While many big names departed for the big leagues during the NFL draft, a number of highly-talented offensive lines will return to the field for the 2016 season. After hours of film study and team scheme analysis — paired with PFF data — here are the 10 offensive lines I believe will be most dominant this season:
1. Notre Dame
Despite the losses of Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin to the NFL draft, I believe the Irish will have the premier college offensive line in 2016. Led by Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame has the talent to be a dominant group.
I recently took a trip to South Bend to watch practice and workouts and was amazed by offensive line coach Harry Hiestand's efforts to use the “KISS” formula. Keeping it short and simple is what the Irish o-line looks to do, and they do it well. Using an old-school style of running off the ball blended with a modern style zone blocking allows the Notre Dame line to utilize their talent up front to create seams for their talented ball carriers.
Their favorite play — the “outside zone” — is a prime example. The offensive line looks to reach the defenders and if unable, they use the defense’s momentum against them and continue to run the defender creating those seams for the backs. Notre Dame had +61.6 run block rating and +18.1 pass block rating in 2015 and I have no doubt they will be among the top in both categories this season.
Stanford lost a great player in first-round draft pick Joshua Garnett, but if history is any indication the Cardinal will have a dominant offensive line in 2016 once again. This year’s group is led by guard Johnny Caspers who posted a +17.9 overall blocking grade in 2015. One word comes to mind when I think of Stanford, and that's “power.” The power scheme that Stanford utilizes has become legendary in college football and is the staple of the program. Stanford prides itself on execution, and although Christian McCaffery arguably may be the most impactful player in college football, success all starts up front for the Cardinal.
3. Appalachian State
It might surprise you to see Appalachian State on the list, but it shouldn’t. Appalachian State had the highest run-blocking rating of an FBS team in 2015 and returns the highest-graded guard in Colby Gassett. The offensive line was the back bone of the Mountaineers' 11-2 season a year ago. Similar to Notre Dame, they run an exclusive zone attack with their most successful being the outside zone. The line looks to lose ground and run to reach defenders in a way you don’t see in college. There is no reason to think their successful trend won’t continue, and Tennessee will have their hands full when the two teams open the season in September.
USC lost a great center in Max Tuerk to the San Diego Chargers, but his injury allowed for the Trojans to have five guys with starting experience return for the 2016 season, led by right tackle Zach Banner and left guard Damien Mama. USC operates in a pro-style offense and their line is asked to block both power and zone schemes as well as man-on-man pass blocking situations like an NFL offensive line. Veteran offensive line coach Neil Callaway will lead the unit and will open the season against his alma mater Alabama. I think USC will have a Pac-12 championship offensive line and will give Alabama all they can handle to start the season.
Despite losing tackle Jerald Hawkins to the Steelers in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft, LSU returns the interior of their offensive line led by right guard William Clapp. LSU loves to run the ball and they do it with a style all their own. LSU blocks a hybrid “mid-zone” scheme almost exclusively and Leonard Fournette runs it brilliantly. I loved watching LSU on tape and what makes their offensive line special is that the offense does not hide that they will run the ball, and even against an anchored down defense, LSU’s line gets the job done more often than not. I believe the motivation for this year’s LSU offensive line will be even more severe after the way the season ended last year.
6. Washington State
Washington State passed on 78 percent of their offensive snaps in 2015, and while offensive line may not be the focal point of the Cougars' play, their line play is a large reason for their success. Washington State asks the lineman to man block on almost every pass play, and while their large splits help in pass protection, they still have to develop into solid pass blockers to throw as often as they do. Washington State is also very efficient at running the ball with the outside zone play being their favorite play to run. This is unusual for a team with such large splits. Despite losing Joe Dahl to the Detroit Lions in the fifth round, Wazzu returns right tackle Cole Madison and right guard Edwards Middleton. Washington State has to have superb line play to throw the ball as much as they do and I think this will continue in 2016.
Despite losing second-round draft pick Jason Spriggs to the Green Bay Packers, Indiana returns the core interior of their offensive line led by right guard Dan Forney, who had a +16 overall blocking grade in 2015. Guard Jacob Bailey also returns. Indiana’s offensive line is asked to do a lot in a multiple blocking scheme offense and they are fun to watch. Indiana threw for 3,820 yards and ran for over 2,736 last year and the offensive line plays a large factor in their success. Indiana’s offensive line was a bright spot on Indiana’s 6-7 team in 2015.
Auburn has produced a couple big-time tackles the last few years in first-round pick Greg Robinson and third-round pick Shon Coleman. Auburn’s offensive line is led by right guard Braden Smith, and the Tigers return three players with experience in Gus Malzahn’s history of fast tempo and physical ground game. Auburn’s offensive linemen will get plenty of repetitions at the inside zone, power and counter that Malzahn features with all sorts of window dressing in the background. Auburn does have a new offensive line coach coming over from Penn State in Herb Hand, but I think Auburn’s run scheme will stay consistent to what it has been.
9. West Virginia
Led by PFF’s highest-graded returning center in Tyler Orlosky, West Virginia returns a veteran group of linemen who had positive grades in PFF data. The offensive line helped West Virginia’s offense put up some great numbers in Dana Holgorsen System. Holgorsen runs an offense similar to Mike Leech at Washington State as he is an “Air Raid” disciple, but he does protect his offensive line with more slide protections while also running the ball more. West Virginia will even line up in power formations and run the ball. The Mountaineers favor zone blocking and they are effective at taking advantage of the defense playing pass first.
10. Florida State
Florida State returns their entire offensive line from last season. All linemen had positive PFF run blocking grades last season led by right tackle Roderick Johnson, who had a +14.7 run blocking grade. Florida State’s offensive line helped Dalvin Cook rush for nearly 1,700 yards and average 7.4 yards per carry. A lineman has to be athletic to play at Florida State as they have ran the “stretch” play for years. Florida State’s offensive line struggled protecting the passer in 2015 and that is the area that if improved, could see Florida State return back to the College Football Playoff.