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Big 12 in the Trenches: Offensive Line Preview

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Texas at Baylor Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As protectors of the quarterback and seam-creators for running backs, the offensive line is at least indirectly responsible for all of a team’s successes (and many of their failures) on offense. To predict how well a team is going to do in the upcoming season, the line seems like a natural place to start!

Previous rankings

Last season, there was no clearly dominant offensive line in the Big 12, but Baylor was the only team to be in the top half of the conference in average line years, opportunity rate, power success rate, and sack rate.

Average line yards attempts to give credit to the offensive line for rushing yards by weighting yards gained based on their distance from the line of scrimmage. For example, the line is credited with 100% of yards gained within 3 yards from the LOS, 50% of yards gained between 4 and 8 yards from the LOS, and 0% of yards gained beyond 8 yards from the LOS.

Opportunity rate is the percent of rushes that gain at least 4 yards. Football Outsiders describes this as “the percentage of carries in which the line does its job”.

Power success rate is the percent of rushes on 3rd or 4th down that earn a first down or touchdown.

Finally, sack rate is the percent of passing plays that result in a sack.

Baylor’s offensive line was a well-rounded and successful unit, and it ranked second in the conference in opportunity rate and sack rate. It performed the worst in average line yards gained, largely due to below average yards gained on passing downs, but “worst” was still good enough for fifth in the conference.

TCU’s offensive line came closest to Baylor’s in terms of solid run and pass protection. Their line struggled a little more in short yardage situations, but they led the conference with a sub-4% sack rate.

Texas Tech’s line was worse than Baylor and TCU’s line in average line yards, opportunity rate, and sack rate, falling squarely in the middle of the conference, but they led the league in power success rate.

Texas and OU had strong offensive lines when it came to run protection, being in the top three in average line yards and opportunity rate, but they struggled mightily in pass protection, being in the bottom three. In my opinion, minimizing sacks is more important than maximizing line yards.

West Virginia and Kansas State’s lines are a little behind Texas and OU’s. Both were average in line yards and opportunity rate and near the bottom of the conference in sack rate. But while Kansas State was average in power success rate, West Virginia was second in the conference.

The worst lines in the league go to Iowa State, Kansas, and Oklahoma State. Iowa State and Kansas were bottom three in the league in every stat except sack rate. Oklahoma State had the second worst average line yards, second worst opportunity rate, fourth worst power success rate, and fourth worst sack rate.

2021 Rankings:

  1. Baylor
  2. TCU
  3. Texas Tech
  4. Texas
  5. Oklahoma
  6. West Virginia
  7. Kansas State
  8. Iowa State
  9. Kansas
  10. Oklahoma State

Key departures and additions

Going into the 2022 season, all but one team in the Big 12 is losing a starter on the offensive line, and some teams are losing their best linemen.

The below graphic shows the overall offensive line rating (per Pro Football Focus) for the typical starters at each position. I referenced each team’s 2021 roster biographies to assign positions, but injuries and frequent shuffling along the line makes this an inexact science. Returning players have a green circle while departing players are in grey with a red outline.

First, let’s talk about the two teams who lost the least: West Virginia and Kansas.

The Mountaineers return all five of their starting linemen, which should be both encouraging and discouraging given their inconsistency last season. Don’t expect much reshuffling, as only two other players had more than 50 offensive snaps in 2021, and one of them left the team. If nothing else, their line should take a step forward as they have more experience and chemistry together.

Kansas only lost one player, Malik Clark, who had the lowest rating among their starters per PFF. Deondre Doiron (IOL, 57.6 PFF rating in 2021) and Nolan Gorczyca (OT) both join the team from Buffalo, and they will likely be competing with Armaj Reed-Adams for the vacant guard spot (at least that’s what Rock Chalk Talk thinks!) Reed-Adams is a sophomore who played only five offensive snaps last year, but he played 232 snaps his freshman year. As with WVU, I expect this unit to benefit with an additional year of experience together, and it won’t take much for their replacement guard to be an improvement.

The next group of schools — Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, and TCU — lost two starters.

Iowa State enters 2022 without OT Derek Schweiger (67.1 PFF rating in 2021) and C Colin Newell (58.2 PFF rating in 2021). They brought in no transfers for the offensive line, only two 3-star recruits at the tackle position, and they have limited experienced depth after backups Joey Ramos and Sean Foster transferred / graduated.

Sophomore Tyler Miller got his first start in Iowa State’s bowl game against Clemson, so he is the favorite to slide in at tackle (38.7 PFF rating on 82 snaps). 2020 starter Jake Remsburg (59.1 PFF rating in 2020), who was limited due to injury in 2021, will likely start again this season. I anticipate the Cyclones have a similar performing offensive line in 2022 as they did last season — improvement among returning players and growing pains with replacement players.

Oklahoma arguable has the two biggest holes to fill on their line, having to replace NFL draftee Marquis Hayes (75.3 PFF rating in 2021) and UDFA Tyrese Robinson (75.5 PFF rating in 2021). 4-star OTs Jake Taylor (#13 nationally) and Jacob Sexton (#20 nationally) will put pressure on returning starters Anton Harrison, Andrew Raym, and Chris Murray, but the open spots are likely going to senior Wanya Morris (60.7 PFF rating in 2021) and Cal transfer McKade Mettauer (65.3 PFF rating in 2021). Overall, I expect OU’s line to regress slightly — Morris and Mettauer are downgrades to Hayes and Robinson, but the returning starters should get better.

Oklahoma State lost Outland Trophy watchlist and first-team All-Big 12 G Josh Sills (74.6 PFF rating in 2021) and C Danny Godlevske (63.2 PFF rating in 2021). Godlevske’s spot at center will likely go to junior Joe Michalski (63 PFF rating in 2021) who replaced Godlevske when he went down with an injury mid-season. PFF rates the two similarly overall, but Michalski struggled more with pass protection, which was Okie State’s weakness last year.

No one of equal talent can replace Josh Sills, and Okie State’s two backup guards transferred out. The Cowboys can shuffle some existing tackles around, utilize transfers Jason Brooks (Vanderbilt, IOL, 56.9 PFF rating in 2021) and Casey Collier (USC, OT, no stats), or start 4-start high school recruit Tyrone Webber (#2 JUCO OT nationally). Either way, I anticipate Oklahoma State’s offensive line to perform similarly or take a step back, which is bad news for one of the worst lines in the conference.

It may come as a surprise to you, but Texas is going to replace their departing players, LG Denzel Okafor (74.1 PFF rating in 2021) and RT Derek Kerstetter (72.1 PFF rating in 2021) with 5-star and high 4-star recruits...6 of them to be precise. Returners Jake Majors, Junior Angilau, and Christian Jones likely start the season as starters, but 5-star Devon Campbell (#1 IOL nationally), 5-star Kelvin Banks (#3 OT nationally), 4-star Neto Umeozulu (#4 IOL nationally), and 4-star Cole Hutson (#13 IOL nationally) will all compete for the vacant (and currently filled?) spots on the depth chart.

This one will be one the most talented units in the conference — can they put it together on the field?

TCU needs to replace their starting LT Obinna Eze (70.6 PFF rating in 2021) and RG Coy McMillon (58.2 PFF rating in 2021), but they can upgrade both spots with senior John Lanz (81.4 PFF rating in 2021) who missed half of least season with an injury and sophomore Michael Nichols (54 snaps, 70.4 PFF rating in 2021).

Alternatively, TCU may slot in some transfers: Alan Ali (SMU, four-year starter, 68.1 PFF rating in 2021), Ezra Dotson-Oyetade (ASU, 4-star IOL HS recruit, no stats), and Robby Rochester (Conn, 3-star OT, played in two games). I wouldn’t be surprised if the Horned Frogs have one of the better offensive lines in the conference.

Know Your Meme

The next two schools, Kansas State and Texas Tech, both lost three starters from last season and have a lot of work to do for 2022.

Kansas State kept their highest rated lineman (the second highest-rate tackle in the Big 12) Cooper Beebe (85.4 PFF rating in 2021), and their lowest rated starting lineman, Christian Duffie (60 PFF rating in 2021), but they need to replace their three interior linemen. Unfortunately, the Wildcats don’t have many battle-tested options to turn to.

KT Leveston (61.4 PFF rating in 2021) started five games in 2020 but played only sparingly in the 2021 season. He’s their only reserve linemen with over 100 offensive snaps in his career. With no OL transfers, the Wildcats will have to rely on inexperienced players. As a middle-of-the-pack unit last season, Kansas State’s line should be in the bottom half of the conference in 2022.

Texas Tech benefited from an experienced offensive line last year, but they have a lot to replace in 2022. Starting center Dawson Deaton (70.1 PFF rating in 2021), RG Josh Burger (58.3 PFF rating in 2021), and LT TJ Storment (60.8 PFF rating in 2021) are gone, but Tech hit the transfer market hard to replace them.

The most likely starters among their five transfers are tackles Cade Briggs (New Mexico, 73.7 PFF rating in 2021) and Cole Spencer (Western Kentucky, 76.9 PFF rating in 2021). The remaining vacancy may be filled by Oklahoma State transfer Monroe Mills or USC transfer Ty Buchanan, though neither have much experience to their name. A better option might be senior Ethan Carde (54.4 PFF rating in 2021).

If this patchwork group of returning starters, transfers, and an experienced backup can develop good chemistry, Tech’s offensive line should improve significantly from last year.

Saving the best for last, let’s discuss Baylor’s offensive line! Baylor is in a unique position as they lost only one starter, Xavier Newman-Johnson (78.0 PFF rating in 2021), and they return three of the top five offensive linemen in the conference. That said, Newman-Johnson was no slouch, either. He’s the second highest rated linemen in the conference who will not return for 2022.

In his place, Baylor will look to either senior Mose Jeffery or sophomore Micah Mazzccua. Neither have a significant amount of D1 experience, but Mazzccua was rotated in more often than Jeffery last year, so I’d expect to see Mazzccua first. Alternatively, Baylor could rotate multiple players around and bring in junior tackle Gavin Byers (76.5 PFF rating in 2021) who started eight games last year.

Baylor didn’t bring in any OL transfers this year, and barring a lot of injuries, we probably won’t see any of the new high school recruits in non-garbage time plays. The new face most likely to appear is Tate Williams, a former 4-star recruit who redshirted last year.

With all the experience they already have, I don’t anticipate big improvements from seniors Gall, Miller, Galvin, and Keith. Newman-Johnson’s replacement will likely be a downgrade, at least at first, but the overall line’s performance should be as good as it was last year.

Big picture, I don’t foresee a lot of movement in the offensive line rankings at the top. Texas’ incoming talent is too young to catapult them above Tech, who replaced their lost talent with promising transfers. West Virginia’s extra year of experience slips them above OU who struggle to replace their two best players. KSU’s inexperience drops them below Iowa State, but neither Kansas nor Oklahoma State will do enough to rise above them.

Obviously, there are a lot of factors that I’m not taking into account. Some teams might have offensive schemes that make it easier to replace their departing linemen. A few returning starters may have been battling injury all of last year, causing their performance to temporarily drop. Certain coaches do a better job preparing younger players for immediate game time. With caveats like those in mind, here are my projected offensive line rankings for the Big 12 next season.

Projected 2022 Rankings (2021 in parentheses):

  1. Baylor (1)
  2. TCU (2)
  3. Texas Tech (3)
  4. Texas (4)
  5. West Virginia (6)
  6. Oklahoma (5)
  7. Iowa State (8)
  8. Kansas State (7)
  9. Kansas (9)
  10. Oklahoma State (10)