Written By Lydia Knoll
Welcome to the second annual Top Five series where the Hoosier Huddle writers will rank and breakdown the top five Indiana opponents at every position group on the field (so we are only ranking the units whose teams are IU opponents in 2016). Today, we highlight the 2016 Top Five offensive lines.
There’s a lot that goes into analyzing an offensive line, including not only the line’s performance but the line’s ability to allow the rest of the offense to make plays.
Although not the top team on all the stats, Michigan is not far behind and they will have the most experienced offensive line of 2016. Coming back this year will be Mason Cole, now playing at center instead of left guard, Grant Newsome at left tackle, Ben Braden at left guard, Kyle Kalis at right guard, and Erik Magnuson at right tackle. With this many players returning, Michigan is expected to do at least as well as they did last year. Last year, Michigan ranked third in sacks allowed (18) for the Big Ten. They also finished the season having achieved an opportunity rate of 34.8% and a power success rate of 68%. All of this in consideration and Michigan should surely boast a top offensive line this coming season, just as they did a year ago.
2. Ohio State
Of all Indiana’s opponents, the top offensive lines are debatable but the stats point toward Ohio State. According to Football Insiders, Ohio State had the highest opportunity rate as well as power success rate in the Big Ten last season. The opportunity rate refers to the percentage of carries that gain at least five yards when there’s five yards available… Essentially the line successfully does its job and allows the offense to make a play. Ohio State’s opportunity rate last year was 47.4%. They also had the highest power success rate at 77.2%. Power success rate is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down with two or less yards to obtain, that reach a first down or touchdown. PSR is a determinant in the strength of the line. This strong line also led Ohio State to be ranked first in the Big Ten for rushing offense, averaging 5.62 yards. However, the thing holding back Ohio State this year is the loss of former starters. OSU will see the return of only two previous starters this year, center Pat Elflein and right guard Billy Price (moved from left). This leaves some uncertainty in the lack of experience that OSU’s new line will provide. Redshirt junior Jamarco Jones has earned the starting left tackle position while former blue-chipper Isaiah Prince (a 6’7” behemoth) looks likely to move in at right tackle. The left guard spot is up for grabs but the likely candidates are all former four or five-star recruits that shouldn’t be a hindrance to success for Ohio State’s offense.
Northwestern, like Michigan, will see the return of several players this season. Returning starters include center Ian Park, guard Connor Mahoney, and tackles Blake Hance and Eric Olson. Filling in at right guard is expected to be Shane Mertz, who started in six of the games last season. Northwestern was ranked fourth in rushing offense last season and can only be expected to go up with the return of so many experienced players. One area in which they showed weakness last year was allowing sacks where they were ranked eleventh in the Big Ten. Part of that could be blamed freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson’s inexperience as he held on to the ball too long or tried to make plays when simply throwing it away would have been the best option. Still, it’s an area that must be improved upon if Northwestern’s offense is to take a step forward. The previous experience of returning players plus the year of starting experience for Thorson could prevent that from being an issue this season.
4. Michigan State
Despite an overall strong offense, the offensive line of Michigan State was not a major strength. Last season, MSU’s line allowed 21 sacks, ranking seventh in the Big Ten. Their rushing offense was no better, ranking ninth in the Big Ten with 151.29 yards/game. However, their power success rate was second, right behind Ohio State, at 76.1%, which proves they have the ability to be a strong line and need to produce those results in less demanding plays. With the loss of All-American players, left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen, Michigan State looks to fill two very large shoes. They will have two returning starters, tackle Kodi Kieler and guard Brian Allen which will provide some experience but certainly not enough. A lot of their performance will rely on the young talent coming up which can be expected to include star recruits due to two Big Ten Championships in just three years. Mark Dantonio rarely has bad offensive lines and MSU has turned into a stable program that seems to reload talent seamlessly. They won’t be the best o-line IU faces but they’ll be a stiff challenge.
This final pick was a very tough one to make and the addition of Maryland to this list will likely surprise many. To put it bluntly, Maryland’s offense in 2015 was awful. The same could be said about their season in general. However, they were surprisingly effective in the running game, averaging more than 200 yards per game and ranking 14th in rushing S&P+. They were second in the country in rushing isoPPP, 48th in opportunity rate and 22nd in adjusted line yards. The adjusted sack rate was decent (52nd) and likely would have better with competent quarterback play. Damian Prince (a former blue-chipper), Mike Minter and Michael Dunn all return as starters while former top recruits like Derwin Gray and Quarvez Boulware have the potential to be above-average B1G starters. Former coach Randy Edsall didn’t do exceedingly well in very many areas but he was a good recruiter of offensive linemen and new coach DJ Durkin may be the guy to take this unit from “decent” to “good”. There are still massive questions at quarterback and an underachieving group of wide receivers and it’s unlikely Maryland’s offense will even be average in the B1G but the offensive line is one of the five best the Hoosiers will face in 2016.