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TCU Football Preview: The Offensive Line has been the surprise of camp

One of the biggest areas of concern going into the season seems to be sorting itself out.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Christian Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

TCU Football sent four offensive linemen to NFL camps this summer, meaning that we are looking at massive turnover in the trenches for the Horned Frog offense. After being one of the more experienced groups in the Big 12 in 2017 (ranked third in the conference and 41st in the country), TCU is now dead last in the conference in returning starts at the position, and ranked 123rd of 130 teams in the country - with just 26 starts among the listed offensive linemen.

Of those 26 career starts, 16 of those belong to junior Cordel Iwuagwu (all at left guard, including 14 last year), two belong to senior Trey Elliott (two at left guard in 2016), and eight to right tackle Lucas Niang. Of those three, only Iwuagwu played the entire season in 2017, while Elliott and Niang both lost time to injury. In fact, injuries are the story among the remaining experienced linemen, as it seems all have missed all or part of a season in their time on campus in Fort Worth.

But, despite this lack of experience, Gary Patterson has been unusually pleased with his front five, making a point to give them a little love any time he has had an opportunity. After the first scrimmage, he had established a solid starting five. “The first team group, very happy with as a general rule.” With so much youth and so little experience, it was more about teaching early on, and the group seemed receptive. “We don’t change what we teach, whole part whole, so you throw it on the board and see what works. Now you’re just getting better. Today we got better, because we were able to teach a whole bunch of stuff - now we are teaching technique, not just defense. How you fit, how you sit.”

A week later, there was depth behind the starters, as the Frogs seemed to have found their eight. “Our offensive line, really, has been the big surprise. They’ve really gotten better. We still need to keep getting better at one of the tackles - I won’t say which one so they don’t pick on him - but, with Casey coming back - our goal is to get eight. I think we will have eight.”

TCU running back Sewo Olonilua, for one, expected this all along, as he said during Media Days last month. “There’s doubts about the offensive line, but I really don’t see the doubts,” Olonilua said. “They played hard in the spring and made holes. I think they’ll be the biggest surprise.”

With McDermott Vai out, other players have had the shot to step up. Though the senior guard has seen action in just six games in his career, he’s a likely candidate to start, and until he returns (Patterson expects him back early this week), other young players have stepped in and stood out - namely Wes Harris, whose stock seems to be rising. Additionally, highly rated juco transfer tackle Anthony McKinney seems to be making the adjustment to the DI level, and is starting to look like the player the Frogs thought they were getting when he arrived on campus in January. “Anthony McKinney has come on - we are a lot farther along than where we were in the spring. Casey coming back, Wes Harris being in the mix. I think guards and centers are going to be better than what we were at the end of the spring, so that’s what you wanted to get accomplished in camp - you wanted to get better at that.”

As the unit continues to grow and improve, continuity would seem to be the key. But that’s not always the case, as Patterson told reporters Saturday. “If you’ve watched us, we’ve always rotated. Not during the series, but after the series.” It’s true that the Frogs will often use multiple offensive linemen in the same game to keep players fresh, much like they do on the defensive side. But, in order to do so successfully, you have to be able to bring in the two without missing a step from the one. If TCU has eight, that may very well be the case.

For now, it would appear that three positions are pretty much decided:

  1. Kelton Hollins will be the starting center.
  2. Lucas Niang will start at one tackle spot.
  3. Cordel Iwuagwu will handle left guard.

That leaves right guard (probably a battle between Wes Harris, Casey McDermott Vai, and Trey Elliott) and the other tackle position (McKinney, David Bolisomi, redshirt freshman Quazzel White, and sophomore Austin Myers) to make the starting five and three rotational subs. It has a chance to be an incredibly talented group - and a huge one to boot - that is getting plenty of work going up against a talented TCU defensive line daily in practice.

Offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie knows how important this group is to how successful his unit ultimately is, but was excited about their potential as camp began. “They move well together on and off the field.” “I think that’s what you look for – this group coming together as one. You try to figure out the best way to use those guys up front in terms of the run game and also protection.” Between Cumbie and second-year offensive line coach Chris Thomsen, these players are certainly in good hands developmentally. Another aspect of maximizing their potential is choosing a quarterback who can help them out, and it seems as if TCU has done just that in naming Shawn Robinson the starter. Though GP mentioned all spring and throughout camp just how well Michael Collins moves, Robinson is an “X-Factor” for the Frogs, a guy who can get himself out of trouble and extend plays. He is, to quote Patterson, “an offensive lineman’s dream - since the TCU defense spent all of two-a-days trying to catch him.”

Projected starting center Kelton Hollins has heard the doubts and the concerns, and they’ve given him - and his teammates - a mission. “I’m living out one of my childhood dreams, so I am going to do the best I can to be the best I can be. I am just excited to see us grow as a unit. People are doubting us, but it’s all about practice. We are going to get better each and every day. Just go out there and get better.”

In the early returns, it seems as if they are doing just that.