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Questions remain, but KU's offensive line starting to take shape
By now, you've surely heard KU football coach Charlie Weis and offensive line coach John Reagan say — on separate occasions — that they have eight offensive linemen that they feel pretty good about at this point in the spring.
With five spots making up an O-line that means the Jayhawks are potentially set with a starter and a back-up at three spots and looking for help at two others.
One of the most important things to remember about KU's new-look offensive line under John Reagan is prototypes need not apply. Sure, Reagan would love to have a 6-foot-6, 340-pound left tackle who moves like a middle linebacker and wreaks havoc like the Incredible Hulk, but that guy is not on the roster. So there's no point in worrying about him.
Reagan's focus is on finding the five best linemen and then finding a way to make them work together up front to protect the quarterback and open holes for the guys in the backfield. If that means they're undersized at one spot or another, Reagan likely won't lose too much sleep over it because his goal is to put the best five guys out there and I can't see him letting anything change that.
With that in mind, let's dive into the math and use a little logic to predict what things might look like as the KU offensive line heads into the final third of spring practice.
Here's a quick guess, in alphabetical order, at the identity of the eight guys Weis and Reagan were talking about followed by how they might fit into the plans:
Brian Beckmann — 6-6, 300-pound Sophomore, Overland Park
Zach Fondal — 6-5, 295-pound Senior, Navarro College
Ngalu Fusimalohi — 6-2, 315-pound Senior, CCSF
Joe Gibson — 6-3, 295-pound RS-Freshman, Rockhurst
Keyon Haughton — 6-2, 300-pound Junior, Georgia Military College
Pat Lewandowski — 6-5, 290-pound Senior, Overland Park
Damon Martin — 6-3, 305-pound Junior, Arlington, Texas
Mike Smithburg — 6-3, 305-pound Senior, Iowa Western
Left Tackle —
This still seems to be a question mark (perhaps the biggest question mark on the team) but it's not necessarily because of a lack of bodies. Fondal and Lewandowski both spent time at left tackle in 2013, but that might not necessarily be a good thing given the struggles KU's O-Line endured last season. It makes sense to suggest and expect that both guys have improved a great deal in the offseason, both in terms of getting stronger and into better physical shape and in terms of their comfort and familiarity with the position. Both were going through things as front-line guys for the first time and although both have good size and athleticism, they definitely need to be more consistent to make a difference at one of the team's most important positions.
Left Guard —
Weis said early this spring that Fusimalohi had emerged as a leader on the line, most likely as one of those lead-by-example-and-raw-energy kind of guys. So it's safe to assume he'll be pencilled into the same spot where he started 12 games a season ago. It seems they may still be searching for Fusimalohi's back-up, but junior Bryan Peters is a name to keep an eye on there. He doesn't have any game experience but he has been in the program for a few years and could be ready to play a role.
In addition to being one of the O-line's most important positions, center is also one of the most intriguing. With two guys with next to no experience battling for playing time, it could come down to whichever guy shows more consistency, even if one of them is a better physical or mental option. The candidates appear to be Gibson, the former walk-on whom former line coach Tim Grunhard and several teammates have talked up quite a bit during the past six months, and juco transfer Haughton, who arrived in January and so impressed Weis early on that the KU coach openly said the young man would play a lot and we'd be writing about him. There might not be two guys on this team who spring ball is more important to.
Right Guard —
Smithburg, who started eight games at right guard in 2013, returns a year old, wiser and stronger and seems to be a likely choice to settle back into this spot for his senior season. Earlier this week I talked to Smithburg about this spring compared to last and although he said it was “just another spring,” he also said it felt weird being considered one of the leaders because of age alone. That's not to say he's not ready for the role. Smithburg's a no-nonsense kind of guy who doesn't mind mixing it up and should be much more comfortable in his role now that he has a full year — on the field and in the weight room — under his belt.
Right Tackle —
Martin is one of the more intriguing prospects at this position and he could be a diamond in the rough waiting to be unleashed. Weis said a couple of weeks ago that if Martin was not the team's starting right guard he'd be the team's starting right tackle. Provided the junior from Arlington, Texas, hasn't done anything to back Weis off of that stance, I like him at tackle because of the strength of KU's other guards and Martin's physical strength. Beckmann's young, but he's physical and athletic and might be ready to slide into a back-up role.
Others to remember —
Although they're not here for spring ball, the Jayhawks have a handful of offensive linemen coming this summer who could provide instant depth and seem to have bright futures. They are: Devon Williams — 6-4, 340-pound Junior, Georgia Military College; Apa Visinia — 6-4, 380-pound Freshman, Grandview, Mo.; and Jacob Bragg — 6-4, 305-pound Freshman, Naogdoches, Texas.