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2014 Position Preview: Offensive Line

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In our fourth installment of RCT's position-by-position preview of the 2014 football team, we take a closer look at the offensive line.

Jamie Squire

RCT continues previewing the 2014 Jayhawks by giving you an in-depth look at each position group. Today we look at the offensive line.

When PenHawk began this series of articles on the football squad, he said, "When Charlie Weis was hired, many assumed that, if nothing else, the quarterback situation in Lawrence should improve."  I would expand that to, "If nothing else, the offense should improve."  Where does offense start?  In the trenches, of course.

You can have all the talent in the world at QB, RB, and WR, but if you can't block, you can't gain any yards.  Now, an excellent QB, say, a Todd Reesing, can certainly make an O-line look better than it may be.  But you still have to have talent on that O-line.

A talented RB can help make up for O-line deficiencies as well.  James Sims was definitely a talent.  In some cases, he often gained yardage in spite of his line rather than because of it.  But, just imagine if he had been coming out of Oklahoma's backfield, or Texas, or any other fill in the blank "traditional" school.

Now, admittedly, I have no idea how to judge offensive line play.  Do I look at yards per game?  Penalties?  Yards per carry?  Sacks allowed?  Recruiting stars?  I just don't know.  Surely there's an advanced stat out there somewhere.

After about 10 minutes of research, I decided to go with S&P+ rankings.  S&P+ is defined as: an OPS-like measure for football.  (OPS is a baseball term, it is simply a player's on-base percentage plus their slugging percentage.)  Each team's output for a given category (Rushing/Passing on either Standard Downs or Passing Downs) is compared to the expected output based upon their opponents and their opponents' opponents. This is a schedule-based adjustment designed to reward tougher schedules and punish weaker ones.

Let's take a look at what Kansas had last year, who's coming back, and what we can expect in 2014.

2013: Needless to say, Kansas did not do well on the offensive side of the ball last year.  This is not news to anyone who frequents Rock Chalk Talk.  The Jayhawks ranked 121 out of 125 teams in S&P+ (http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/ncaaoff).  This ranked us well below teams such as Army (87), Wyoming (78), South Alabama (60), and Rice (73).

For comparison's sake, here is how KU ranked in more traditional numbers:

2013 Rankings Kansas Army Wyoming S. Alabama Rice
Rushing YPG 77 3 41 60 17
Passing YPG 117 123 24 42 103
Sacks Allowed 93 32 77 32 100
S&P+ 121 87 78 60 73

KU is losing three senior starters from last year's offensive line - LT Riley Spencer, C Gavin Howard, and RT Aslam Sterling.  Randall Dent is the only other player on the O-line two-deep lost to graduation.  Needless to say, there is still plenty of work to be done.  The issue with replacing so many starters on an offensive line is how quickly this year's starters are named and begin to gel and truly work as a unit.

Now, on the bright side, this is where John Reagan excels.  He spent five years as KU's O-line coach and run-game coordinator under Mangino, and is currently the Offensive Coordinator and O-line coach.  If KU is to make some gains on offense in 2014, it will begin and end with how quickly Reagan can whip these guys into shape.

2014: So just who are these guys, anyway?  The current projected starters are: LT Pat Lewandowski (Sr), LG Ngalu Fusimalohi (Sr), C Keyon Haughton (Jr), RG Mike Smithburg (Sr), RT Damon Martin (Jr).  As I'm sure you noticed, they're all upperclassmen - and three seniors.  Haughton is a JUCO transfer this year, but the other four all saw time in the O-line rotation last year.

As for backups, the primary contenders for playing time look like this: LT Larry Mayzck (Jr), LG Bryan Peters (Jr), C Joe Gibson (RS-Fr), C Jacob Bragg (Fr), RG Brian Beckmann (So), RT Devon Williams (Jr).  According to all reports, Mayzck is really pushing Lewandowski for the starting LT spot, and Gibson is really pushing Haughton for the starting C position.  Bragg was a highly regarded prospect coming out of Texas, and has also been impressive in fall camp - apparently impressive enough that he's not an automatic redshirt candidate.

Outlook: If Reaganonics can get the ‘Hawks an established run game, the passing game should follow.  The variety of rollouts and short, quick reads should help take pressure off the O-line as well.  Run blocking seemed to be the one thing the O-line has been at least passable with over the past couple of years (but then again, how much of it was Sims?).

The opener vs SEMO will be great experience for these guys to get some gametime together.  At this point, all we really have is hope that Reagan can do something with these guys.  If Kansas can move up from a bottom-five offense to a mediocre offense ranked somewhere in, say, the 80s or (gasp) 70s, Kansas should be able to not only win some games, but pull off a couple of upsets as well.

As KU's offensive line goes so will go KU's offense, and so will go KU's season.