Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The all-too familiar mantra that "battles
are won in the trenches" is one thrown around football often.
It isn't the most glamorous of positions and will rarely be highlighted by
media outlets. If they are doing their job correctly, offensive linemen go
relatively unnoticed, but that shouldn't detract from their importance in
elevating a team from an "also-ran" to a true "contender."
With that in mind, here are the top offensive linemen heading into the 2012 FBS
D.J. FlUKER - An absolute monster of a man, the 6-foot-6, 335-pound Fluker has
been a mainstay on the outside for Alabama for the last two seasons. His frame
makes him an ideal run-blocker and has helped pave the way for record-setting
tailbacks Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram of late. With rare athleticism for a
man his size and a complete skill set, Fluker played on the right side last
year and may be best suited there going forward. Returning to Tuscaloosa for
another season, Fluker has the chance to elevate himself to the top of the list
among offensive tackles in 2012.
LUKE JOECKEL - Texas A&M has the luxury of two offensive tackles who could be
taken in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. One of them is a Matthews, but
the 6-6, 310-pound Joeckel may be the better of the two. A starter on the left
side from the get-go, Joeckel is the complete package, with the strength to
stand up to bull rushers and the poise, footwork and athleticism to handle
speed guys. Just a junior, Joeckel may decide to return to College Station,
Texas, for yet another season, but if he continues to progress, a top-10 grade
heading into the draft may be enough to lure him to head to the NFL.
CHRIS FAULK - The 6-6, 325-pound Faulk started 12 games at left tackle last
season for LSU and dominated at times as a sophomore, earning All-SEC second-
team honors. A gentle giant off the field, Faulk is all business on it. A
strong finisher, Faulk likes nothing more than putting a defender on his butt,
something he did on a regular basis in 2011 (75 knockdowns). He played well
enough to perhaps garner first-team honors, but had to settle last year.
Playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder can't be a settling thought for
his opponents in 2012.
JAKE MATTHEWS - If you were to build an ideal NFL player, taking DNA from the
famed Matthews family may be a good place to start. Well this Texas A&M Aggie
has the pedigree necessary to become one of the nation's best. Son of NFL Hall
of Famer Bruce Matthews, and cousin of current NFL star Clay Matthews, the
6-5, 305-pound junior teams with the equally talented Joeckel to give the
Aggies perhaps the best bookends in the FBS, one less thing to worry about with
the move to the SEC this season. A blossoming star at right tackle, Matthews
should only get batter, as long as he stays healthy. It is almost a certainty
that he will join several family members in the NFL in the near future.
RICKY WAGNER - Wisconsin has churned out NFL quality offensive linemen for
quite some time and this season will be no different. The 6-6, 322-pound Wagner
will be an anchor for the Badgers in 2012, coming off a junior campaign in
which he started all 14 games at left tackle, en route to All-Big Ten honorable
mention honors. Wagner made the move from right tackle as a sophomore and
flourished on the left side. A veteran player, who continues to improve as both
a run blocker and pass protector, his versatility is what separates him from
most tackles. Viewed as a second-day draft prospect heading into 2012, Wagner
could find himself first round-worthy with another strong season in Madison.
HONORABLE MENTION: Alex Hurst (LSU), Taylor Lewan (Michigan), Justin
JONATHAN COOPER - A three-time All-ACC selection, including second-team honors
in 2011, Cooper is regarded as perhaps the top guard in the FBS ranks heading
into 2012. North Carolina's anchor up front, the 6-3, 310-pound senior is set
to cap off a brilliant career in Chapel Hill. Excellent footwork and a high
football IQ make Cooper a force inside. He has gone a bit under the radar with
all the attention going to UNC's defensive stars over the last couple of years,
but that could change in 2012. Cooper could be on the short-list for several
major awards when all is said and done.
ALVIN BAILEY - Arkansas has something special in the 6-5, 320-pound Bailey, who
earned some Freshman All-American accolades in 2010, followed by a 2011 season
in which he was tabbed an All-SEC second-team member. After redshirting in
2009, Bailey has started every game since. Regarded as a premier prospect
heading into 2012, Bailey will have a chance to shine. With the return of
Heisman Trophy hopeful tailback Knile Davis and the emergence of quarterback
Tyler Wilson, the Arkansas offense could have a record-setting season, and
Bailey will be in the middle of it all.
TRAVIS FREDERICK - Yet another Wisconsin Badger on the verge of greatness along
the offensive front. The versatile Frederick started 13 games in 2011, 11 at
left guard and two at center, en route to earning All-Big Ten second-team
honors. At 6-4, 330-pounds, he has the prototypical size for the next level and
bring with him a strong football IQ and above-average strength. As long as he
remains injury free in 2012, he should have no problem joining the long list of
distinguished Badgers who have made the transition to the NFL.
GABE IKARD - This Oklahoma Sooner showed his versatility in 2011, starting all
13 games, including seven at center due to an injury. The 6-4, 300-pound Ikard
proved himself at both positions last year, while earning All-Big 12 first-team
honors as a sophomore. He was tabbed a Freshman All-American in 2010, playing
in 14 games and starting 12 at left guard. A blossoming interior lineman with a
strong skill set, Ikard finished last year with a career-high 88 knockdowns. He
will be an anchor along the offensive front for the Sooners, who should once
again dominate on offense with the return of star quarterback Landry Jones.
CHANCE WARMACK - A consistent performer along Alabama's offensive line, Warmack
has started every game over the last two seasons. The 6-3, 320-pounder garnered
All-SEC second-team honors for the national champion Crimson Tide in 2011 and
has a chance to elevate his draft status along an offensive line that is chock-
full of All-American talent.
HONORABLE MENTION: Larry Warford (Kentucky), Blaze Foltz (TCU), Gabe Jackson
BARRETT JONES - The most versatile and perhaps talented offensive lineman in
the FBS also happens to reside in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The reigning Outland Trophy
winner was a unanimous First-Team All-American in 2011 and is a two-time All-
SEC first-team selection and two-time national champion. The 6-5, 305-pound
Jones would headline all three lists (OT, OG, C), but gets the nod here because
he will make the move to the pivot as a senior, after a dominant performance at
tackle last year and two years of strong play at right guard prior to that. The
complete package, Jones will finish up a truly remarkable career at Alabama in
2012, before making the jump to the NFL next season.
DALTON FREEMAN - A 2011 All-ACC first-team selection, Clemson's veteran center
was a finalist for the Rimington Award as a junior. The 6-5, 285-pound senior
has started 36 of a possible 40 games over the last three seasons and is on
pace to become the school record-holder for career starts along the offensive
line (48). He may be the most important piece of the Clemson offense this
season and that is saying a lot considering the talent that is returning at the
skill positions. Freeman has seen it all and will provide the type of
leadership needed in Death Valley to keep Clemson relevant in the ACC in 2012.
KHALED HOLMES - USC has a veteran presence in the middle of the offensive line
in the form of 6-4, 305-pound Khaled Holmes. After earning All-Pac-10 honorable
mention at right guard in 2010, Holmes moved to center and picked up All-Pac-12
second-team honors in 2011. The senior possesses great versatility and could
elevate himself to the top of the center list by the end of 2012. It could be a
special year at USC, as the Trojans are loaded on offense and would like
nothing better to get back to a BCS bowl game. Holmes will be an important
piece to the puzzle in 2012.
BEN HABERN - Despite an injury that cost him a good portion of the 2011 season,
this Oklahoma Sooner remains one of the top pivots in the country. The 6-4,
292-pounder suffered an arm injury last year and missed five games, but he will
resume his role in the middle in 2012. A smaller, athletic type, Habern is a
three-year starter in Norman and should once again provide great continuity
with star quarterback Landry Jones.
JAMES FERENTZ - The Ferentz legacy in Iowa is not limited to head coach Kirk
Ferentz as his son James has developed into a solid center at the FBS level.
The 6-2, 285-pounder started all 13 games last year and was tabbed an All-Big
Ten honorable mention selection. The Big Ten has had some talented centers over
the last few years and 2012 could shape up for more of the same.
HONORABLE MENTION: Graham Pocic (Illinois), Joe Madsen (West Virginia), Braxton
Cave (Notre Dame).
The Sports Network