2017 Houston Cougars fall practice preview: Offensive line
By: Jimmy Schofield
photo courtesy uhcougars.com
With the dog days of summer upon us, Coogfans will break down each position for your 2017 Houston Cougars football team led by first year head coach Major Applewhite. Each Monday a new article will be published, with today’s focusing on the big uglies up front; the offensive line.
Over the past two seasons, the line has had to mix-and-match due mainly to injuries to the tune of an amazing 17 different starting lineups in total 27 games. The Coogs have won 22 of those games due to Applewhite’s hard nose physical mentality, offensively speaking, and though he may want to pass more this year with a pure pocket passer under center (potentially), he’ll always stick true to his roots.
“We’re going to be physical. It’s a fight, a four-quarter fight. We’re going to be physical in the run game and the passing game,” the head coach said during his press conference when he was hired as the offensive coordinator two seasons ago. “We’re going to run the football. That’s something that’s stood the test of time. We’ve seen many teams throw it all the time offensively, and very seldom do they get above 7-5, 8-4 and compete for championships, and that’s why we’re here.”
With that we take a look at the post spring depth chart:
Post-Spring depth chart (this is my guess as Applewhite hasn’t released an official depth chart)
Left tackle: Josh Jones (6-foot-5, 280 pounds, RSo.), Jarrid Williams (6-6, 290, RSo.)
Left guard: Mason Denley (6-4, 305, RJr.), Kameron Eloph (6-3, 295, Jr.)
Center: Will Noble (6-4, 290, Jr.), Ryan Deshotel (6-4, 275, Jr.)
Right guard: Marcus Oliver (6-3, 295, Sr.), Alex Fontanta (6-3, 310, Sr.)
Right tackle: Braylon Jones (6-3, 278, So.), Na’Ty Rodgers (6-5, 295, Sr.)
True freshman contributor
Dennis Bardwell (6-5, 280)
With as much talent as the line has don’t look for any true freshmen to be playing anytime soon. Bardwell is a 3-star prospect who signed with the Coogs over schools such as Texas Tech and Mississippi State among others. While he played guard in high school at Huffman Hargrave, where he did not allow a sack and registered 80 pancake blocks in 10 starts last season, he has the length of quick strike ferociousness that translates to tackle at the college level. He’ll take a redshirt this season to add bulk and foot quickness.
Analysis (of 2016): The offensive line will be a focal point in Fall camp as the offense must improve from last season’s 147 rushing yards-per-game (99th nationally), a season after averaging 235 per game on the ground (13th).
Noble has 20 career starts over the past two seasons and is the leader of the line, though he didn’t play this spring because of a broken leg suffered over off-season workouts. He’ll be back for the start of Fall camp as his 58 knockdown blocks over his first two seasons will be sorely needed. Backing him up will be either Fontana or Deshotel. Fontana has been the only player to start a game at the position other than Noble or Colton Freeman (who had to retire before last season began due to stinger issues), and also started three games last season at left guard and one at right guard, totally 32 knockdown blocks.
Josh Jones started every game at left tackle last year after redshirting in 2015 and led the unit with 38 knockdown blocks. His backup will probably be Jarrid Williams, who saw action in eight games last year after a redshirt. Braylon Jones started the final six games last season at right tackle as a true freshman and registered 20 knockdown blocks in 11 total games as a true freshman. JC transfer Na’Ty Rodgers started the first seven but was lost due to a lingering ankle issue yet still finished second on the unit with 34 knockdown blocks. Rogers was a former 4-star recruit who originally signed with South Carolina.
As far as the starting guard spots go, it should be a battle between Eloph, Oliver, Denley (who missed most of spring due to injury) and possibly Deon Mix (6-4, 301, G-Sr.) Eloph has started six games at left guard and two along the right side over the past two seasons (with 26 total knockdown blocks). Denley has started 12 games total (including the final five last season), all at left guard and has had a combined 45 knockdown blocks. Oliver meanwhile, started eight games last season at right guard (including the final five) after starting five games at left tackle and one at right during the 2015 season and has a combined 40 knockdown blocks. Mix is a graduate transfer from Auburn, where he had limited playing time on the interior of the line over the past three seasons.
Expectations: New offensive line coach Chris Scelfo returns eight players who have started a minimum of five games each over the past two seasons. Basically everyone in the 2-deep has started a game minus Deshotel at center and Williams at LT. In all, the eight have combined for 85 starts over the past two seasons. The problem is where to place them due to last season’s “musical chairs” reincarnation which was still in place over the spring with Fontana, Deshotel and Eloph taking over at center for Noble and Braylon Jones taking many snaps at left guard for the injured Denley. No matter how many players missed how many games, Applewhite won’t allow excuses for a line that allowed 37 sacks last season (113th) and helped its running game to average just 3.41 yards-per-attempt (117th). Other factors will determine how successful the line will be such as the style of quarterback that will start next season; a pure drop back passer or another dual threat? Greg Ward Jr. ran himself into a few sacks last season via the scramble, but also bailed his line out over the past three plus seasons with his dynamic legs. How many passes-per-game will new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson call? None of this will be known until a few weeks into camp, and probably into the season as the offensive staff becomes more familiar with their players, and vice versa. Next week we take a look at who will be running behind the holes the offensive line will be trying to create, aka the running backs.