TCU sent the first-team all-conference center to the NFL this spring, and graduated a two-year starter at guard. With Schlueter and Montgomery gone, the Horned Frogs will line up all-MWC Marshall Newhouse, Kyle Dooley, new starter Jake Kirkpatrick, Josh Vernon or JUCO transfer Zach Roth, and all-MWC Marcus Cannon in front. Monstrous returning starter Nic Richmond probably will rotate with Cannon (who tips the scales at a clean 350 lbs!). This line will be the conference's most potent: only Kirkpatrick and Roth have never started; Roth redshirted last season; both have impressed in practice. Dooley and Vernon pushed their way ahead of more experienced starters into the first team last season.
The Frogs' weakest link last season was at tailback; a lack of power running made the difference between the Frogs and Utes in SLC; it would have made the OU game more interesting. Coach Gary Patterson clearly made power running a priority since, and has perhaps the most audacious transfer- and redshirting backfield in the nation under his wing. Assuming this four-headed beast does redshirt, and sit out as required, the Frogs replace Aaron Brown and Justin Watts with returning starter Joseph Turner, senior Chris Smith, sophemore speedsters Jai Cavness and Jercell Fort, fullback Luke Shivers, and redshirt freshman phenom Edward Wesley. Reports put Turner splitting snaps with Wesley, who apparently became unstoppable after signing with the Frogs. Behind this group lurks the menacing quartet of James, Tucker, Smith, and Dean, who'll press the returners like no other group on the roster. Look for dominance on the ground from TCU for years to come.
For the first time in Air Force coach Troy Calhoun's tenure, he has an experienced offensive line to work with. Starters at LT (Williams) and C (Pipes) graduate, but the replacements are experienced. LT A.J. Wallerstein is one of Calhoun's fabulous freshmen who worked into the 2-deep last year. The Academy returns multi-year all-conference guard Nick Charles at LG. Experienced senior Michael Hampton finally gets to start at center. To his right are returning starters Peter Lusk and all-conference tackle Chris Campbell. Every bit as much as the flashy skill players working behind it, this o-line has Falcon fans' expectations for a third consecutive bowl season sky high.
Speaking of skill players, Asher Clark's recovery from a torn meniscus in the spring is perhaps the #1 issue for the Falcons' backfield this fall. Clark-- or perhaps Tim Jefferson-- will share touches with Kyle Lumpkin, Savier Stephens, and Jared Tew, running AFA's ground-eating option. Clark is said to have returned in form, (and Tim Jefferson is eligible, says the coach, see coming post about MWC qbs), the Falcons should have their most potent offense in recent memory on the field.
Utah must rebuild the right half of its offensive line, losing all-conference guard Robert Conleyand two-year starter Dustin Hensel. Tony Bergstrom returns from an LDS mission to play RT, and D-lineman turned o-lineman, now with a year's game experience at RG starts Neli A'asa. Returning on the line are all-conference LT Zane Beadles, LG- Caleb Schlauderaff, and all-MWC center Zane Taylor. Don't look for much dropoff in Utah's push up front, which won them 4.1 ypc last year.
Behind the line, RB Darrell Mack graduated, leaving Matt Asiata the clear go-to guy on the ground. Asiata led the team in yards and carries last season, and will be backed up by Eddie Wide and Sausan Shakerin. Look for this backfield to match last year's production.
BYU loses four starting linemen, three of them all-conference performers: Ray Feinga and Dallas Reynolds first-teamers, and Travis Bright on the second team. These four excelled in all but a handful of games in the last three or more years. The only starter returning is Matt Reynolds, who will play LT, with experienced uperclassmen Jason Speredon, R.J. Willing lining up at LG and C. Sophomore Terence Brown and experienced junior Nick Alletto complete the line. This front five has plenty of experience, just not starts in spades. Last year's line had only the third-best YPC in four years, so don't expect much dropoff; it isn't beyond reasonable possibility that this line wil exceed last year's.
These big guys will be blocking for returning starter Harvey Unga, and for J.J. DiLuigi and Manase Tonga. This group loses only Fui Vakapuna, now in the NFL. This is one of the conference's best backfields, running behind a good line. BYU's ability to move the ball on the ground is underestimated this season; look for the Cougars' ground game to excel, complimenting what will be a wicked pass attack.
Colorado State returns the most experienced offensive line in the nation, with Cole Pemberton, Shelley Smith, Tim Walter, Adrian Martinez, and Mark Starr all returning. Mark Starr replaces Dane Stratton, and only Smith has been all-conference, but look for this group to make lots of room for somebody (more on that below) to fill in some of Gartrell Johnson's big shoes at runningback.
Johnson and Kyle Bell's graduation leaves only younger players who've never started to tote the rock for the Rams. JUCO transfer Leonard Mason early enrolled, but did not settle the matter. John Mosure, Michael Connor, and Jonathan Gaye are all competing for touches, as well. Without a playmaker behind them, CSU's great '09 o-line may be one of the more potent wastes in the conference.
UNLV loses two starters on the line, guards Johan Asiata and Sifi Moala. Long-time starter Joe Hawley settles in at RG, and the young Sean Tesoro has won praise for his performance at LG. Returners Matt Murphy, John Gianninoto, and Evan Marchal complete the line, making UNLV's starting five one of the conference's best. They'll top four ypc for the first time since TCU joined the conference.
Why does the Wimple rank this unit so low, then? Because no Rebel runner has yet shown the capacity to fill most, let alone all, of graduating Frank Summers's shoes. C.J. Cox probably has the inside track to starting, because he's been around Las Vegas two or three years longer than incoming freshman Bradley Randle, who will challenge Cox for the starting role. If UNLV's backfield can show some life, look for the Rebs' bowl-chase finally to bear fruit in 2009.
New Mexico replaces the left two starters on its o-line, Sylvester Hatten and Matt Streid. Joining the returning all-conference center Eric Cook, and the returning RG and RT Joshua Taufalele and Byron Bell will be experienced Ivan Hernandez and Maurice Mears, both JUCO transfers who played last season with the Lobos. This line, while experienced, won't have as much talent running behind it as last year, when the Lobos got 4.6 ypc.
Speaking of them running behind, New Mexico graduated Rodney Ferguson, it's second great runner the last few years. Paul Paker and Matt Quillen also do not return. The only Lobo runner returning who started a game is FB Josh Fussell, but the new offense doesn't use fullbacks much-- or at all. So experienced James Wright, Terrence Brown, and inexperienced A.J. Butler and Demond Dennis all are in the mix to become the Lobos' main back. Simply put, who'll emerge (if anyone) is an open question.
San Diego State graduated two starters on its line: LG Mike Schmidt and RT Lance Louis. Its cast of returning linemen is, like every other position, large, and like every other list for this year's time, large because of last year's incredible injury plague. Look for returners Peter Nelson, Ikaika Aken-Moeta, Trask Iosefa to play LT, LG, and center, each starting for a second year (Aken-Moeta moving from RG to LG). Redshirt freshman Jimmy Miller has moved ahead of Emillio Rivera at RG, and Mike Matamua finally gets to start at RT, where he redshirted in '07, and missed with injury in '08. This is one of the most experienced lines in the conference, but they're learning new schemes under Brady Hoke's spread, making their experience less valuable. They'll outperform their dismal '08 numbers, though. Depth is a concern.
Tyler Campbell graduated at RB, leaving Atiyyah Henderson and Brandon Sullivan with the inside track to start. This spring, Davon Brown pushed himself into contention as well. Like New Mexico, UNLV, CSU, and Wyoming, the Aztecs are waiting for a go-to runningback to emerge. Bowl eligibility may hang on it.
Wyoming must replace two starters on its o-line, both all-conference. C Tim Bond and RG Kyle Howard take 74 starts' experience with them. Only BYU loses more experience; the Cougars will replace it much more successfully, though. Wyoming is undergoing a complete personality revision, and will spend at least a year in complete discombobulation. That's start up front, where Ryan Otterson, Sam Sterner return at LT and LG, but return to something unlike they've ever played. Russ Arnold has played center at Wyoming a lot; on his right will be the young Jack Tennant. Clayton Kirven returns at RT. This group must recast itself as an up-tempo, ultra-spread offensive line, and likely will drop off from last year's 4.3 ypc significantly.
A big part of the reason for this dropoff is the graduation of runners Devin Moore and Wynel Seldon, who together accounted for something like 80% of the Cowboys' ground game. Their replacements are a complete tossup between returners Darius Terry, James Davis, James Caraway, and incoming freshman Anthony Smith. Look for regression before the new offense clicks (likely with increased infiltration of Dave Christiensen's recruits).