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The saying “games are won in the trenches” is a cliché but that’s for a reason — because it’s true. Aside from quarterback, there is no more important offensive position group than offensive line and given how much emphasis is placed on rushing said quarterbacks, a solid group of hog mollies are as valuable as they have ever been.
The Spartans head into 2016 down three starters from a year ago but return several other contributors. Similar to the wide receivers, there are a lot of new faces but the depth chart is teeming with potential. Can this group play up to the excellent standard set by their predecessors? The answer will be a #MajorKey to this season’s offense.
T Jack Conklin (Declared Early – Drafted 8th Overall in the NFL Draft by the Titans), G/T Donovan Clark (Graduation – Drafted in the 7th Round of the NFL Draft by the Chargers) C/RB Jack Allen (Graduation – Undrafted; signed with the Saints)
Pull up a chair, dear reader. No really, you’re going to want to take a seat for this part.
Let’s start with what we know: MSU will have three new starters up front. No further examination is needed to determine that this is not an ideal scenario.
Another thing we know is two of those three now-former starters are All-Americans Jack Allen and Jack Conklin and the third is three-year starter, Donovan Clark. If you’re feeling lightheaded, don’t panic, just concentrate on your breathing.
Allen, Clark and Conklin were crucial cogs in of one the best lines in Spartan History. They paved the way for running backs Jeremy Langford and LJ Scott and kept Connor Cook upright long enough to win 34 career games. In short, they were very good. And now they are gone.
Are you hearing that loud circus music? Is the room spinning all of a sudden? You brought a barf bag, right? KEEP IT TOGETHER AUSTIN, KEEP IT TOGETHER. WE CANT LOSE OUR COMPOSURE!!!
I SMELL BURNING! CAN ANYONE PROTECT US??
T - Miguel Machado (R-Sr) Dennis Finley (Jr) David Beedle (So) Cole Chewins (R-Fr) G - Brandon Clemons (Sr-6) Benny McGowan (R-Sr) Brian Allen (Jr) C - Kodi Kieler (R-Sr)
Alright, we’re fine. It’s fine. Deep breaths. Wooooo Sah.
As I was saying, replacing major contributors on the O-Line is never an enviable task but it is the one offensive line coach Mark Staten is faced with. Luckily, there is both experience and promising depth to help keep him (all of us) from getting queasy.
I only listed the starters or co-starters from the pre-fall depth chart since lineman tend to take a year or two before they are ready for meaningful snaps. So, while there may be a surprise, this will likely be the core playing group.
A year ago, #AMSUOLHG did everything but send a swarm of locusts through the OL meeting room as seemingly every lineman missed a few weeks. Despite being arguably the most talented group to pass through East Lansing during the last 10 years, the bumps and bruises kept them from being as dominant as they could have been. The (only) silver lining is that backups like David Beedle, Miguel Machado and Benny McGowan gained some priceless experience.
The line is not without its seasoned veteran talent starting with the middle Allen child, Brian. One of only two returning starters, the junior left guard plays nasty and has a complete understanding of the line. He has the potential to be every bit as good as his brother and can moonlight at center as well.
Speaking of centers, there is a familiar face in an unfamiliar place with Kodi Kieler sliding to the pivot. You may remember this giant curly-headed teddy bear as last seasons starting right tackle but this year you can find him in the middle calling out protections.
Another name Spartan fans may remember is Brandon Clemons, formerly a defensive lineman. Clemons is slotted to start at right guard for the first time in his career after getting clearance for a sixth season of eligibility. He will be asked to provide veteran leadership and stability to a young group.
Tackle is where things get interesting, as there is almost no experience to speak of. The presumed starters are Beedle at left tackle and Finley on the right, with Machado as a swing tackle backing up both spots. There’s the circus music again.
Beedle has had some solid reps at guard, Finley played well against Purdue last season before getting rolled up on and breaking his leg and Machado had trouble getting snaps behind Conklin and Kieler. Reports out of camp have been limited but, in this case, no news may be good news. It’s hard to know what to expect but how they hold up is paramount to MSU’s hopes.
I included Cole Chewins because there is a lot of excitement surrounding him. He was lightly recruited out of high school but his 6’8” frame and long arms intrigued the MSU staff enough to overlook the fact he only weighed somewhere in the 220’s and offer him an opportunity to greyshirt. Rumor has it there was a rule that he had to finish all of the fellow lineman’s leftovers at training table in order to get his weight up. He’s now listed at 273 pounds and may turn out to be Ken Mannie’s masterpiece. Chewins is raw but if the tackles struggle we might see him a season earlier than anticipated.
OK, I THINK THE MUSIC FINALLY STOPPED BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
This group is the key to the offense, pure and simple.
Thanks to a lot of experience the interior rotation with Allen, Kieler, Clemons and McGowan, they should be able to pave the way for the running back triumvirate consistently but the most critical issue is pass protection.
Simply, can the tackles give Tyler O’Connor time to throw the ball?
If the answer is yes, MSU will be able to play ball control offense and score enough to win double-digit games yet again. If they struggle and the Spartans become predictable, defenses will pin their ears back and things could go south very quickly. There is no Cook-Burbridge connection to bail them out this season. That’s not a death sentence but they cannot afford to fall behind schedule very often.
If there is one thing Spartan fans should've learned in the past 10 years, it’s if the staff has faith in an unproven group, then so should we. Take a deep breath, because that faith will be put to the test this season.