Aside from quarterback, FSU's offensive line was the biggest question mark on a young team last season. Tasked with replacing four NFL players, the Rick Trickett-coached line would end up performing at the level I expected them to play: decent run blocking, average pass blocking, but lacking individual and play-to-play consistency.
Enter 2016. FSU returns every single scholarship lineman from 2015, which featured 12 players in their first or second years in the program. This should be encouraging to fans: Rick Trickett is renowned for developing players, and another year in the weight room and on the practice field is just what the doctor ordered.
But a number of key injuries will leave FSU's spring football practice season in a tough spot and hinder projections about the unit's fall season performance.
Players with an asterisk are out for the spring, per our previous report. And these are significant absences: FSU will be without some of its most-talented offensive line players, and down a total of four players expected to contribute.
Chad Mavety, who has battled numerous health problems at Florida State, has shown to be a quality college lineman in his time at guard and tackle last season. Derrick Kelly will vie for the starting right tackle job when healthy.
So where does this leave FSU? Trickett is known for cross-training his players, and I expect no less this spring; guys will be playing everywhere-- and I don't think it'll be worth reading into that much. So a two-deep roster isn't very useful here, but we can guess that the 1s will principally feature:
- LT Rod Johnson
- LG Kareem Are
- OC Alec Eberle
- RG Wilson Bell
- RT Brock Ruble
Returning starter and draft-eligible LT Rod Johnson had a stellar 2014 true freshman campaign playing left tackle after Cam Erving moved to OC, grading out at 82.2% in his five starts. While it might be tempting for some to think Johnson had a down year in 2015, he did grade out vs. Texas State & Miami at 89% and 87%, respectively (note: overall season grade unavailable). Also, consider that in 2014 he was flanked by NFL OG Josue Matias and NFL TE Nick O'Leary on many plays. In 2015, he was surrounded by capable but young players in Are and Izzo. I think the old adage of only being as good as the weakest link holds true for individual play along the offensive line.
The interior of Are, Eberle, and Bell carry over from a 2015 campaign that finally settled on Eberle at center. Are, in his fifth season, has a final chance to live up to his predecessors at OG in hopes of being drafted come April 2017. Bell struggled with staying on his feet when going against stout defenders. Hopefully, being another year older in FSU's weight program can remedy this problem. However, you would expect anchoring ability to be present by one's third year in a program.
Right tackle is a spot where FSU will be in a bit of a holding pattern until the fall. Mavety (when healthy) showed good run blocking at the position and Kelly was promising for a redshirt freshman. Returning contributor Brock Ruble really struggled last year in pass protection, showing too often a proclivity to "open the gate" on pass sets instead of shuffling to stay square between the defender and the ball carrier. This is somewhat coachable, though ultimately there is a minimum "quickness of feet" you need from your tackles--and even with coaching this might remain a problem for the extremely long youngster. But the good news is that he is just that: young. Ruble needs a good spring to bolster FSU coaches' collective confidence in his ability to play right tackle come Labor Day, and this being his third year in the system could mark the turning point in his level of play. Just like in basketball, big men often take longer than their smaller counterparts to become comfortable with their big bodies.
So while the right side of the line this spring features major question marks, the center-left looks solid. Andrew Boselli will redshirt, but second-year guys like Cole Minshew and David Robbins could make some noise in pushing for an interior spot.
Come fall, I'll also be watching to see if tackle Abdul Bello will be able to contribute. Extremely raw out of high school, the Nigerian was new to football and missed out on development during his redshirt freshman year with knee surgery. It's hard to project a development curve for someone so new to the game. He could be very good, very soon, or he could take quite a while.
There's also the issue of Rick Leonard, a 6'7, 287-pound junior who played defensive line during his first two seasons. With the injury and uncertainty at tackle, Bud Elliott's sources say that FSU is considering trying Leonard out on the offensive side of the ball. The limiting factor at play here is FSU's depth at defensive end.
Injuries take their toll, but there is reason to hope that a competition emerges to produce the best five starters heading into Labor Day; especially once you consider five more players from the best OL class in the nation are slated to join the team this summer.