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KU offense rich with skill, but will the blocks be there?

The Buffalo Bills mid-to-late ’70’s offensive line known as The Electric Company didn’t make O.J. Simpson famous. O.J. made the men in front of him famous.

Quick, decisive, creative quarterbacks and running backs make blockers look better to the extent players constantly referred to as underrated sometimes can become overrated.

Nevertheless, now that the receiving corps has been upgraded, offensive line is the unit about which there is most cause for concern on the 2013 Kansas football roster.

More than 100 career starts are gone with the departures of Tanner Hawkinson, Duane Zlatnik and Trevor Marrongelli. Given that, is it realistic to expect that the same blocks that were there a year ago for James Sims and company will there this fall?

“I think, to be honest with you, in a couple of cases, we should improve in run-blocking,” second-year head coach Charlie Weis said. “I’m not going to get into particulars right there, but your view of how they run-block and my view of how they run-block isn’t exactly the same.”

That’s a relief, considering I’m a ball-watcher and don’t have the binoculars on the guys who start games with misshaped knuckles and finish them with swollen, misshaped knuckles.

Still, considering Hawkinson was drafted in the fifth round, Zlatnik was a main-stay strong man and Marrongelli brought so much experience, replacing them presents a tough challenge.

“I think that a couple of guys who are involved there now, that is their forte,” Weis said. “Their forte is run-blocking. I think that there’s a chance in a couple of cases that we could actually improve.”

As is the case with just about every unit on the team, Weis will rely on junior college recruits to protect the quarterback and pave the way for the talented running backs.

Moving from left to right, a look at the battles expected to be waged during summer camp:

At left tackle, Pat Lewandowski and Riley Spencer, neither of whom has started a game in college, compete for the starting spot. Lewandowski, a converted defensive lineman, is in his second season as an O-lineman. His quick feet grabbed the attention of Weis. He stands 6-foot-5-1/2 and weighs 287. Spencer, 6-6, 302, has more experience at the position but missed the final 11 games of last season with an injury.

At left guard, juco recruit Ngalu Fusimalohi will be pushed by third-year sophomore Damon Martin, who made one start a year ago. Martin has a reputation for being assignment-sound, but could bring a little more fire. Fusimalohi likely is one of the players Weis referenced when he talked about run-blocking being his forte. More than one player told me Fusimalohi is the nastiest football player on the team. Reading between the lines of what Weis said about last year’s O-line it was easy to infer that the coach wanted a meaner bunch in his second season.

At center, Weis has options. Juco transfer Mike Smithburg showed a nasty edge during spring practice, but his snaps in the spring game weren’t the smoothest. If he can iron those wrinkles, he has a strong shot to win the job. If not, he’ll compete for snaps at guard.

Sophomore Dylan Admire, is a bit short on size, but long on smarts. Brains come in handy at center, unless Admire is one of those super-intelligent athletes who think too much and suffer from paralysis through analysis. Gavin Howard brings smarts, but lacks stamina and isn’t exceptionally quick or strong. Howard also has experience at guard and tackle.

Senior Randall Dent made 10 starts at right guard and encountered mixed results, which isn’t necessarily discouraging considering his lack of experience. It’s not a stretch to project more consistency this season from the strong man whose forte is run-blocking.

Senior Aslam Sterling, who reshaped his body and shed more than 60 pounds since arriving at KU last summer, projects as the starter at right tackle. He had enough talent that even though he was way out of shape and was juggling heavier academic requirements, tougher practices and learning a complex new offense, he was given eight starts, six at right tackle, two at right guard. Red-shirt freshman Brian Beckmann, 6-6, 298, showed enough during the spring that Weis put him second on the depth chart at right tackle.

Better conditioning and more experience should make the right side of the line better than it was a year ago. If one of the candidates at left tackle can emerge in a big way, that would be huge. Listening to Weis talk about Lewandowski’s athleticism is a bit reminiscent of the way Mark Mangino talked about Hawkinson when he moved him from defensive end to left tackle.

Spencer? I remember former KU O-lineman David Lawrence, now a KU broadcaster/Free State High freshman football coach, watching film of Spencer on signing day and coming away from it impressed with his feet. Spencer opened Weis’ eyes during the spring.

If neither Lewandowski nor Spencer takes a big step this summer, the sleeper for protecting the blind side of Jake Heaps is juco recruit Zach Fondal, who turned down Arkansas, Texas Tech and South Florida to sign with Kansas. He will trail Lewandowski and Spencer in terms of knowledge of the offense and conditioning, but if he’s talented enough, Weis will want him on the field sooner than later.

High school recruit Joey Bloomfield, 6-6, 305, of Louisville shapes up as a likely candidate for a red-shirt year.

Comments

David Leathers 1 year, 6 months ago

I was just talking to a friend about this same matter just the other day. Although we lost some veterans that were rich with experience, I feel that with our coaching staff and the talent that has been brought in, we should still keep the ball moving as good, if not better, than last season.

Aslam Sterling has shown his determination on becoming an anchor on the right side by dropping the unnecessary weight that he carried last season. I feel that he will be a solid presence all season. Charlie Weis has been a man of his word since he arrived on campus last winter, so I see no reason not to believe him when he says that they could be a better run blocking unit.

All I know is that it is going to be an interesting season, and although fans are skeptical of drinking the same glass of Kool-Aid they drank last year, there is still reason for optimism. I can't wait!

ROCK CHALK!!

flloyd 1 year, 6 months ago

"...we should still keep the ball moving as good, if not better, than last season."

Is this an April fool's joke?

Tom Keegan 1 year, 6 months ago

I think he probably meant on the ground, which would be a good thing. Obviously, the passing game has to be way, way better than a year ago and there is reason to believe it will be much better.

Randy Bombardier 1 year, 6 months ago

Even if there is a drop off on the performance of the O-line if our passing game picks up I think at worst we have a push in our ability to run. With a better passing game this gives us a plus in overall offensive capability. If in fact our D is better I believe we will win all of our non-conference games and two or three conference games. Should be a good step forward.

rockchalk_dpu 1 year, 6 months ago

That was my first thought reading this article. If we have an improved passing game, the run blocking might not have to be as good as it was in past years becuase defenses won't be able to stack the line and plan only for the run game.

That being said, and based solely on my gut, I believe that Sims will match or better his yardage total from last season, but do it on fewer carries because of a better balance in the offense. I think his carries will be more explosive because he won't be getting the ball on each down, and he won't be taking as many hits as he did last season so he'll be fresher as the game and season goes on.

fearthephog512 1 year, 6 months ago

Agreed, however, an improved passing game will be partially contingent on the ability of the line to effectively pass block, which was a problem spot last year. Granted, Heaps appears to have a much more accurate arm with a quicker release, so hopefully we can sync that up with our receivers. Regardless, I can't wait to see this team grow and perform, and this young line will be of particular interest. Rock Chalk!

JJHawq 1 year, 6 months ago

Great analysis Tom - THANKS!! Very good stuff!

hawk316 1 year, 6 months ago

JJ, I totally agree. Those readers who seem to be incessantly on Keegan's case - often unfairly so, in my opinion - need also to have the courtesy to compliment him on a job well done (and some do, I realize).

As many certainly understand, it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a team to experience success on the football field without a solid offensive line. Let's hope this team is blessed in that area.

KGphoto 1 year, 6 months ago

Either Martin or Fusimaholi should move to RG. Probably Martin. They seem to be the two best interior lineman, and if you want to play your best players...

Dirk Medema 1 year, 6 months ago

Howard or Smithburg (the non-OC) will be over there.

KGphoto 1 year, 6 months ago

May the best man win. Love this competition.

Tom Keegan 1 year, 6 months ago

I'm thinking Howard is definitely a backup and Dent will stay ahead of him on the depth chart. My guess: Two of these three will be starters: Fusimaholi, Dent, Martin.

Dirk Medema 1 year, 6 months ago

Recruited as a TE, but had made a switch to DE before ending at LT, so both are accurate.

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