Next in the Wimple's pre-season examination of Mountain West unites comes a look at the beef up front.
First, the returning career starts on the line for each team in the MWC: Utah -- 89, UNLV -- 86, WYOMING -- 70, TCU -- 67, SDSU -- 67, BYU -- 66, UNM -- 38, CSU -- 30, AFA -- 1
The experience factor breaks three ways. The four heavily experienced lines in the conference, Utah, TCU, BYU and UNLV, each replace only one starter (Zane Beadles drafted from Utah, Joe Hawley drafted from UNLV, Marshall Newhouse drafted from TCU, and R.J. Willig graduated from BYU). TCU, Utah, and BYU have the strongest lines in the conference, and will continue to power the dominance of the Big Three. UNLV's has potential, and given a new emphasis on the ground game, will post significant statistical gains. But it will not match the push of the Big Three's lines.
Push come to shove (pun intended) the Big Three's lines rank about like this: Utah and TCU tie for first, and BYU comes in a very close second. Both the Horned Frogs and Utes return their starting centers, unlike the Cougars, and that continuity in the line's critical communicative position makes the difference. TCU's Jake Kirkpatrick was the 1st-team all-MWC center in '09; Utah's Zane Taylor was the 2nd-team center. The conference's two potential early-round NFL picks among o-linement come from TCU (tackle Marcus Cannon, who measures in at a nimble 6-5, 350 lbs!) and BYU (tackle Matt Reynolds, 6-6, 329).
For all its returning strengths, UNLV's line is a mixed bag. Yes they're senior-heavy, and experienced. But their experience comes in the shotgun spread, and truth is, they weren't too great at that. Coach Hauck's run emphasis has shaken things up in Las Vegas, and until the season gets rolling, I don't know what to expect from the Rebels-- on the line, or anywhere else.
Wyoming, and San Diego State each return experienced but younger lines that need to show increased performance in 2010. Wyoming had a dropoff in its ground game last season, and has shuffled its line to replace three starters. SDSU lost two multi-year starters to graduation, and is counting on JUCO transfers finally to up the performance of its line. San Diego State has more potential to surprise on the ground than any other team but one in the MWC. If the Aztecs can change their attitude in 2010 and play to their potential, they will be the conference surprise team.
Colorado State, New Mexico, and Air Force feature almost completely new offensive lines. Air Force usually endures these kinds of changeovers more seamlessly than traditional offenses like the ones at Colorado State and New Mexico.
The Rams return two starters, LT Paul Madsen and Mark Starr at RT. Each of the remaining three, C Tyler McDermott, and guards Jake Gdowski and Connor Smith are experienced linemen, but have few starts. McDermott is new to center, and must improve as a snapper before the team can improve. Ram watchers are saying the line will be fine; but they said last year's team was killer, too.
New Mexico is more experienced, as four players on the line have starting experience. LT Byron Bell is the anchor; LG Karlin Givens is a multi-year starter as well. RT Maurice Mears and and RG Mike Cannon each are upperclassmen with starts under their belts. The only underclassmen among the starters is C Dillon Farrell, who MVPd on the scout team during his redshirt year. New Mexico has as much unrealized potential in its ground game as San Diego State, and with the Aztecs are capable of remarkable resurgence and in 2010.
Air Force is a different animal, because its schemes (and very good coaching) mean there is less disruption when the team replaces linemen. So, even though the Falcons have back only one start (total!) up front, in the resume of A.J. Wallerstein, don't expect much dropoff in Colorado Springs. Wallerstein and guard Chase Darden played in every game last season; in fact, the only underclassmen on the line may be the left guard. That spot likely will go to either of two sophomores, Jason Kons or Jordan Eason.