Center Reese Dismukes will miss at least one game due to a suspension. Will his fellow offensive linemen be able to pick up the slack? (Todd Van Emst photo)
Everyone agrees that 2010 was a magical season, right? Can we all agree on that? Good. Now, while the media likes to say that it was all Cam Newton -- Mr. Swagnificent did post one of the single greatest seasons of any individual in history -- it is important for Auburn fans to remember that football is, in fact, a team sport. Shocking revelation, we know. Would Newton have broken records without Darvin Adams catching passes? No. Would he have broken records without superb play from an experienced offensive line? Hell no. Taking nothing away from the Icon, but it was the O-line that bulldozed the offense to new heights. They gave Newton time to sit back and find Adams streaking down the right hash after a brilliant double move to toast South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore. They provided the push and opened holes for Newton to run through. Similarly, this year's version of the Auburn Tigers will be defined, offensively, by the play of the line.
As fans, we love to watch the skill players. After all, they are the ones who make all the flashy plays and have the ball in their hands. However, those guys can't do what they do without the big uglies up front doing what they do. The O-line isn't a sexy position, but its success is what allows the offense to flourish.
This year's offensive line is going to be an inexperienced but talented group. Coach Jeff Grimes will finally have depth in numbers to establish a full two-deep -- gasp! -- at each position along the line. You might remember reading something about the enormous haul of talented offensive linemen in last year's recruiting class. How many of those will be counted on to play a significant role? This may be Coach Grimes most talented group of linemen. The only problem is that they do not have much experience playing together.
At a minimum, the Tigers must replace their left tackle and a guard. Dismukes may have been the only one who entered fall camp with his position completely locked down, and that now appears to be in jeopardy, at least temporarily. A week ago, predicting who would take the field for the first snap against Clemson is something that I am not sure even the great Danny Sheridan could have done with any certainty. Lucky for us, Gene Chizik felt it necessary to announce the two-deep for the O-line on Saturday night. This is the rotation you should see against Clemson.
First Team (L-R): Greg Robinson, John Sullen, Tunde Fariyike*, Chad Slade, Avery Young
Second Team (L-R): Shon Coleman, Alex Kozan, John Sullen*, Christian Westerman, Patrick Miller
* Dismukes would almost certainly be the starter had he not lost his damn mind and gotten arrested less than two weeks before the season starts.
One thing that sticks out immediately is the amount of freshmen in the two-deep. Sure they're talented, but with just one senior in the group, this will be one of the biggest tests of how good Grimes is. While he can choose to go two-deep across the board, he may elect to redshirt a few of the freshmen and designate a few core players who are versatile enough to play any position along the line. Slade has seen work at both the right tackle and guard positions. Diamond and Miller have practiced at guard and tackle, while Callahan has even gotten work at center.
Some observers have noted that Robinson was ready to compete in the SEC last year. The redshirt year allowed him to improve his technique and get stronger. He's big and extremely athletic. He has excellent footwork that allows him to stay in front of speed rushers off the end and has a strong punch with his hands to stand up a bull rush and gain leverage. Wearing No. 73, he may remind some of you of another 73, Marcus McNeil. McNeil was pretty good wearing orange and blue. There is hope that Robinson can prove to be just as dominant.
A freshman who was reportedly making a strong push for significant playing time is Avery Young at the right tackle position. It appears he's earned the starting spot, at least for the opener. He is another athletic tackle with good reach. He's been impressive this fall with his length and ability to pick up the schemes. He reported in better shape than expected and his strong performance in fall camp has forced the coaches to play him early.
Kozan didn't come in as the biggest, probably not the strongest, and not the most highly touted of the incoming freshmen. What he has done, though, is pick up the blocking schemes quickly and exhibit a nasty streak that has impressed the coaches to this point. That work ethic has likely earned him some playing time at one of the guard positions. He still needs to get stronger, but for now, he can rely on technique and knowledge of the blocking schemes to be productive.
It is great to see Shon Coleman in the two deep. After signing with Auburn two years ago as a five-star recruit out of Olive Branch, Miss., Coleman has not seen the field. That's not due to talent, drive, or ability to pick up schemes, but due to his health. If you're an avid Auburn fan, you know his story. He has fought hard against leukemia, and it's been a long recovery. But, he's been cleared to play, and it is evident by his inclusion in the two-deep that he's making strides toward reaching his goal. No matter what, after all he has overcome, when he suits up on Saturday and runs out of that tunnel, he's won.
It's possible that throughout the course of the Clemson game you may see Grimes employ a couple of different combinations along the line. This would serve to keep linemen fresh and get real game experience for the plethora of young talent on the roster.
The arrest of Dismukes this close to the start of the season is definitely a huge blow to the continuity of the line. He was a freshman All-American last year and expected to be a leader on the line this season. Considering the timing of the incident, don't be surprised if he is sidelined for multiple games. Fariyike had been working behind him this fall and looks to be in line to benefit from Dismukes' foolish mistake. Callahan and Sullen have also seen time in practice at the center position as Grimes likes to cross train his players for flexibility.
The offensive success of the Tigers in 2012 will be greatly influenced by how well the O-line plays. The young talent will have to pull together and gel quickly. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler wants to run the ball with authority, and that starts with a push up front. Running backs can only be as good as their blocking allows them to be. The same will be true for the success of Kiehl Frazier, the newly minted starting quarterback. The line must give him time to make his reads and find the open receiver.
We're going to use the dreaded "P" word here. Considering the amount of talent on the line, the potential for how good they can be is extremely high. However, potential can only carry you so far. How fast the linemen are able to gel together, how fast can they get the blocking schemes and assignments down, and how fast will they develop proper technique are all factors that will lead to answering the biggest question of all. Can this group reach their potential? They will need to answer those questions soon as the season schedule starts with a bang and it won't get any easier in the SEC West division.
Auburn's offensive line gets a "C+" rating to start the season, but it could be an "A" by the end of the year.