The Starters: LT Lee Ziemba (6’8″, 319, Sr.), LG Mike Berry (6’3″, 316, Sr.), C Ryan Pugh (6’4″, 297, Sr.), RG Byron Isom (6’3″, 302, Sr.), RT A.J. Greene* (6’5″, 291, Sr.)
The Backups: T John Sullen (6’6″, 312, So.), G Jared Cooper (6’4″, 300, Jr.), T Brandon Mosley (6’6″, 299, Jr.), C Blake Burgess (6’2″, 278, rFr.), G Chad Slade (6’5″, 316, Fr.)
The Wildcard: G Bart Eddins (6’4″, 304, Sr.)
I’m going to expand on this in the days to come, but of the many, many things I desperately want for this Auburn team, one of them–one at the top–is for this Ziemba-Berry-Pugh-Isom quartet to ride off into the sunset they deserve. For an offensive line to retain an identical 4/5ths of its starters for two consecutive years is unusual; for it to do it a second straight year is all but unheard of*, I’d expect. Another year churning out five yards a carry (a 1.5 yard increase per attempt on 2008), with hopefully a few less sacks and penalties, and the four of them will rightfully graduate from Auburn as one of the most productive, talented, dedicated groups of linemen the Plains has ever seen.
And if they stay healthy, it’s hard to find too many reasons they won’t. Take Ziemba: he was back to his head-mashin’, rush-stonin’, confident self last season, and despite the flag-happy rep, managed to go the entire season without committing a single holding penalty. He’s bigger, stronger, and more experienced than ever before, and preseason All-SEC (and fourth-team All-America to Phil Steele) for a reason.
Along the rest of the line, Pugh has the miserable slimmed-down tackle days under Franklin well behind him and should also contend for All-SEC honors (if not more); Berry is enormous as always and is coming off a year in which you could argue he was the team’s second-best lineman behind Ziemba; Isom maybe isn’t quite on the other three veterans’ level and was the only one to miss time last season, but he’s been far from a “weak link,” either, and was particularly productive in the run game a year ago. Collectively, they’ve got 111 career starts, good for 6th in the country. They’ve got a year under Grimes’ tutelage and in Malzahn’s system under their belts already. They’re bigger and more powerful than ever. They truly ought to be one of the best lines in the SEC, and probably the country.
But if I said it’s hard to find reasons they won’t be, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Andrew McCain was solid enough a year ago in his only season at right tackle, but never a whole lot more than “competent,”either; while no one’s going to complain if that’s all A.J. Greene is, and McCain’s experience and Greene’s emerging from a crowded field suggest he will be that at least, the line’s ceiling can only rise so high if Greene can’t match the improvement elsewhere along it. His sudden rise from total non-contributor to only new line starter is a heck of a story, but it doesn’t necessarily presage greatness any more than McCain’s injury-and-position-switch-scarred career did entering 2009.
Depth-wise, an injury isn’t the cataclysm it would have been last year. Bart Eddins filled in more than ably for Isom last year and should be even more motivated/better prepared to do so this time around; he’s the one guy I’d expect to be able to come on without the line missing a single beat, and it’ll be a surprise if missed time at any of the three interior positions doesn’t result in Eddins hitting the field. (As discussed earlier today, a Pugh injury means Berry moves to center and Eddins comes on at guard.) And unlike last year, there’s a handful of other players who could come on without sparking disaster: John Sullen and Brandon Mosley have both done enough this fall to fall into category, as has Blake Burgess at center. Now in his fourth year at Auburn and having staved off a trip to the scout team, maybe even Jared Cooper could be called on in a time of crisis.
Still, for all of that, the total number of meaningful snaps taken at tackle by non-Ziemba players on the roster equals … zero. The number of starts by all the backups combined equals … two, one by Eddins and one by Sullen last year in relief of Isom. Aside from the main quartet, there’s still precious little in the way of experience, and you might argue that Auburn will be due for an injury to test it at some point; two straight seasons without a single offensive line start lost to injury would be some damn remarkable luck.
But for all of that, what worries me most is just that the expectations for the line are so high … since the last two Auburn lines to bear the weight of those expectations fell far, far short of them. One of them was 2003; somehow, a line of Monreko Crittenden, Danny Lindsey, Mark Pera, Troy Reddick, and Marcus McNeill allowed nearly 2.5 sacks a game and only opened enough holes for the greatest backfield of college football’s decade to run for 4.4 yards a carry (Not bad, but still.) The other was 2006, where Ben Grubbs, Tim Duckworth, and Joe Cope led Auburn to 4.1 yards-per-carry and generally did little to lift an offense that sputtered all season out of the mire.
There were extenuating circumstances in both instances, of course. The Nallsminger experiment, Evil Brandon, a distinct lack of receivers in ’06, Hugh Nall’s position coaching, etc. But none of that made me feel any better reading a week or two ago that the line had farted around all scrimmage and got called out by both Chizik and Malzahn for it. The lines in ’03 and ’06 seemed to take their positions and their success for granted, and they played like it; could that happen again in ’09?
I don’t think so, because I get the feeling that Malzahn and Grimes won’t let it happen, and because it’s not the team as a whole has much to feel satisfied about after going 8-5, 3-5. What I think is that the scrimmage may have just been a bit of a wake-up call, and that we’ll see a line much like last year’s, but even better. But it’s not a concern I can just dismiss, and between that, Greene being green, and the potential for injuries to wreak havoc, the line still isn’t the total slam dunk I feel like, say, the running backs are.
I’m still expecting better than five yards a carry–say, 5.3 this time–to go with 17 or fewer sacks allowed and a big drop in procedure penalties. Ziemba, Pugh, and Berry all make All-SEC of some kind. Eddins and Sullen both fill in for a game or two and both stand tall.
Do all that, and the Big Four will get that sunset ride I talked about. If they’re healthy, they’re going to be good.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE
*I can’t help it; I still have to wonder how incredible Auburn’s line would have been last year and would have been again this year if Chaz Ramsey had never gotten hurt. The same starting five for three straight years, with three of those lineman having been starters alongside one another since they were freshmen? The mind boggles.