- David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
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We’re taking a look at where each Pac-12 team stands coming out of spring ball on a position-by-position basis. We call them power rankings. You call them something to complain about. We’ll continue with a look at the offensive lines of the conference.
There’s certainly more guesswork involved in ranking offensive lines than, say, quarterback or running back, positions where there’s often only one featured player involved. That being said, if someone had read these rankings last October, they’d have deemed us lunatics. UCLA’s offensive line was bleeding sacks at the time -- it allowed 41 last year, ninth most in the nation. But the Bruins’ line improved in that regard over the course of the season, and it also provided Paul Perkins with enough room to win the Pac-12 rushing title. All five starters -- Conor McDermott, Alex Redmond, Jake Brendel, Caleb Benenoch, and Simon Goines -- return, so this position group has transitioned from “question” to “definite strength” very quickly.
While questions swirl about how USC will replace big-play talents Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor, the Trojans’ offensive line has been enjoying a solid upward trend. USC returns all five starters from last year. Center Max Tuerk is one of the best in the country, while tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner are also solid anchors. A big boost here comes from guard Damien Mama’s weight loss: He’s down to around 350 pounds after arriving on campus at 397 last season. USC’s pull-blocking capabilities should benefit from Mama’s added athleticism.
The Cardinal’s hogs struggled for a significant part of last season. Their problems came mostly in the running game, where it seemed Stanford had difficulty adapting to the post-power back era for the first three-quarters of the season. But 2014’s final trio of games saw the line jell and the running lanes emerge. Stanford also allowed a conference-low 23 sacks. Although the Cardinal must replace left tackle Andrus Peat, excellent recruiting up front has made that a manageable job: Kyle Murphy shifts over from left tackle, while touted youngster Casey Tucker will likely take over on the right side. Senior left guard Joshua Garnett enjoyed a powerful spring, but some uncertainty remains at right guard.
4. Arizona State
Todd Graham says Nick Kelly is the best center in the country. Faith in that position is paramount to the Sun Devils’ high-speed attack, which relies on complex center-quarterback communication. ASU does have to replace tackles Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka, but offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has been pleased with early results from Evan Goodman, Sam Jones, and Quinn Bailey. Plus, Kelly is healthy again after gutting through 2014 on a pair of hurt knees. This line just needs to provide a crease for its runners -- that’s how explosive ASU’s backfield is -- and it appears capable of doing just that.
Offensively, the Ducks reload as well as any team in recent memory, and that includes the positions along the offensive line. They have more work to do this offseason with center Hroniss Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher gone. Tyler Johnstone’s return from an ACL tear boosts the tackle position, but the line’s interior is a jumble of competing names at this point. Aside from settling the quarterback battle this August, Mark Helfrich must determine which center will fit most comfortably into the mix, as that position’s relationship with the quarterback is vital to the success of an up-tempo offense.
6. Oregon State
The Beavers return all five starters on the line, and running back Storm Woods says that’s “a dream come true.” He noted that the entire crew, particularly left tackle Sean Harlow, has been coming out to offseason practices “with a pissed-off mentality.” Oregon State did not run the ball effectively on the aggregate in 2014 (3.8 yards per carry) and the team also surrendered 36 sacks, but experience and cohesion have set up a realistic expectation of improvement here. Gary Andersen-led squads focus on the ground game and tempo, and that should help this line wear down defenses.
Despite the loss of left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi, Utah is still in a solid position up front. They’re stronger and deeper than they’ve ever been under coach Kyle Whittingham, and that reflects the positive development of the Utes’ roster as a whole following the team’s move to the Pac-12 earlier this decade. Center Siaosi Aiono returns while J.J. Dielman is expected to replace Poutasi. The big bonus here is running back Devontae Booker, who doesn’t need all that much from his line: His 759 yards after contact last regular season were 159 more than any other league player.
Give Jared Goff time to throw, and he’ll hand you a shredded defense in return. That’s the key for the Bears’ line, which must answer questions at center and right tackle this offseason. This unit fought inconsistency last season, but ultimately improved its run-blocking capabilities. Most of the weapons around it (Goff, running back Daniel Lasco, and some talented receivers) have returned, so it’s fair to say that Cal’s 2015 offense will be as explosive as its line allows it to be. Keep an eye on tackle candidates Dominic Granado and Vincent Johnson. Effectiveness from them may be the Bears’ ticket to the next level.
The Buffs are in the midst of replacing their two guards, Kaiwi Crabb and Daniel Munyer. The team’s rushing production has steadily improved over the past three seasons -- up to 4.1 yards per carry in 2014. Colorado also allowed only 23 sacks last year, tied with Stanford for the fewest in the Pac-12. So there’s tangible optimism that the offense can continue improvement behind Jeromy Irwin and Stephane Nembot, both returning tackles. Offensive production, after all, was certainly not the Buffs’ biggest problem last year.
The Wildcats return marquee names at the skill positions (see Anu Solomon, Nick Wilson, and Caleb Jones), but the line is in the midst of a transitionary offseason. Both tackles and center Steven Gurrola are gone, so fights for playing time rage all over. Arizona surrendered 40 sacks last season -- the only Pac-12 team to allow more was UCLA (41) -- so that figure demands improvement from the new-look crew up front. Look out for Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa, who has a chance to provide an immediate boost at 6-foot-8, 316 pounds.
11. Washington State
The Cougars return virtually all of their offensive line, but pass protection must improve. Washington State allowed 36 sacks last season, and quarterbacks took a beating -- especially against the stronger pass rushes of the Pac-12. Mike Leach’s Air Raid system puts an obvious emphasis on pass-blocking, but the Cougars are also hoping to enjoy some ground productivity from Keith Harrington this season, so this line will be asked to show some versatility. Joe Dahl is the anchor at left tackle.
The Huskies face more turnover up front than any other Pac-12 team. Guard Siosifa Tufunga is the only starter returning from Washington’s bowl game. Dexter Charles did play last year, so he’s likely to man the other position. Still, there are question marks aplenty here. Injuries hurt continuity up front for this team last year, so run production was sporadic throughout stretches of the season. Pass protection improved as the year went along, but Washington will have to start fresh with chemistry development since so many new names will be breaking in.
The UCLA Bruins' offensive line showed improvement last season and returns all five starters.