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April 30, 2013

Many SEC O-lines in rebuilding mode

AggieYell.com's 2013 preseason position breakdowns of the SEC continues with a look at the conference's top offensive linemen, as well as rankings by group.

Individuals:

Jake Matthews, LT, Texas A&M
Cyrus Kouandjio, LT, Alabama
Antonio Richardson, LT, Tennessee
Vadal Alexander, RT, LSU
Ja'Wuan James, RT, Tennessee
Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State
A.J. Cann, G, South Carolina
John Theus, T, Georgia
Cedric Ogbuehi, RT, Texas A&M
La'el Collins, G/T, LSU

Matthews and Kouandjio are easily the two best tackles in the conference, not to mention the two best offensive linemen, period. Matthews gets the nod not only because he's a returning first team All-American, but because he's the most technically sound offensive lineman in the conference. Supporters of Kouandjio can say Matthews is a novice at left tackle, but odds are he started there on virtually any other team in America last year except the one he was on.

While Matthews is the most pro-ready tackle out there, Kouandjio is the one scouts are salivating over. Extremely athletic for a guy 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 310 pounds, he's going to be the bedrock of a rebuilding Alabama line this year.

Richardson is nicknamed "Tiny". That would be, shall we say, a misnomer, as he's 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 332 pounds. He only gave up two sacks all of last year and is light on his feet for a guy so big. Odds are his junior year will be his last, as the NFL will come calling.

Alexander only started nine games last year, but he came in strong and never missed a beat. Massive at 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 350 pounds, he hammered very good opponents and remains tough to get around and impossible to go through.

James is bookend to Richardson on the Vols line, and he's been mainstay on the Tennessee line since he arrived in Knoxville, starting 37 straight games at right tackle. At 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 323 pounds, James helps give Tennessee a massive duo of tackles to operate behind.

Jackson is probably the best guard in the conference, as he was a second-team All-SEC selection the last two years and hasn't missed a game (or a start) in three seasons. When the Bulldogs offense is operating right, they're running behind him.

The fans of the 6 foot, 4 inch, 310 pound Cann may take issue with the assertion Jackson's the best guard in the SEC. Some of his teammates think he's the best offensive lineman in the country, period. He's started 25 of the last 26 games and the junior is as efficient in pass blocking as he is paving the way for the run.

Theus is considered just a tackle for the moment as he may end up starting at either left tackle or staying on the right side, where he made 14 starts in his first year on campus. A national All-Freshman selection, he's just the third true freshman in 40 years to start at offensive tackle for Georgia in a season opener. As good as he already is, his upside is massive.

Possibly the most athletic offensive lineman in the conference, Ogbuehi made a seamless transition to the guard position in 2011 and started the last 18 games there. A solid run blocker with the quickness to protect on either the left or right side of the line, he's back to his more familiar tackle slot this year and hasn't skipped a beat in spring practice.

Collins, like Ogbuehi, is probably on the move this year. After starting all 13 games at guard last year and earning an All-SEC Honorable Mention designation, Collins may be the starting left tackle for LSU in 2013. At 6 feet, 5 inches tall and 321 pounds, he's plenty big to protect Zach Mettenberger's blind side. A ferocious drive blocker, Collins likes to flatten his opponents, not just block them.

By group:

1) Tennessee
2) Georgia
3) A&M
4) South Carolina
5) LSU
6) Alabama
7) Mississippi State
8) Vanderbilt
9) Ole Miss
10) Auburn
11) Florida
12) Kentucky
13) Missouri
14) Arkansas

The Vols deserve the top spot on this list, as they're returning a pair of stud tackles and four of the five starters who gave up just eight sacks and helped Tennessee's backs average 4.5 yards per carry last year. They have a combined 123 starts between them and will put four seniors and a junior on the front line in 2013. The Vols also have the depth to replace injured starters effectively.

The Bulldogs coaching staff wasn't overly thrilled with what they saw this spring, but facts are facts: Georgia could put four starters back on the line in some way, shape or form and has highly-rated backups behind them. "Disappointment" for a team that was a snap from playing for a national title probably carries a little bit different tune than it does for other programs.

The Aggies, on the other hand, are pretty happy with their group, thank you very much. After losing All-World LT Luke Joeckel and mastermind C Patrick Lewis, the Aggies added two new starters, shuffled Matthews and Ogbuehi around and came out looking more cohesive than last year's group did at the same time in 2012. New center Mike Matthews has solid game experience, new right guard German Ifedi is a massive presence and Jarvis Harrison quietly continues to grind up opponents at left guard. The only real question is depth, where C/G Ben Compton and RT Jospeh Cheek were the only reserves who showed much this spring.

South Carolina has a strong interior line and returns four of five starters from last year. With two massive bookends, the Gamecocks should have a pretty imposing line this season.

LSU and Alabama find themselves in the same boat: rebuilding their lines after seeing a ton of talent leave for the NFL all at once. Both teams have a great deal of talent to choose from, but until it's done, there's no real way to tell how good they'll be. But, on sheer depth of talent alone, they're better than most of the conference.

Mississippi State returns all five starters and allowed the second-fewest sacks per game in the SEC behind Tennessee last year. However, the Bulldogs struggled against stronger opponents, especially in the running game. That will have to change in order for their rating to improve.

Vandy returns four of their five starters and has two players with starting experience fighting for the center job. Whoever loses the center job could slide over to guard, giving the Commodores the security of having five established starters going into 2013.

Ole Miss gets four starters back from last year's team, but that group wasn't an elite unit last year. Add in a slew of injuries already and the thin group of reserves is being taxed. Hugh Freeze is already talking about "force-feeding" some of the incoming linemen from the class of 2013 this fall.

Auburn returns three starters from an offensive line that was both inexperienced and really bad last year. They still have a lot of work to do, not only with the starters, but with the reserves as well.

Kentucky, Missouri, Florida and Arkansas find themselves either replacing talented starters, looking for answers after spring practice or both. The Gators, who gave up the most sacks in the SEC last season, have been decimated by injuries and have no earthly idea what they have. Mizzou is shifting schemes while trying to rebuild, which is never an easy task; the Wildcats and Razorbacks are thin, changing schemes and don't have much more talent than they had when their quarterbacks were buried last year.



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