Perhaps even more than wide receivers or quarterbacks, Michigan has a tradition of great offensive line play. Since the Offensive Lineman of the Year Award's inception in 1984, now known as the Rimington-Pace Award, a Michigan player has won it nine times - more than any other team. More than that, thanks to David Baas, Jake Long, Taylor Lewan and David Molk, Michigan has captured the trophy six times in the last decade.
Of course, winning trumps the personal awards, but I'd say the Rimington-Pace should matter to Michigan fans. It embellishes our tradition of great linemen and deepens Michigan's legacy in the Big Ten. Of course winning does trump the personal awards. But hopefully, very soon, a David Dawson or a Patrick Kugler will hoist the trophy for Michigan again as part of a successful team campaign. Until then, football rolls on.... it waits for no man. Here's a look at the 2014 edition of the watch list for the Offensive Lineman of the Year, and some inside looks at offensive lines around the B1G.
Brandon Scherff, Iowa
Iowa is coincidentally the team with the second-most of the Rimington-Pace Award, with 6. They're the front-runner to take it home again. Originally a three-star recruit out of Iowa, Scherff played quarterback in high school until a late growth spurt moved him to tight end, and then, to tackle. "He was probably 215 pounds in 10th grade," said Kirk Ferentz. "The thing I remember about him is, it seemed like every time we would see him … he was 10 pounds bigger. He just kind of morphed right in front of our eyes."
Now, Scherff is returning for one more year after a high draft grade and the chance for NFL riches. He will anchor an Iowa front line that returns three starters at all the most important positions (left tackle, center, right guard), and a running back trio that averaged 4.6 ypc and notched 1,923 yards. "When a guy chooses to come back like that," Ferentz added, "it’s usually because he really still likes the college experience, he hasn’t grown tired of that. And he is here for all the right reasons."
Donovan Smith, Penn State
Donovan Smith, heading into his third year as the starter, is Mr. Steady for Penn State. The junior left tackle and criminal justice major is the most proven commodity right now for the position group that is worrying Penn State fans the most. James Franklin is trying to assimilate two defensive tackles in Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey to play inside, and with only thirteen linemen on the roster - including only four tackles - depth is still an issue. Of course, Taylor Lewan has proven a great O-line is not a requirement to be recognized as a great individual player, and the 6'5", 322-lb. lineman has all the skills necessary to succeed: a tenacious attitude, quick feet, great work ethic and low pad level. He didn't get All-B1G team honors as a freshman or sophomore, but now is his time.
Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
Some are concerned that youth will torpedo Gary Andersen's second season in Madison, but good luck finding it on Wisconsin's starting front line. Only Dan Voltz has spent fewer than three years in the program, and combined the starting five have built up 74 starts and 114 games. The two-deep might feature some question marks, but Wisconsin has the enviable position of knowing right now who their starting five will be. More than that, they're all good.
If one player stands head and shoulders above the rest, you'd be looking at Rob Havenstein, their right tackle. He got All-B1G Second Team from the coaches as well as Honorable Mention from the media - but guys like RG Kyle Costigan and C Dallas Lewallen are not far behind. It's a unit that weighs 320 lbs. on average and road-graded the B1G.
Jason Spriggs, Indiana
Here are a few amazing stats about the 6'7", 307 lb. player from Indiana: he has started 24 straight games at left tackle, is entering his true junior year, and has yet to turn 20 years old. In both his seasons, the Hoosiers have finished first in passing offense and second in total offense in the B1G. What also stands out about him is his approach to the game - both in his relentless drive to improve and his lack of fear at the big stage.
"To me, what’s stuck out is his tenacity, just blocking," said teammate Will Matte. "We threw him in there early in camp, and he didn’t necessarily know what he was doing, but he got after people."
Spriggs' next step is to improve his run blocking and show he belongs on an NFL squad, either as a full-time tackle or a hybrid tight end. Barring an injury (always possible), he'll have played his last game at Indiana as a 21-year old.
Jack Allen, Michigan State
Jack Allen is a very good center for the Michigan State Spartans, but I'm including him only because he made a lot of All-B1G teams in 2013. He (6'1", 300) fits a little of the mold of David Molk, an undersized (6'2", 286) but effective lineman. Allen may not end up as the most effective player on his own team, as State seems ripe to fill in the gaps provided by Blake Treadwell & Co. with more perfectly effective blockers like Connor Kruse, Travis Jackson and James Bodanis out of the University of Toronto. None are stars, but they probably wouldn't want it that way. It's a quintessential B1G line.
- , Michigan
Michigan may have controlled the Rimington-Pace Award for the last decade, but not this year. The best we can hope for is a running attack with some speed and decisiveness, and enough balance to let our talent at wide receiver be able to work in single coverage. Hopefully, one of our linemen like Dawson, Kugler, Kalis or Braden can seize the award in the upcoming years. Linemen usually have their best seasons in their most mature years, something none of our talent resides in right now. Given that the only talented lineman with game experience at his position is Kalis, who is entering his redshirt sophomore campaign and seems to be growing up, not just physically, but emotionally, the award will probably not be coming through Ann Arbor again in 2014.
- , Northwestern
I'm also including Northwestern because it's an interesting case. A team that went 10-3 in 2012 lost two overtime games in 2013 and another on a tipped pass to Nebraska at the end of regulation. Now, Northwestern, in the what-have-you-done-lately world of football, is a 1-7 Big Ten team. They return all their important players on the offensive line, a squad Pat Fitzgerald had called before 2013 "as talented as we've had."
That talent allowed three sacks a game and more than 7 tackles for loss. Adam Cushing, the offensive line coach, points to injuries in the off-season last year as a reason, something that was echoed by his players.
"Maybe I wasn't where I needed to be last year strength-wise," said Paul Jorgensen, their right tackle. "This year I've had the full time, and obviously I have the rest of the spring and the summer to get back in there. Like Cush said, it's a big boy's game on the line in the Big Ten. That's where you do your work in the off-season, in the weight room, and then you have to carry it over to the field.
"Across the board, I think this is our best off-season since I've been here for gains."
AROUND THE B1G: A look at other offensive lines
In each of the last 12 years, dating back to 2001, at least three Big Ten teams were ranked at season's end. 2009 was the last, biggest hurrah, with three teams in the top 10 and Wisconsin sitting at #16. And while the Big Ten might not get to that level in 2014, it can get pretty close if teams like Michigan and Indiana keep growing, and Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin hold their ground. We saw what a great O-line can do when bowl season came - Iowa hung tough with LSU, Nebraska beat Georgia, Sparty knocked off Stanford and Michigan in their O-line ineptitude got stuffed by Kansas State.
Here's a soft ranking of the offensive lines in the B1G, with the first four sitting pretty and the bottom seven looking very vulnerable.
6. Michigan State
7. Ohio State
13. Penn State
Ohio State and Michigan are now much more in the same boat - they're young, and talented. No one apart from left tackle-to-be Taylor Decker and the newly minted Chad Lindsay has much game time, and how far they fall or how much they float will be an interesting storyline as next year unfolds. The Buckeyes are returning Braxton Miller and a few good back-up running backs, but an injury or two could be enough to bring an 8- or 9-win season to Columbus.
Maryland and Rutgers will be interesting cases; on the one hand, they had mediocre numbers last year. More than that, they seem to be a little on the beef jerky side - with most of their roster at 300 lbs. or lower, it reminds me a little of last year's Michigan team. On the other hand, they will have a lot of experience and are hiring some new offensive line coordinators for their squads - Maryland's is in fact Greg Studrawa, last seen coaching the OL for LSU.