Let me start this preview by saying this, in my opinion, this is the position group most critical to the Gopher's success in 2009. The running game needs to be better, the passing game needs to be more diverse and the defense needs to improve but if the OL is as bad as it was in 2008 we will be in serious trouble.
I've mentioned this in the past but the often used criticism of Adam Weber is his knack for locking on to a receiver and throwing only to that receiver. But I have argued for a while that Weber was rarely given the time necessary to check down to even a second receiver before he was sacked or flushed from the pocket. After being sacked just 13 times in 2007, Weber was put on his back 31 times during the 2008 season where he threw fewer passes. On a percentage basis Weber was sacked 2.9% of his attempts in 2007 and 7.5% of his 2008 attempts! If you want a successful and multi-dimensional passing game you absolutely need to give your QB more time to find the open man.
And did I mention that the rushing attack was easily the worst in the Big Ten? In this case the status quo was not going to be enough, so changes were made for 2009. Changes that hopefully will make a significant difference as we try need to give Weber more time and we need to open some holes for whoever is carrying the ball.
The first addition to the new offensive line will be Matt Carufel. The former CDH player who went to Notre Dame then transferred back to Minnesota is finally eligible. It appears as though Carufel will lock down the RG position giving us some stability there that we did not see last season with what seemed to be a new starter every week. During the Northwestern game in particular I watched this position closely. The starter that day was DJ Burris and he struggled, allowing his man to put pressure on Weber play after play. Hopefully Carafel will anchor this position and by some accounts he may be the best player we have along the offensive line.
If Carufel is the first major change the biggest change will likely be starting at RT. The massive JUCO transfer, Jeff Wills, should be anchoring the rest of the right side of the line. As mentioned Wills is huge. Coming into the program at 6 foot 7 inches and 375 pounds, the junior just by sheer force should be the kind of player Brewster was looking for to add some physicality to the O-line. 375 is really big and I would hope that he'll be playing at slightly less than that as he'll have to keep often quick LE's from getting around the corner to pressure Weber. But he should be an all-star in the run game.
So we have the first change, the biggest change and now I come to the most surprising change. During the practices between the end of the season and the Insight Bowl it was announced that Matt Stommes is moving from the defensive line to starting at LT. This has worked in the past for the Gophers when Matt Anderle moved from the DL to the OL and was eventually drafted in the 6th round. Not that Anderle's success should have anything to do with Stommes but it isn't completely unheard of to make a move like this in college football.
I believe that we have both tackles and RG somewhat set as we head into the season, but who starts at C and LG is up for debate.
At center I'm going to make the early assumption that sophomore-Trey Davis will be the starter. Davis was one of just two players who started in the same position for the final three games of the season, including the Insight Bowl. After a solid freshman season I hope that Davis has taken the early experience as a positive learning experience and hopefully he's ready to take a big step forward for his sophomore year.
This position, however is not a lock and it very easily could be Jeff Tow-Arnett who started most of the games last season. JTA is the senior and has started 11 games over the last two seasons (3 in 2007 and 8 in 2008). JTA is also coming off a season where he was battling a knee injury so hopefully offseason surgery will have him healthy and strong heading into camp in August.
Left Guard is even more wide open and who will be the starter is anyone's guess. For the purposes of this preview my guess is going to be Ned Tevale. There has been a LOT of talk this offseason about becoming a more physical rushing team. So I'm picking Tevale because he started the final three games of the year at guard and because he is a big and physical lineman. The 320 lb senior has made 27 starts over his three year career and should get every opportunity to start game one.
So my unofficial starting lineup along the line would look like this...
Once again, I should note that there is no official depth chart that has been release, but based on what I've heard and read, as well as making some logical guesses I think this will be pretty close to the Syracuse starting line.
Those next in line...
There will be more depth and added competition for the starting spots this year. Here are the guys most likely to earn some PT should one of the others mentioned fail to live up to expectations.
Dom Alford - appeared in 20 games and has started 10 over his two year career. Alford was supposed to be a fixture at tackle last year but an ankle sprain early in the season slowed him for at least part of the year. Of the players listed in this section Alford is the most likely to step up and earn a starting spot. He's big, experienced and has shown signs of being rather good. At the very least he is a very good backup to both tackles.
Jeff Tow-Arnett - already discussed above and most likely the back up at center.
DJ Burris - 20 starts in 24 appearances over the last two years. Burris has also been a regular fixture on the OL and similar to Alford, he's the most likely candidate to earn that starting spot at LG if Tevale doesn't run away with it.
Ryan Wynn - Started 13 games last year as a redshirt freshman, so it may be hard to believe that he won't start this year. I could easily be wrong but I am projecting Wynn as a versatile back-up. I've heard, but not confirmed that Wynn will be in the mix at center this year meaning he'll be capable of playing any position along the line.
Ryan Orton - made six starts in his freshman year and is another good, young lineman. Orton could also become a starter as he started at LG five of the final six games in 2008.
Chris Bunders - also versatile as he contributed at tackle and guard last year as part of the rotation. The Big sophomore will surely be in the mix again this year
If you are looking for a 2-deep depth chart I would take a wild guess at something like this.
Overall this unit is more experience and more talented. That should equate to a more successful season and it really has to. This group needs to keep Weber's sack total to under 25 and they need to gain at least another 30 yards per game on the ground (I'd like to see 50 but I'm getting greedy).