It's August. Well, almost. The football team reports in just a week or so for fall camp. So naturally, it's time for some serious positional breakdowns. But you can read those anywhere, and of course we here at And The Valley Shook like to stand out. And occasionally break out into song. This means you, dear reader, get some musical accompaniment.
In football, of course, it all starts up front. And so we begin with the LSU Offensive Line.
A song about breaking free from isolation and depression in an explosion of anger fits for the unit that is the key to the Tiger offense turning around in 2010 (and to the Humanoids on the message boards, yes, offensive line = more important than quarterback).
On last year's line youth, inexperience, injuries, recruiting tradition and bad coaching combined to form a stiff cocktail o'fail. A knee injury robbed Ciron Black of the All-SEC form he'd shown the first three years of his career. The attrition of the 2006-2007 offensive line classes was manifested in Josh Dworaczyk and T-Bob Hebert getting thrown into the lineup a year or so earlier than they needed to be. Underweight by typical conference standards, they both struggled pushing around the bigger linemen in the league. And without Brett Helms dictating assignments, Lyle Hitt was exposed as the player he really was - an overachiever who lacked the size and athleticism to deal with the elite defensive linemen you see in this conference. Meanwhile, the lack of a line that could give him yardage consistently led to Gary Crowton's oft-discussed offensive schizophrenia, and I could go on but we're all starting to see red again...
Anyways, on to this year. Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa returns, buttressed with a new offensive grad assistant - none other than the greatest center in LSU history, Ben Wilkerson. Opinions on Stud are mixed at best (though complaining about coaches in any sport is fast becoming the No. 1 hobby of LSU fans), but he's got a solid reputation as a teacher in the technique department. Still, he and this unit need to get some edge back. Some of that may come from new blood.
Generally, change is a sign of rebuilding for an o-line. But coming off a year like last, change is almost certain to be a good thing. As we entered spring practice, most projected that returning starters Dworaczyk and Joseph Barksdale would man the tackle spots, with junior Will Blackwell and sophomore Alex Hurst taking over the guard positions. Instead, we saw Barksdale slide from the right tackle spot to the left side, with Hurst taking over at right tackle and Blackwell at right guard. Dworaczyk is back at the left guard, while sophomore P.J. Lonergan taking over for Hebert at center. And as much as people weren't happy with the offensive showing in the 2010 Spring Game, one of the silver linings was the 300-plus rushing yards piled up.
Breaking down this new starting lineup begins with the lone senior, Barksdale. A rare import from Michigan, the 6-5, 315 Barksdale has been a mainstay in the LSU lineup for the last three seasons at right tackle, and in general has been a solid run blocker. But he had his share of problems last season. Speed rushers and blitz pickup were issues, and there was no consistency when it came to run blocking. It wasn't a year that screamed "move him to left tackle." However, in the spring Barksdale appeared to shed some weight, and spoke multiple times about expecting better for himself in his new job. And he'd better have those kinds of expectations, because he gets projected-top-10-draft pick Robert Quinn of North Carolina in game one. Of course, running the ball and some creative play-calling can also go a long way in limiting Barksdale as a potential pass-protection liability.
Josh Dworaczyk was sort of a classic case of too much, too soon in 2009. Lean and built more like a tackle, he probably could have used another year of seasoning before getting thrust out into the lineup. And while displayed excellent technique and agility and was always willing to throw an extra block or two down the field as well, he simply struggled at the point of attack. Bigger linemen simply overpowered him. That resulted in a lot of free-running linebackers and a lot of stuffed running plays. Two-hundred and 80 pounds on a six-six frame simply weren't enough. But spring was a time for growth. With the added bulk getting him up in the 300-pound range, expect that agility and attitude to pay off.
Lonergan, a legacy whose dad lettered for LSU in 1978, probably would have started over Hebert at center under perfect circumstances. He had a clear size and power advantage, but having not played the position previously, Lonergan struggled with the transition (particularly on shotgun snaps). His first real action came against Tulane in 2009 and was eye-opening, as he helped lead an 11-play, 98-yard touchdown drive that featured 73 rushing yards from Stevan Ridley. Sure, it was Tulane, but when running the ball is tough against everybody, those successes still stand out. Lonergan would later take over the starting job in Capital One Bowl practices.
Good things just seemed to happen when Will Blackwell was in the lineup last season. He helped spring two of the season's biggest runs, Charles Scott's game-winner at Georgia and Russell Shepard's 65-yarder versus Auburn. He showed good mobility on pulls and down-blocks coupled with a whatever-it-takes attitude to get his man down. And with no more veterans holding him out of the lineup, he, along with Lonergan and Dworaczyk, give LSU its first inside trio of 300-pounders in several years.
Over on the right side, Alex Hurst is probably the lineman fans are most excited about. His transition to the starting lineup is a year or so overdue, as he was one of the only linemen LSU had in 2009 that seemed to consistently push the other guy around. Just as with Blackwell, the offense just seemed to flow better with Hurst in the lineup. Lightly-recruited out of Bartlett, Tenn. in 2008, Hurst was one of those-under recruited guys that got the "Les Miles Project" label, and he's the first one to really get an opportunity to pay off. And after an offseason of consistently positive reviews from coaches, media and program insiders, Hurst may be member of this offensive line who makes a name for himself in 2010.
And that brings us back to this year's theme. Breaking free of last year's offense. Unleashing all the pent-up anger over those struggles loose upon the world. Offensive line play is almost as much about attitude as it is ability. When you think of LSU's better lines of the last decade, you think of maulers like Stephen Peterman, Andrew Whitworth, Rudy Niswanger and Herman Johnson that were never shy about holding, clipping or throwing out the occasional late hit if that's what it took. Increased size and strength up front will be keys to the Tigers rediscovering a dominant rushing attack, but so will attitude.