Barrett Jones to the NFL, but, Kouandijo, their most talented lineman remains. While the offensive line for Alabama, which includes Cyrus’ older brother Arie, tries to replicate the success of last season’s group, look for the younger Kouandijo to stand out. The former hyped recruit who made headlines when he selected Auburn on Signing Day only to sign with Alabama days later, may ultimately end up better than either Lewan or Matthews. Still a little raw, his talent is elite, and he will be relied on heavily as the Tide pursue a three-peat.
4. David Yankey 6’5” 311lbs. Stanford, Junior- Few schools have recruited the offensive line position better than the Cardinal, who are loaded with talent at the position. The development of sophomore Andrus Peat has allowed Stanford to move Yankey, who excelled at tackle, inside where he should be an even more natural fit. Like most Stanford players, Yankey is a cerebral, well-rounded player who, given the priority given to guards in April’s draft, could go early in 2014 or even in 2015 if he chooses to stay for his senior year. A powerful run blocker, Yankey will be needed to pave the way as the Cardinal break in new starting running back Anthony Wilkerson. Like others on this list, the lineman will be needed on a team with title aspirations.
5. James Hurst 6’7” 305lbs. North Carolina, Senior- Unlike the others, Hurst’s Tar Heels may have a strong team, but not one that can hold out hope for title contention. Still, Hurst is an intelligent, athletic tackle with a great frame. Moreover, he will have an early opportunity to prove himself against Jadeveon Clowney. Now, without guard Jonathan Cooper by his side, Hurst will be the anchor on the Tar Heels line and will have a chance to show his talent. Although he is almost certainly a first round pick as it stands, Hurst could move into the top ten with a stellar season.
Honorable Mention: Antonio Richardson (Tennessee) Jr., La’el Collins (LSU) Jr., Zack Martin (Notre Dame) Sr., Seantrel Henderson (Miami) Sr., Morgan Moses (Virginia) Sr.