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.