[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]National Columnist Mike Farrell is here with the 3-Point Stance looking at offensive line tiers in the ACC, the best RB recruiting programs in recent years, and Group of Five running backs to keep an eye on.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]— I continue the love fest for offensive linemen with my look at the tiers in the ACC.
Elite: Notre Dame, NC State, Wake Forest
At this point, we can pretty much pencil the Fighting Irish in the elite tier every season and not worry about it. There's a very strong argument to be made that they're the strongest offensive line program in the country right now, and they continue to churn out talent for the NFL while dominating at the collegiate level. Despite losing Cain Madden, this year's group is probably stronger than last season's team. It starts with a healthy Blake Fisher, who started the season opener as a true freshman last season but suffered a knee injury. He recovered in time to start the bowl game, but now back at 100% health, he has the potential to be the best tackle since Ronnie Stanley for the Irish. He'll start on the right side while Joe Alt stays at left tackle, and he's one of the best in the business already. Andrew Kristofic is the incumbent at left guard but will be pushed by Rocco Spindler, while Jarret Patterson returns at center and Joshua Lugg at right guard. Every single guy who starts for this team has NFL upside - something you can say about very few lines in the nation.
How are the Wolfpack so high up on the list despite losing the best lineman in America from last season? To start, everyone else from their dominant line last season returns, most notably Bryson Speas, who will make the switch from right to left tackle this year. Center Grant Gibson is the best player left on the line, but he might be the best at his position in the conference. Chandler Zavala returns from injury but he was excellent before going down last season. Third-year players Dylan McMahon and Timothy McKay round out the right-hand side of the line and both players got a lot of experience last season. Another very strong group for Dave Doeren and company.
One of the reasons why Sam Hartman was able to be historically great for that program last season was because his line gave him so much protection, and things shouldn't change that much this year. While they lost standout left tackle Zach Tom, most of the rest of the line returns and there should be no problems keeping Hartman's journey clean. DeVonte Gordon flips from right tackle to take over as the blindside protector after a great redshirt freshman season starting on the right side. Sean Maginn, Michael Jurgens, and Loic Ngassam Nya all return in the middle and will continue to get better. The only question now is who takes over for Gordon at right tackle, and coming out of the spring it looks to be senior Je'Vionte' Nash, but it's still an open competition. Either way, he'll be playing next to some of the best in the conference and should be just fine.
Good but not Great: Clemson, Louisville, Miami, Pittsburgh
A lot of the problems that Clemson faced on offense in 2021 stemmed from poor offensive line play. So why are they in tier two? A combination of natural improvement from younger players and a new offensive line coach in Thomas Austin. Standout left tackle Jordan McFadden is back, and he's one of the best in college football on the blind side. Marcus Tate was thrown into the fire from the jump as a true freshman in 2021, starting eight games for the Tigers. With a full season now under his belt, he should be much improved in 2022. Will Putnam kicks down to center from guard, where he started for the majority of last year, and Dietrick Pennington has a tentative grip on his old position coming out of spring ball. Walker Parks also returns at right tackle, but one thing to watch will be the growth of 2021 five-star Tristan Leigh. He didn't get much run as a true freshman, but he's got huge upside.
Louisville brings back a considerable amount of talent on the offensive line, as they only have to replace one full-time starter from last year's unit. Bryan Hudson kicks down to center from right guard to take over for Cole Bentley, allowing Adonis Boone to take over full time at RG. Opposite Bentley, Caleb Chandler is one of the best guards in the conference. Trevor Reid was solid in his first year as a starter at left tackle, while Renato Brown stays on the right side. As a true freshman last year, swing tackle Michael Gonzalez got a lot of good experience and is a great safety blanket for the Cardinals. They're not super deep, but they're a very talented group at the top.
Getting Zion Nelson back for a fourth year was a coup for new head coach Mario Cristobal and line coach Alex Mirabal, as the all-conference tackle could have easily jumped to the NFL. He's a mountain of a man and a great anchor for the line. DJ Scaife was very good in 2021 at right guard and he's made the transition to right tackle seamlessly this spring and should be well above average there. Jakai Clark returns at center after an up-and-down 2021, but the third-year player looks poised for a breakout season. The guard spots are a little more up in the air, but Mirabal has praised Jalen Rivers and he seems to be a lock for one spot. Justice Oluwaseun finished spring as the starter on the right-hand side at guard, but he's going to be pushed in fall camp by two Oregon transfers who followed Cristobal and Mirabal from Oregon in Logan Sagapolu and Jonathan Denis. They've both got huge upside, and there's a good chance that by the end of the season they're in the elite tier.
Pitt is right on the cusp of being elite if their talent takes a step forward like they should this season. They bring back all five starter's from last season's record-setting offense. Carter Warren and Marcus Minor were both very solid last season on the left-hand side of the line, and they shouldn't have to adjust their protections too much this season, as new quarterback Kedon Slovis has a very similar skillset to Kenny Pickett. Gabe Huey and Jake Kradel make up the starters on the right-hand side, and both of those guys performed well in pass protection last season. Center Owen Drexel is the weakest link of the group, but he has plenty of experience to make up for what he lacks in physical dominance. Redshirt freshman b
That'll Do: Duke
In a pretty big upset, Duke is not in the bottom tier in these position group rankings, and frankly, it's the best unit on their team. They return four of five starters, and so while they didn't have tons of success last season, they have continuity under new coach Mike Elko, and if you look at the PFF grades, they did much better than most people would have anticipated. Left tackle Graham Barton is the best of the bunch, and he's a future NFL talent. Maurice McIntyre returns next to him at guard, with Jacob Monk at the other guard spot. John Gelotte split time with Carson Van Lynn at right tackle last season, but the job is all his now. The big issue for the Blue Devils is at center, where they need to replace three-year starter Jack Wohlabaugh. Addison Penn is first up, but there's an open competition there heading into fall camp.
Cross your fingers and pray: Florida State, Georgia Tech, Boston College, UNC, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech
As seems to be an annual tradition for the past half-decade plus, Florida State once again has issues on the offensive line. They return four guys who started last season, but none of them earned a PFF grade better than 67. To be fair, three of them - LT Robert Scott, C Maurice Smith, and RG Darius Washington - were all redshirt freshmen last season, so there is room for growth. But the early results are not promising. Starting LG Dillan Gibbons also returns for his final year of eligibility. The 'Noles brought in two transfers - Kayden Lyles (Wisconsin) and Bless Harris (Lamar) - to fill out the line, but there are a couple of red flags on both of them. Harris, who is slated to start at left tackle, wasn't even the full-time starter at FCS Lamar last season, and Lyles got beat in camp for a Wisconsin line that was not a vintage one last season.
Yet again, the Yellow Jackets will more likely than not struggle up front on offense. They were one of the worst lines in the ACC last season, and they have had to bring in a lot of players via the portal. The most notable of those is Pierce Quick, the former top-100 recruit from Alabama. He's slated to start at guard after being buried on the depth chart for the Crimson Tide. Georgia Tech has also hit the portal for kids who were recruited over at other powerhouse programs, as they brought in Paul Tchio (Clemson) and RJ Adams (Kentucky) to fill in gaps. The only returning starter from last year's squad is right tackle Jordan Williams, who struggled often in 2021. Sophomore Weston Franklin has the inside track to start at center, but there's definitely still an open competition heading into the fall, with RJ Adams his main opponent. A lot of question marks across the board for Geoff Collins and staff.
Another team with a ton of question marks in the trenches - at least on offense - is the UNC Tar Heels. They lost their top three linemen from last season's team, and what remains does not have a long history of performing well. Left tackle Asim Richards is the only returning starter, and he was the worst of the lot last season according to PFF. Ed Montilus moves into a full-time role at left guard after splitting time last season with Joshua Ezedudu, while fifth-year players Brian Anderson, Quiron Johnson, and William Barnes lead the two deep on the right-hand side at C, RG, and RT respectively. They added former Miami starter Corey Gaynor and all-Ivy League tackle Spencer Rolland from Harvard as well via the portal, and both of those guys could be immediate contributors
The Eagles lost a lot of talent off of last year's squad - not only first-rounder Zion Johnson, but also starters Alec Lindstrom, Ben Petrula, and Tyler Vrabel. They were set to return standout guard Christian Mahogany, but he recently tore his ACL, leaving zero starters from last season's squad. Jack Conley takes over full time at left tackle after he saw action due to injuries to Vrabel. Finn Dirstine has the task of taking over for Johnson at left guard, while redshirt freshman Drew Kendall came out of spring camp as the first-team center. The pair are very green - combining for a total of 37 snaps in their careers. Sophomore Ozzy Trapilo makes the transition from guard to right tackle, while the battle for Mahogany's spot is wide open. But there are a lot of unknowns with so little football having been played by this entire group.
It's been a long time since Syracuse had any real talent on the offensive line, and this year's team is no different. They bring back four starters from last season, but the group as a whole was very poor. Matthew Bergeron is the only above-average player here, but he's a very serviceable left tackle who is very intelligent and uses leverage well. Chris Bleich takes over full-time at one of the guard spots while Dakota Davis mans the other. Carlos Vetorello kicks in from right tackle to center, leaving Darius Tisdale at right tackle. Tisdale finished with the second worst pass blocking grade out of all power five linemen with more than 400 snaps last season. It's going to be another long season for whoever ends up taking snaps for the Orange.
If Virginia's offense struggles this season, it's because their offensive line has been decimated since last season. Not only did they lose their best lineman to Michigan via the portal when Olusegun Oluwatimi opted to transfer, but all four other starters graduated. The Hoos have as little experience at the position as anyone in the nation. Three redshirt freshmen - LT Logan Taylor, C Ty Furnish, and RG Noah Josey, are all listed atop their post-spring depth chart, and they have a combined 31 career snaps to their name. Right tackle Jonathan Leech at least got a little bit of run last season, but Derek Devine hasn't seen any action in his first four years on campus. They are not in great shape here heading into the season.
Another team that brings back very little talent on the offensive line is Virginia Tech, and first-year coach Brent Pry has his work cut out for him. The Hokies lost their top four linemen from last season in terms of total snaps and will need to do a lot of work to get this group up to speed. Let's start with the good though, as Parker Clements returns for his sophomore season after a great true freshman year in 2021, where he took over midway through the season at right tackle and started the rest of the way, holding up well against ACC competition. Silas Dzansi has been used as a swing offensive lineman, but he looks set to take over full time at left tackle, while next to him, redshirt sophomore Jesse Hanson gets the first crack at guard. Sophomore Kaden Moore, who didn't see any action in 2021 came out of spring ball as the first-string right guard. Finally, Johnny Jordan returns as the full-time center after splitting time last season at both center and guard. There's definitely a world in which this unit is at least average, but probably not one where they're considered very good.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]— Tuesday I did the best QB recruiting programs in recent years and UGA wasn’t on it. But they lead this RB list. This includes the transfer portal as well.
Tough call between the Dawgs and Alabama but I give UGA the slight edge here from Todd Gurley to Nick Chubb to Sony Michel to D’Andre Swift. Kendall Milton is the next great one.
Derrick Henry is the best running back that will be mentioned here and they’ve done great with Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs and many others. Maybe a 1B is in order.
3. Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott is a ways back but we can’t forget how dominant he was and the Buckeyes continue to win huge recruiting battles on the road for running backs with Treyveon Henderson the latest.
Some might say Penn State here as the second best in Big Ten and they can make a good case but Hassan Haskins, Blake Corunna, and Donovan Edwards give the Wolverines the nod.
Leonard Fournette was an in-state kid but everyone wanted him and players like John Emery and Noah Cain (transfer) were big recruiting wins out of high school and the portal.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]— And finally these are five Group of Five running backs to watch this season.
1. Lew Nichols, Central Michigan
Nichols led the NCAA in rushing last season with more than 1,800 yards and is still not known.
2. Rasheen Ali, Marshall
He had more than 1,400 yards last season and the offense will be even more dangerous.
3. DeWayne McBride, UAB
His 1,300+ yards last season were a big part of why UAB was 9-4 last season. He also averaged 6.7 yards a carry.
4. Keaton Mitchell, East Carolina
His 6.5 yards per carry translates to a possible 1,500-yard season this year.
5. Brad Roberts, Air Force
Roberts is the engine that makes the Air Force offense go and makes the scary.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]