Put it on the line: Coaches like look of offensive front

Kansas University’s offensive line — in this case, Jeff SPikes (74), Brad Thorson (76), Sal Capra (59) and Jeremiah Hatch (77) — try to get running back Toben Opurum, center, into the end zone against Texas Tech. All those front-liners return, giving the KU coaching staff high hopes for the unit heading into the fall.

About this series: This is the first in a series of previews of Kansas University’s football team by position. The series will run Wednesdays and Sundays in the Journal-World and on KUsports.com. Coming Sunday: defensive line

Some coaches like size, some like speed and others like quickness.

KU football assistant coach J.B. Grimes works with the offensive line during practice in this file photo from spring drills on April 19.

Kansas University offensive line coach J.B. Grimes prefers intelligence and toughness, at least when it comes to his leaders.

That’s just one reason Grimes, about to enter his first season with the Jayhawks under new head coach Turner Gill, has taken a special liking to returning starters Sal Capra, 6-foot-2, 295 pounds, and Brad Thorson, 6-5, 310.

“Both those guys are really, really smart guys, really tough guys,” Grimes told the Journal-World during a summer breakdown of the position. “You love that combination of character and toughness that goes with those two guys. Brad’s probably a little more vocal than Sal. Sal’s a quiet guy, but when he says something, people listen.”

In many ways, Capra and Thorson — who reportedly broke his foot last week but is expected to return by the start of the season — best embody what this year’s offensive line is all about. Both have logged extensive playing time during their time at Kansas — the two have 24 career starts between them — and both are no-nonsense, team-first guys. The second part of that equation bodes well for them to fit into Gill’s way of doing things. But the first part, well, that’s the part that has Grimes, the rest of the KU coaching staff and even a few national pundits predicting big things for the Jayhawks in 2010.

“There is no substitute for experience,” Grimes said. “You can’t do without it, and there’s only one way to get it. And we’ve got some guys who have played the game quite a bit at the University of Kansas. To have those guys and to know that when they first run out onto that field they’re not going to have a wide-eyed look and they’ll be looking around and knowing what they’re doing, that’s really a comforting feeling.”

Grimes’ comfort with his new hogs does not stop with their experience.

Grimes believes sophomore Tanner Hawkinson is a marquee player.

“I think he’s got an NFL body and all that,” Grimes said. “He’s just a guy that has to get in that weight room and get himself stronger. We’re like that pretty much across the board. We’ve got to get these guys where they’re content with knocking people off the football.”

That skill would be especially useful for juniors Jeff Spikes (6-6, 325) and Jeremiah Hatch (6-6, 332), mountains of men who, under the old regime, appeared to be more comfortable in pass-blocking schemes. According to Grimes, that wasn’t their fault.

“I think this group is probably a little bit ahead of schedule from a pass-blocking standpoint,” Grimes said. “Obviously, that kind of makes sense when you look at how they threw the ball as many times as they did a year ago. Some of that has to do with the physicality. You always have to throw the football, we all know that. What we’ve also got to do is be able to run the football. We can’t just throw young quarterbacks on the field and throw it every down. So we’ve got to develop that mentality to be able to run the ball, and I think we will because they’re smart, and they’re tough guys.”

Behind the first tier, which includes part-time starter Trevor Marrongelli, 6-2, 293, Grimes believes the Jayhawks have plenty of young talent on the O-line. Included in that group are sophomore Duane Zlatnik, 6-4, 326, and red-shirt freshmen Riley Spencer, 6-7, 300, and Gavin Howard, 6-5, 292.

“We’ve got some young guys who have a chance,” Grimes said. “They just need more time. They need to be put in the oven and baked a little while longer. But they’re going to be fine. I think Duane Zlatnik is an outstanding prospect. He’s just not there yet from a comfort-level standpoint. Riley Spencer is a really outstanding talent, and I like Gavin Howard. I think he’s got a chance to be a good player down the line. The great thing about it is, those guys are all young guys.”

Young or not, many of them likely will be thrust into action this fall.

“I think we have six, seven guys we feel pretty good about at this point in time,” Gill said near the end of spring drills. “I’d like to have eight guys on the offensive line that we feel very strong about.”

Added Grimes: “We feel like we’ve got some guys we can win with right now. We’re fairly athletic up front, and that’s something I’ve always liked to have. I don’t like them to necessarily be the biggest guys in the world. If they’re tough enough and smart enough, you’ve got a chance to put a good unit out on the field.”

The Jayhawks report to fall camp Aug. 3.