Kansas University offensive line coach J.B. Grimes recently shared a story about the nickname he gave to head football trainer Murphy Grant.
“I called Murph ‘Dr. Death,’” Grimes said with a hearty, southern laugh. “He made about two or three phone calls last summer that were bad, bad news. (Brad) Thorson broke his foot, (Jeremiah) Hatch can’t go, (Jeff) Spikes tore his Achilles. I got those phone calls over the course of the summer, boom, boom, boom.”
Although two of those three injured Jayhawks returned to play most of 2010, the setbacks made developing chemistry difficult at best.
Fast-forward one year and you’ll find that’s not a problem. When the Jayhawks kicked off preseason camp earlier this week, their top offensive linemen were healthy. Most importantly, KU’s projected starting five had spent the entire spring playing together. Maybe that’s why KU coach Turner Gill has such high regard for the big guys up front heading into his second season.
“I feel great about our offensive line,” Gill said. “That’s going to the be strength of our team, there’s no question about it.”
When breaking down the O-line, man by man, Grimes began in the middle.
“Jeremiah Hatch has really come a long way,” Grimes said of KU’s senior center, who stands 6-foot-3 and a trim 299 pounds. “He’s the leader on that offensive line. He may be the leader on our offense right now.”
Another key member of the group will be 6-6, 293-pound junior Tanner Hawkinson, a two-year starter at left tackle who will be playing a new position in 2011.
“One really smart thing that we did in the spring was move Tanner over to the right side,” Grimes said. “That was a really good move for the kid. Tanner had developed some really bad habits over there on that left side. The problem was there was so much bad muscle memory there so we basically just said, ‘Let’s reboot the computer, get the viruses out and let’s go to work.’”
Sliding into Hawkinson’s old spot will be Spikes, a 6-6, 325-pound junior who missed all of 2010 but has 23 career starts on his resume. Grimes said Spikes still had some work to do to get back to 100 percent.
“The guy that’s probably the rustiest of everyone is probably Jeff Spikes,” Grimes said. “Last year, I demanded that he was at every meeting and that he was there on time. Everything that I would demand out of the other guys I demanded out of him except what we did out on the football field. But he’s still rusty.”
One reason Grimes isn’t overly concerned about Spikes’ progress is because of the player the Jayhawks have slotted behind him. Although he played just 96 snaps a season ago, Grimes said he believed sophomore Riley Spencer, 6-7, 300, had the potential to become a stud.
“There is no question he’s a tough guy because he was battling that shoulder injury all of last season,” Grimes said. “You don’t go through the pain he went through just to stay on the field if you’re not tough. He was one-armed. I’ve got a great amount of respect for that kid because he is a tough, tough guy. That’s not an injury that doesn’t hurt.”
Rounding out KU’s top five are guards Trevor Marrongelli (6-2, 293) and Duane Zlatnik (6-4, 305). Marrongelli, a junior from Austin, Texas, missed the second half of last season because of injury.
“Marrongelli has really come back fine from his injury,” he said. “We just want him to keep getting bigger and stronger. He’s a guy who’s played some snaps here and really had an outstanding spring.”
As for Zlatnik, just talking about him brought a sparkle to Grimes’ eye and extra energy to his voice.
“Coming out of spring practice a year ago, I did not want to put him in a game,” Grimes said of Zlatnik. “He wasn’t ready. Then, all of a sudden, he had to play 738 snaps last year. Duane has got a chance to be a really, really good player. He’s really strong, really athletic. I like him a lot.”
Throughout 2010, Gill talked about finding seven or eight linemen he could count on. Three practices into 2011, it appears he has that many.
“Another guy who had an outstanding spring is Gavin Howard,” Grimes said of the 6-5, 292-pound sophomore. “He’s come a long way from a maturity standpoint and he’s got a chance to be a good player.”
Beyond the obvious experience and talent of KU’s front line, the thing that seems to excite Grimes most is the unit’s depth.
“We’ve got guys with size now,” Grimes said. “That’s really the big difference. We’ve got guys with Big 12 size. (Freshmen) Travis Bodenstein (6-5, 295), Bryan Peters (6-5, 305), these guys are at the size they need to be right now.”
Of freshman center Dylan Admire (6-3, 283), who arrived on campus in January, Grimes was equally complimentary. Add to that trio of freshmen Damon Martin (6-5, 265) and Luke Luhrsen, a 6-5, 290-pound former hockey player, and it’s easy to see why Grimes is so pumped up about his new hogs. That said, he’s not going to call them game-ready just yet.
“Honestly, you don’t want to play any of them,” he said. “You really don’t. They’re not ready. With an offensive lineman, you don’t just throw him in the grease and pull him out like you do a catfish. You gotta put him in the oven and bake him a while. That’s just a fact.”