STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 12: LaMichael James #21, Hroniss Grasu #55 and Mark Asper #79 of the Oregon Ducks celebrates after James scored on a two yard touchdown run against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) The buffet busters in the trenches are the ones that make the running back's successes much easier.
The offensive line is the most important part of the offense across all levels and styles of play. At Oregon, the offensive line is incredibly important in that no part of the offense can function even at 50% efficiency without the line playing very well. We’ve seen the line sputter at times, struggling to open holes, or not providing nearly enough pass protection.
Last year’s offensive line had the most rushing yards in the last seven years, 299 a game. The previous years had been 286, 232, 280, and 252. Chip Kelly’s ground attack has been prolific since he got here and a lot of the credit goes to the offensive line who has opened up huge holes for running backs at times.
Rob Moseley of the Register Guard predicted a lineup of Jake Fisher at left tackle, Carson York at left guard, Hroniss Grasu at center, Ryan Clanton at right guard, and Nick Cody at right tackle. York, Clanton, and Cody are seniors while Fisher and Grasu are both sophomores.
Grasu was a good center last year starting as a freshman and after beating out Hamani Stevens and Karrington Armstrong in a very competitive position battle. He’s also on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy given annually to the nations best center. What we hadn’t seen in a few years that Grasu provides is speed for his size as you can see him pull to the outside on many plays. Carson York suffered a bad injury during the Rose Bowl so I’ll be interested to see any reports about him in the fall after he’s coming off surgery. Nick Cody has a lot of experience on the right side.
Key losses were Honorable Mention PAC-12 guard Mark Asper and left tackle Darrion Weems. 8 of the top 10 players on the two-deep last year return, so there shouldn’t be much drop off in production and hopefully the extra experience on the line will make things easier on Kenjon Barner who doesn’t have the bulk that LaMichael James had. The depth of players in Stevens, Armstrong, Benyard, and Long are positives.
Andre Yruretagoyena and Tyler Johnstone are reserves who were four-star recruits and will be pushing for time on the two-deep. Recruiting the last couple years for Oregon has been very good in terms of binging in excellent offensive linemen. The Ducks seem to be bringing in guys with size and speed out of high school that can compete, on an individual level, higher than most linemen that have come through Oregon. This makes for an optimistic future for the offensive line.
Historically, Oregon’s offensive line has executed well against poor to very good defenses. Oregon linemen are very exact in their technique but have previously been undersized for the position. Elite defensive fronts have given the Ducks trouble. The most glaring example was the LSU game last year where the line was getting pushed back by linemen who had the size and speed to beat very good offensive linemen. Last year against USC the line had an average rush of 4.4 and 209 total yards, but most of that seemed to come in the fourth quarter. Consistency at times last year was an issue.
There are two games that standout as good tests for the offensive line. The first is at USC. USC was able to bottle and contain the Oregon rushing attack last year for three quarters, and while the defensive line appears to be the weakest part of the team, it is still very good. USC also has elite linebackers so it is absolutely essential by the time November 3rd rolls around that the offensive line is working as one unit. Penetration by the defensive line in to the backfield is what kills the offense, which is something Cal has been good at while playing in Berkeley. Cal’s 3-4 puts a lot of speed on the field and when at home has been able to slow Oregon’s running game down, most recently seen two years ago. These two games will be a good measure of how good the line really is. Arizona State will be challenging but this year it is my understanding they are transitioning to a 3-3-5 so may not have the size to give Oregon’s line a lot of troubles.
The difference between very good and elite is inches, not feet or miles. They are very small differences that result in big gaps. Teams are now flowing harder than before to stop the zone rushing attack, so the offensive line is going to have to get a lot of forward push in order to get consistent yards. I’ve been a firm believer that what separates the national championship teams from just conference champions is the play of the lines. Once Oregon proves it has elite offensive lines and not just schemes, Oregon will make a big jump forward in the rankings and championship totals.
Do you think the offensive line will be able to keep up production without LaMichael James? Will losing two starters and question marks around Carson York lead to a slow start in the season?