In 2010, Kansas University’s offensive line suffered a slew of injuries and watched as a handful of guys were forced to play out of position.
As a result, the team suffered.
Although that line lost a couple of players to graduation, this year’s line figures to improve because of two things — health and experience.
Jeff Spikes returns from an Achilles’ tendon injury that kept him on the sideline all season in 2010, and KU coach Turner Gill immediately slotted him into the left-tackle position, a spot most often reserved for a team’s top offensive lineman.
In addition to the return of Spikes, senior Jeremiah Hatch anchors the line at center and is surrounded by the experience of juniors Tanner Hawkinson, Trevor Marrongelli and Duane Zlatnik.
Together, KU’s top five offensive lineman have combined to start 96 games, which likely explains why Gill has said the first five have a slight advantage on the rest of the crew behind them.
Gill’s not the only one touting the experience of the O-line.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Spikes, who has 23 career starts. “And I’m not saying that just because it’s our team. If you just look at the experience we have and the athleticism, not even including myself, just the strength we have … we’re constantly working on strength, constantly working on technique.”
They’re also working on drive. Last year’s 3-9 season was an embarrassment for most on the KU team. That slip has inspired several returners to work even harder in the offseason, something that has benefited the offensive line greatly.
For all the talk about KU’s depth at running back and steady improvement at quarterback, it’s the five guys who line up in front of them who might determine how successful the Jayhawks’ offense will be in 2011.
Listed below is the Journal-World and KUsports.com’s look at the top five players at the position, a list that includes all five returners and a couple of newcomers as well.
Matt Tait’s list
Jeff Spikes: Three things landed him at the top: talent, hunger and mean streak.
Jeremiah Hatch: In the best shape of his career and ready to anchor O-line.
Tanner Hawkinson: So much experience and now back at a position (RT) that suits him better.
Duane Zlatnik: Could be the strongest guy on this team and getting stronger every day. Poised to follow up breakout 2010 with solid 2011.
Dylan Admire: Freshman with natural talent benefited greatly from graduating high school early and getting reps in spring ball.
Tom Keegan’s list
Jeremiah Hatch: He has shed weight, which means a return to form is in order.
Tanner Hawkinson: Still needs to sharpen run-blocking techniques.
Jeff Spikes: Smart guy and a physical monster, it’s time for him to put it all together.
Duane Zlatnik: Shake his hand and kiss your golf game goodbye. He’s that strong.
Bryan Peters: Incoming freshman was recruited by Boston College, an O-line factory, so that’s a good sign.
Jesse Newell’s list
Jeff Spikes: Move to left tackle indicates KU coaches trust him the most with their quarterback’s blind side.
Tanner Hawkinson: Reliable player only a junior, though it seems like he’s been at KU much longer.
Jeremiah Hatch: Provides stability at center; needs to keep his weight down to be most effective.
Trevor Marrongelli: Will be interesting to see how he responds after losing most of season to knee injury last year.
Duane Zlatnik: High school state wrestling champion has transitioned well from defense to offense.
Journal-World Consensus Top 5 Offensive Linemen
Five points awarded for first, four points for second, three points for third, two points for fourth and one point for fifth.
Jeff Spikes (13 points)
Jeremiah Hatch (12)
Tanner Hawkinson (11)
Duane Zlatnik (5)
Trevor Marrongelli (2)
Others receiving votes: Dylan Admire (1), Bryan Peters (1).