Thursday, August 03, 2006

2006 Opponent Preview - Tight Ends/Offensive Lines | by Pat

We've looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. Now we move onto the players who block for them (and sometimes catch a pass or two). A bit of a change from past previews here as I'll include the Phil Steele ranking -- when applicable -- in the intial team summary for the offensive linemen rather than at the end. I'll keep the Steele ranking for the tight ends in the summary rankings at the end. The offensive line is kind of a hard position to preview, so if you know anything more about the guys being mentioned, please chime in.


TE - George Cooper.
8 receptions, 92 yards, 1 TD. Returning starter.

George Cooper moved into the starting lineup halfway through last season and had his best two performances in Tech's final two games. More of a receiving tight end than a blocking one, Cooper is still pretty big at 6-5, 260 pounds. If he continues to earn the trust of Reggie Ball, he could be a threat in the passing game. Depth: Likely splitting time with Cooper will be senior Michael Matthews. Having moved from defensive end to fullback to tight end, Matthews is more of a blocker and is usually brought in for two-tight end sets.

LT - Andrew Gardner. Returning starter.
LG - Matt Rhodes. Returning starter.
C - Kevin Tuminello. Returning starter.
RG - Nate McManus. Returning starter.
RT - Mansfield Wrotto. New starter.

Last year the Tech line led the ACC in fewest sacks allowed with 10. Andrew Gardner started every game at left tackle and was named a 1st Team Freshman All-America. Coming into his redshirt sophomore year, he should be a very capable left tackle. Matt Rhodes will be entering his third year as a starter while Kevin Tuminello returns for his second year as a full time starter. Also in his second year as a starter is Nate McManus, who can also spell Tuminello at center if need be. Calling Mansfield Wrotto (right) a new starter is a bit of a misnomer as he's actually a three year starter at defensive tackle who has been switched to right tackle for his final year. Big and strong, Wrotto might also be used at guard if tackle doesn't work out. Depth: The backups are generally untested sophomores, with Jacob Lonowski a top sub at either tackle or guard.


TE - Patrick Hall.
2 receptions, 6 yards, 2 TDs. New starter.

Senior Patrick Hall played quarterback and inside linebacker in high school, was shifted to outside linebacker, then fullback, then defensive end at PSU before finally landing at tight end. He had a pretty efficient stat line (2 catches, 2 TDs) from last year and should see his numbers grow now that he is the new starter. At 6-2, 250 pounds, Hall is solid at both blocking and catching passes and his QB background will probably help him be effective in Nittany Lion offense. Depth: Jordan Lyons is a former QB that most likely will be used as a receiver when he's out on the field.

LT - Levi Brown. (#3 T) Returning starter.
LG - Gerald Cadogan. New starter.
C - A.Q. Shipley. New starter.
RG - Robert Price. New starter.
RT - John Shaw. New starter.

Levi Brown (left) is one of the top tackles in the country and probably the best the Irish will face this season. Massive at 6-5, 328 pounds, Brown will be a force on running and passing plays. The rest of the line is a big question mark. There are four new starters with only one collegiate start to their name. Robert Price started the first game last year, but lost his job by the second. Both A.Q. Shipley and John Shaw finished up last season practicing at defensive tackle, so they also are without the benefit of getting reps at offensive line last year. Shaw in particular is the biggest question mark on this young line. Depth: If Price loses his starting gig again, sophomore Greg Harrison will probably be the guy to take it.


TE - Tyler Ecker.
21 receptions, 285 yards, 2 TDs. Returning starter.

Tyler Ecker saw a lot of time last year as Michigan runs plenty of two tight end sets. He also notched a few number of starts when Tim Massaquoi was out with injury. Comfortable both blocking and receiving, Ecker is a versatile tight end who will see plenty of passes thrown his way. One third of all his 2005 receptions came against Notre Dame. Depth: Mike Massey isn't that big at 240 pounds and for now is more useful as a receiving tight end than a blocker. If he can improve his blocking and overall strength, he'll make a solid #2 TE for Michigan. If not, Brian Thompson is a darkhorse candidate to make a rise up the depth charts over Massey and current third-stringer Carson Butler.

LT - Jake Long. (#7 T) Returning starter.
LG - Adam Kraus. (#30 G) New starter.
C - Mark Bihl. (#16 C) Returning starter.
RG - Rueben Riley. (#16 G) New starter.
RT - Mike Kolodziej. (#44 T) New starter.

The normally solid Wolverine OL is in a bit of a transition year in 2006. It seems that all starting spots are still up for grabs and fall camp will determine which five actually get the starting nod. Jake Long is probably set as the left tackle and if he can stay healthy, he should finally have the big year Michigan fans expect out of him. Mark Bihl (left) took over the starting center job towards the end of last season and while he only started four games, he did play in big matchups like the Ohio State game and the bowl game against Nebraska. The other players are listed as new starters, but that's technically not the case as all do have starting experience from last year -- but it was a game here, a game there, and not always at the position they likely will be manning this season. Rueben Riley started 8 games last year, but 7 were at right tackle and 1 was at left guard. So, the starting five won't be totally new to starting, but they also won't be used to playing in this particular configuration either. Depth: Versatile Alex Mitchell will fight in fall camp for a starting spot along the right side of the line with redshirt freshman Mark Ortmann and Jeremy Cuilla adding more depth. Star OL recruit Steve Schilling might see action, but it's always hard for a freshman offensive lineman to crack the rotation early in the season.


TE - Kellen Davis.
15 receptions, 122 yards, 2 TDs. New Starter.

Kellen Davis will move into the starting tight end spot with the departure of last year's starter, Kyle Brown. Utilized as a receiver more than a blocker, Davis will need to fine tune his blocking now that he is the starter. He has enough speed to be dangerous running routes and is a tough player. ND fans might remember him holding onto a Drew Stanton pass and scoring a touchdown last year against the Irish while being knocked unconscious by Chinedum Nduwke. Depth: Dwayne Holmes is clearly a blocking tight end at 6-0, 275 pounds. When he's in, look out for the run.

LT - Mike Gyetvai. (#56 T) Returning starter.
LG - Kyle Cook. (#53 G) Returning starter.
C - John Masters. New starter.
RG - Roland Martin. New starter.
RT - Jesse Miller. New starter.

The left side of the Spartan offensive line will be very tough indeed, while the right side will need to quickly overcome their collective inexperience. Mike Gyetvai started every game at right tackle last year and now slides into the left tackle spot and is expected to be an all-conference caliber player. Next to him, Kyle Cook (right) is the most veteran player on the line with 23 starts under his belt at left guard. Roland Martin was a huge recruit for the Spartans a few years ago and the 6-5, 324 pounder has some hefty expectations to live up to coming into his redshirt sophomore year. Sophomore Jesse Miller only appeared in four games last year in garbage time so he'll be the player with the most to prove. Depth: Tom Kaczmarek started one game last year at left tackle. Most of the other backups haven't seen much time, but are all 300+ pound space eaters.


TE - Dustin Keller.
13 receptions, 128 yards, 3 TDs. New starter.

A converted wide receiver, Dustin Keller will be a threat in the passing game. Despite not being #1 on the depth chart last year, only Dorien Bryant had more receiving touchdowns for the Boilermakers than Keller. He's not a great blocker and at 244 pounds might have some trouble with bigger defensive lineman, but probably will be used much more as a receiver than blocker. Depth: Jerry Wasikowski is a former walk-on with no game experience playing as a tight end yet.

LT - Mike Otto. (#22 T) Returning starter.
LG - Uche Nwaneri. Returning starter.
C - Robbie Powell. (#15 C) Returning starter.
RG - Jordan Grimes. (#1 G) Returning starter.
RT - Sean Sester. (#35 T) Returning starter.

It's an extremely veteran line with five returning starters and Mike Otto (left) is the leader with 36 career starts at the left tackle position. He's one of the best tackles in the Big 10. Uche Nwaneri returns to the starting lineup after being suspended all last season. This same group, minus Nwaneri, only gave up nine sacks over all of last season. All-Big Ten player Jordan Grimes is entering his second full year as a starter and so is redshirt sophomore Sean Sester, a huge 6-8, 310 pound tackle, who just might be Purdue's best lineman. Depth: Despite all the experience on the starting lineup, the depth behind them is rather sparse. Tackle Eric Hedstrom was a highly recruited prospect but hasn't played in a game yet. Garrett Miller did see some action last season and is the backup to Otto at left tackle. Most of the backup guards don't have more than a game or two's worth of garbage time experience.


TE - Matt Traverso.
19 receptions, 223 yards, 1 TD. Returning starter.

Matt Traverso was suspended from the program for the spring semester, but should be back with the team in the fall and regain his starting spot in the offense. A well-rounded TE, Traverso will be a positive force both blocking and receiving for the Cardinal. Depth: Patrick Danahy came out of the spring practices as the starter and the career backup might get to see more playing time in his final year at Stanford. Jim Dray is the inexperienced sophomore that has many Stanford fans hopeful for the future. He could very well be the top TE target by the ND game.

LT - Allen Smith. Returning starter.
LG - Josiah Vinson. (#57 - G) Returning starter.
C - Tim Mattran. Returning starter.
RG - Alex Fletcher. (#17 - G) Returning starter.
RT - Jeff Edwards. Returning starter.

The Stanford line has plenty of experience, but these same group of players gave up an awful lot of sacks last year, including seven to Notre Dame. An additional year of weight lifting and experience will help, but the group overall isn't as dangerous as they might look. One-time ND recruit Allen Smith has potential to be a very good college player entering his first full year as a returning starter. Jeff Edwards was the other starter at left tackle last year with Smith, but now will take his 26 career starts over to the right tackle spot. Alex Fletcher (right) was the one of the best centers coming out of high school, and provides the ability to play guard or center. Depth: Jon Cochran started 7 games at right tackle last year and 11 games at left tackle in 2004, but was beaten out for a starting spot by the end of last season. Another backup with over 20 career starts, Ismail Simpson (#58 G) should push Vinson for the starting left guard position while Mikal Brewer returns as a servicable backup at center or guard.


TE - J.J. Hair.
1 reception, 5 yards, 0 TDs. New starter.

J.J. Hair gets the honor of replacing Mackey Award winner Marcedes Lewis, UCLA's leading receiver last year. Hair is more of a blocking tight end as his three career receptions might indicate. How he'll adapt to becoming more of a target in the passing game will dictate his success in the starting lineup. Depth: Both Ryan Moya and Logan Paulsen are faster than Hair and provide more of a receiving threat. If they can prove competent at blocking, they might find increased roles in the offense by the ND game.

ST - Brian Abraham. Returning starter.
SG - Shannon Tevaga. (#23 G) Returning starter.
C - Robert Chai. (#33 C) New starter.
WG - Chris Joseph. Returning starter.
WT - Aleksey Lanis. New starter.

The Bruins offensive line situation is still a work in progress with a few players on the verge of gaining or losing a starting spot based on their work in fall camp. Shannon Tevaga (left) is the really the only sure thing so far as he enters his third year starting on the UCLA offensive line. The other guard, Chris Joseph, was knocked out of the season after the 4th game last year and also missed the spring. If his knees hold up, he'll be a tough run blocker for the Bruins. Center Robert Chai also missed the spring due to knee surgery and although I listed him as a new starter, he did start the final four regular season games for UCLA after the original starter, Mike McCloskey, went down with an injury. Brian Abraham started nine games last year before leg injuries limited his play at the end of the season. Aleksey Lanis is a huge tackle at 6-6, 330 pounds and the redshirt freshman has plenty of high expectations from Bruins fans. Depth: Battling Lanis and Abraham for a starting tackle spot will be Noah Sutherland, who subbed in for the injured Abraham late last season. JUCO transfer Nick Ekbatani will provide depth and physical presence at guard while Nathaniel Skaggs is a backup policy if Chai's knees force him out of the game.


TE- not applicable

Navy doesn't use a tight end in their option offense. Instead, they use an additional slot back, as covered in the running backs preview.

LT - Matthew Pritchett. Returning starter.
LG - Zach Gallion. Returning starter.
C - James Rossi. Returning starter.
RG - Antron Harper. Returning starter.
RT - Joe Person. New starter.

Navy still doesn't have a big offensive line by college football standards, but this year's version is plenty experienced and quick enough to handle the complicated option offense. In a time where 6-5, 300 pounds seems to be the norm, it's odd to see a starting offensive guard like Antron Harper who checks in at 5-11, 249 pounds, but Harper was part of the same line last year that led to 5.7 yards per carry for the Navy runners. The team isn't all undersized heart and grit though as Navy does have a 300-pounder in the form of Zach Gallion at the other guard spot. James Rossi (right) is a smart player and a leader from the center spot. Joe Person is the only new starter although he isn't totally inexperienced as he did start two games last year. Still, he had surgery in the spring that forced him to miss vital spring practice time. Depth: Andrew McGlinn filled in for Person in the spring and will continue to fight him for that right tackle spot in the fall.


TE - Jon Hamlett.
21 receptions, 212 yards, 1 TD. Returning starter.

Jon Hamlett returns for his second year as the Tarheel starter and is a steady, though unspectacular tight end. Only 3 of his 46 career receptions went for touchdowns, although it's possible he'll become more of a red zone threat this season. He'll add a veteran presence to the team and Coach Bunting is high on his improvement, so he could come through with a solid junior year. Depth: Junior Rock Wells is a blocking tight end who will fight for the #2 TE spot with sophomore Richard Quinn.

LT - Brian Chacos. Returning starter.
LG - Charlson Gray. (#11 G) Returning starter.
C - Ben Lemming. Returning starter.
RG - Kyle Jolly. New starter.
RT - Garrett Reynolds. New starter.

Brian Chacos will return to the Tarheels after getting the NCAA to greenlight a sixth year of eligibility. He was healthy last year and started every game at left tackle, where he is expected to be a solid force yet again. Ben Lemming is listed as a returning starter, but he's only played in two games in his career. He started at center in the 2005 season opener, hurt his shoulder, came back two games later, re-injured his shoulder, and missed the rest of the year. Expectations are high on him should be be able to keep his shoulder healthy this year. The right side of the line is young with redshirt freshman Kyle Jolly expected to land the starting right guard spot and redshirt sophomore Garrett Reynolds starting next to him at right tackle. Depth: Junior Scott Lenahan is the backup plan at center while redshirt freshman Andre Barbour will contend with Reynolds for a starting right tackle spot. Nearly all of the depth on the team is very inexperienced.


TE - Travis Dekker.
Injured last year. New starter.

Travis Dekker missed all of last year due to injury but came out of spring practice as the starting tight end. His main contribution will be as a blocker and he isn't likely to be much of a threat in the passing game. Depth: Like Dekker, Chris Evans is a blocking tight end that will be used more to protect the quarterback and open lanes for running backs than running against linebackers and safeties in the secondary.

LT - Robert Kraay. Returning starter.
LG - Tyler Dohallow. Returning starter.
C - Stuart Perlow. New starter.
RG - Curtis Grantham. Returning starter.
RT - Blaine Guenther. New starter.

As with most teams, the most experienced lineman is at left tackle. Senior Robert Kraay is a very good pass blocker and hasn't missed a start at left tackle in the past two years. Curtis Grantham is solid as a run blocker and the only other lineman who has more than 5 career starts as Tyler Dohallow didn't crack the starting lineup until midway through last season. Blaine Guenther looks to have the early lead at the right tackle spot after being a backup at center last year. Depth: If Guenther loses his starting job, it will be to junior Ryan Zeman who is athletic, but undersized at 265 pounds. Caleb Morris started 6 games in 2004 before missing all of 2005 due to injury. He'll provide depth at the left guard position.


TE - Tim Dunn.
4 receptions, 31 yards, 0 TDs. New starter.

Army ran plenty of two tight end sets last year, so while Tim Dunn is technically the new starter at tight end, he saw the field plenty. However, as his stats attest, he wasn't really an option in the passing game. A decent blocker, Dunn will need to gain the confidence of his coaches and QBs if he wants to be more of a receiving threat. Depth: Justin Larson probably will become the receiving tight end in the offense though, leaving more of the blocking to Dunn. The junior presents a tall target at 6-5, 236 pounds.

LT - Ray Zelenak. Returning starter.
LG - Dan Evans. Returning starter.
C - Pete Bier. (#30 C) Returning starter.
RG - Matt Weisner. Returning starter.
RT - Jonathan Connon. Returning starter.

Army is the only team on the 2006 schedule where all 5 offensive lineman return playing the same position they did in 2005. However, while the line as a whole has some potential and the returning experience helps, many of the players are average at best. Pete Bier at center is a team leader and one of the rare 4 year starters, although he did miss the spring while recovering from surgery. The only lineman listed who didn't start all 11 games last year is Ray Zelenak who broke into the starting lineup over the last four games of the season. At only 262 pounds, he's small by most left tackle standards. Depth: Probably rotating with Zelenak will be big sophomore Brandon Cox who brings much more size at 6-4, 292 pounds.


TE - Fred Davis.
13 receptions, 145 yards, 2 TDs. New starter.

Fred Davis was a top 3 wide receiver prospect coming out of high school but has since bulked up to tight end. Trojan fans have been waiting for him to have his breakout year and now that he's the de facto starter at tight end, this could be it. Still able to run like a receiver, the 6-4 Davis will be a very big threat in the passing game. At only 245 pounds, he probably won't be relied on too much for his blocking skills. He saw plenty of action last year and even started three games so he does have some decent amount of experience. Depth: Dale Thompson hasn't done much more than special teams, but will be a solid blocker for the Trojans in two tight end sets. Jimmy Miller had an impressive 2 touchdowns on 3 receptions last year as a productive red zone target.

LT - Sam Baker. (#6 T) Returning starter.
LG - Jeff Byers. (#20 G) New starter.
C - Ryan Kalil. (#2 C) Returning starter.
RG - Chilo Rachal. (#44 G) New starter.
RT - Kyle Williams. New starter.

Despite losing three talented lineman to the pros, the Trojans will field another great offensive line, and any intial inconsistency between new starters will likely be mostly cleared up by the time the Irish roll into town at the end of the season. If Penn State's Levi Brown is the best left tackle that the Irish will face, USC's Sam Baker is a close number two. A 3rd Team All-American last year, Baker is a three year starter at left tackle and a force in the running and passing game. Lining up next to him is former high school player of the year Jeff Byers, who returns from a hip injury that knocked him out for all of 2005. If he's fully healthy, he should be a load of a player up the middle. Continuing the bad news for Irish fans is center Ryan Kalil, another three year starter who also was named to a few All-America teams in 2005. The right side of the Trojan line does suffer a bit from attrition as Chilo Rachal and Kyle Williams have the early lead as replacement starters on the SC line. Both saw time as backups last year with Williams coming as the extra lineman on goalline situations. Depth: Big Thomas Herring missed the spring, but at 6-6, 335 pounds is a huge backup at the tackle position. Similarly massive Alatini Malu (6-4, 340 pounds) will push for time with Rachal at the right guard spot.

2006 Tight End Analysis and Ranking

My first reaction is that the 2006 schedule looks pretty barren of experienced tight ends. Only four are returning starters and of those four, only two (Stanford's Traverso and UNC's Hamlett) began the 2005 as the team starter. It does seem like most of the tight ends that ND will face are more receiving threats than strictly blockers. That doesn't mean many of the guys listed are going to be a threat to their QB's safety when they stay in to block, but there don't seem to be many of the jumbo-sized tight ends.

Last year the ND defense did a very solid job against tight ends. They only let up four receiving touchdowns to tight ends, with one of those being a garbage time TD by Syracuse. Still, there is always a tight end or two who goes off and has a great game against the Irish. Last year those tight ends were Michigan's Tyler Ecker (7 catches, 74 yards, 0 TDs), Stanford's Matt Traverso (7 catches, 85 yards, 1 TD), and BYU's Jonny Harline (8 catches, 100 yards, 1 TD). Ecker and Traverso appear on the schedule again so obviously the defense will have to keep an eye on them. Also, USC's Fred Davis so far has been impressing Trojan fans and should be a threat in the passing game. The rest don't sound particularly noteworthy, althought I suppose Dustin Keller for Purdue could be productive if too much attention is paid to his wide receiver teammates. This is all good news for the inexperienced ND linebackering crew as they won't have too many top threats to cover.

As for the rankings, no real team stood out as a clear #1. I went with Stanford for depth reasons and the fact that I think Dray could be a pretty good tight end. Still, Michigan always has a steady tight end group even if I don't really see it this season. Fred Davis is the best athlete in this grouping, but like the SC quarterbacks and running backs, has only really had to perform when the pressure is off. How will he adapt to face other team's starters? As with the other lists, Phil Steele's tight end rankings are in parentheses.

1. Stanford - Traverso is experienced, Danahy is a decent backup, and Dray has plenty of potential.
2. Michigan - Ecker (#33) is a capable tight end and the depth could be useful if they have a strong fall camp.
3. USC - Fred Davis (#16) has the most potential of anyone on the list. Decent backups.
4. Michigan State - Kellen Davis (#21) is a tough player and solid receiver. Not much depth.
5. Purdue - Keller (#32) should have a productive year. Walk-ons as backups are never ideal.
6. North Carolina - Hamlett is a veteran who might see more footballs thrown his way this year.
7. Georgia Tech - Cooper is a big tight end and just started to really produce at the end of the season.
8. Penn State - Hall will need to gain Morelli's trust as a viable safety outlet.
9. UCLA - Hair is pretty unproven, so it's hard to say just how good he really is.
10. Army - Dunn and Larson are both decent, but one-dimensional as of now.
11. Air Force - An unproven tight end who missed all last year with an injury isn't very frightening.
12. Navy - No tight end on the roster means last place in the rankings.

2006 Offensive Line Analysis and Ranking

All off-season the talk has been of generating a better Irish pass rush. And looking at all of the experienced linemen facing us this year, the Irish have their work cut out for them. Granted teams usually put their best (and often most experienced) lineman at left tackle to protect their QB, but every single team on the schedule this year is returning a starting left tackle. Not only that, but three teams are returning the entire line from last season. Some of the tougher teams, like Michigan, Penn State, and USC are going through some OL transition, but the overall strength of the talent at those schools should lessen the learning curve.

The chink in the experience angle is that 9 of the 12 teams will have a new right tackle. And two of the returning three are for Army and Stanford, two teams that ND lit up for 7 sacks in 2005. Normally Victor Abiamiri will be the one lining up against the RT -- and most of the time a tight end as well -- so if he's going to have that dominant breakout year, he's not going to have too many stud right tackles in his way.

Here's my crack at ranking the offensive lines. My criteria was overall experience, the presence of top caliber players, and at least a few competent backups should injuries strike. I anticipated USC or Michigan filling the top spot, but Purdue really sounds like they'll have the top OL this year. USC gets the advantage of an entire season for their new line to get used to working together, but the Boilermakers still should have a really tough, physical line from day one.

1. Purdue - A tough returning starter with plenty of experience at every position.
2. USC - A mix of All-Americans and unproven players with plenty of potential.
3. Michigan - Plenty of talent, but will need to gel quickly as a unit before travelling to ND.
4. Georgia Tech - This really sounds to me like an underrated offensive line. Experience and talent.
5. Michigan State - A few good established starters and a promising player in Martin.
6. UCLA - A decent mix of veterans and up and coming younger players.
7. Stanford - Experience and size is there, but past production isn't pretty.
8. North Carolina - A few good players, a few that need to step up, and not much depth.
9. Penn State - Brown is one of the best, but the line overall is the least experienced of any opponent.
10. Navy - Quick and tough, though a bit undersized in places.
11. Army - Everyone's back but the overall skill level isn't that high.
12. Air Force - Like Army, the overall skill level is average. Unlike Army, there a few new starters too.

Next up....Defensive Line.