With Brad Thorson and Sal Capra lost to graduation, the Kansas University football team will have to replace two offensive lineman who combined for 48 starts during the past two seasons.
As daunting as that task may seem, it’s made easier by the return of two players who have combined to start nearly half that many during their KU careers.
After missing large chunks of the 2010 season, O-lineman Jeff Spikes and Trevor Marrongelli are back this spring. Both players look fully recovered from the injuries that kept them out — Spikes tore his Achilles tendon and missed all 12 games and Marrongelli injured his lower leg and missed the final eight — and their return, and the 29 combined career starts that go along with it, should provide the Jayhawks with a much-needed dose of experience in 2011.
“It’s like one of those teams that goes together because they’ve been playing together for so long,” Spikes said. “A lot of us have been around for a while so we know each other’s character outside of football and each other’s character during football so, right now, it’s just coming together.”
Compared with the team’s other positions, the offensive line has come together rather quickly. The same five players — Spikes, Marrongelli, Tanner Hawkinson, Jeremiah Hatch and Duane Zlatnik — have run with the first team throughout spring practice, and KU coach Turner Gill said earlier this week that it looked like it would stay that way.
“They’re pretty much where they are going to be,” Gill said. “Right now, I’ll say we’re pretty well set, but I’m not going to say it couldn’t change somewhere in the future.”
Getting that group established up front could be critical for Kansas. The Jayhawks have a plethora of talent at running back and Gill has made no secret of the fact that he’d like to base his offense around the ground game. Having such a veteran cast filling those roles can only help as far as junior defensive end Toben Opurum is concerned.
“This is definitely one of the most experienced groups we have on the field right now,” Opurum said. “It’s a completely different offensive line than last year’s. They’re in better shape and they’re moving a lot better. I think overall they’re going to be a better offensive line than we had last year.”
Spikes agreed, but not in a way that sounded as if he was knocking last year’s crew. In fact, when talking about this year’s group, he was more than happy to exclude himself from the equation.
“The sky’s the limit,” Spikes said. “And I’m not saying that just because it’s our team. Not even including myself, if you just look at the experience we have and the athleticism and the strength. We’re constantly working on strength, constantly working on technique.”
Spikes continued to hammer the final point.
“You can’t lose with technique,” he added. “You can’t. As an offensive lineman, that’s the key to success. You could be the smallest guy going against the biggest, best guy, but if you have better technique than him, you’re gonna be successful. (Offensive line) Coach (J.B.) Grimes emphasizes that every day. We work on it every single day.”
While the ins and outs of the offensive line usually aren’t noticed outside of their own circle, the play of KU’s line already has caught some eyes this spring.
“Most people don’t really respect what they do,” sophomore wide receiver Chris Omigie said. “I like to see the linemen going downfield and knocking a linebacker on their back. We’ve had some linemen that really get after it and I like to give props to them because not many people appreciate how difficult it is to play on the offensive line.”
With seven practices remaining before the April 30 spring game (1 p.m., Memorial Stadium), the Jayhawks will return to the field today for spring practice No. 8.