Season Preview: O-Line

By Todd Forrest / @hotrodtodd25

We’ve reached the end of the offensive position previews and all that remains are the big guys in the trenches, assigned with protecting whoever ends up at quarterback.
A glaring weakness over the past few seasons, the Canes’ offensive line has also caught a bad rap while being tasked with keeping defenders off a stationary quarterback. Whoever wins the QB job in 2017 will already have a leg up on Brad Kaaya in the mobility department – taking some of the strain off the O-line.

A lot of the question marks entering 2017 will rely on the dependability of the offensive line. With plenty of time to throw and make reads in the RPO/read option game will ease the transition of the new signal caller. Meanwhile, limiting the hits on Mark Walton from big, nasty defensive lineman and head hunting linebackers will curtail the wear-and-tear on Miami’s only proven back.

There were a few departures off the line, most notably, the graduation of senior guard Danny Isidora. At the conclusion of spring practice, Coach Mark Richt learned that rising RS-senior tackle Sunny Odogwu would leave the program as a graduate transfer. Other losses were backup center Alex Gall (graduated – 4 career starts) and backup tackle Hunter Knighton (grad transfer – Tulane).

New additions that should see the field this fall are RS-sophomore tackle George Brown (6-7, 300 – transfer from LSU) and 4-star true freshman Navaughn Donaldson (6-6, 335), the 11th ranked tackle in the 2017 class according to 247Sports. An early-enrollee out of Miami Central, Donaldson found himself in the mix for a starting job at guard during the spring. Loyal from the get-go, Donaldson committed to the Canes in July 2015 and stayed true despite taking official visits to Gainesville, Tallahassee and Chapel Hill, NC.

Headlining the remaining true freshman is Kai-Leon Herbert (6-5, 285), the 23rd ranked tackle (247Sports) in 2017, who decommitted from Michigan following an official visit to Coral Gables in January. Three days removed from his Wolverines decommitment, Herbert pledged himself to The U after a visit from Richt, Stacy Searels and Mike Rumph.

Meanwhile, 3-star Guards Zach Dykstra (6-6, 300) and Corey Gaynor (6-4, 285) and 3-star tackle Zalon’tae Hillery (6-6, 285) will likely draw a redshirt in 2017 and hone their skills on the scout team. Although, with limited depth at center, don’t be surprised if a freshman (or two) works their way onto the two-deep.

TACKLE: Entering 2016, Miami returned all five starters up front but lost Odogwu after game five and center Nick Linder (6-3, 300) after the ninth game. As a result, sophomore Tyree St. Louis (6-5, 305) gained valuable experience at right tackle in place of Odogwu and looks to be in the driver’s seat for the RT spot in 2017. However, St. Louis is versatile enough to move inside to guard, and with the addition of three freshman tackles to go along with Brown, many (myself included) believed St. Louis would return to his more natural position of guard. He would prove all of us wrong in the spring when he maintained his grip on the RT spot and Donaldson was moved to guard.

As a junior KC McDermott (6-7, 300) entered 2016 behind RG Isidora on the depth chart but took over the starting job at LG and was solid during Miami’s five-game winning streak to close the season.

In the spring, the LT position was up for grabs and McDermott decided to toss his hat into the ring along with Brown and last year’s starter, fellow senior Trevor Darling. It didn’t take long for McDermott to win the first team LT job and looks to be the front runner for that spot as Sept. 2 approaches. As for the NFL Draft, some sites have McDermott among the top 18 tackles with the potential to go as high Round 5.

Vicious in the run game, McDermott (the No. 3 OT in the nation out of high school) will need to improve his pass protection if he’s to excel at the LT position, but with the improvement he’s already shown during his college career, there’s no reason to expect that he isn’t up to the challenge. One area that also needs work is his bad habit of picking up false starts. As a senior with 20+ starts under his belt, he can no longer be a liability, especially with an inexperienced QB. Putting them in constant 3rd and long situations will get your young QB injured (ask Kaaya or Jacory Harris).

McDermott does have experience at LT after opening his freshman season of 2014 as the backup. He would see action in the first four games before tearing his MCL and missing the rest of the year. Expected to replace Erek Flowers in 2015, McDermott struggled early and lost his starting job to Darling. He would work his way back into the starting lineup at LG and that’s where he opened 2016.

If McDermott isn’t the answer at LT, Brown could get a look. Donaldson will eventually end up at tackle but not this season – unless injuries/poor play force a reshuffling of the deck. RS-freshman Tre Johnson (6-7, 305) is another option at tackle with plenty of size, but has yet to see the field after getting redshirted in 2016. RS-sophomore Bar Milo (6-6, 300) saw minimal action last season as a backup guard but could see more reps as a backup tackle in 2017. Last year’s starter, Darling, has been moved to guard and that brings us to our next position.

GUARD: The aforementioned Darling has started at tackle since 2015 but inconsistent play resulted in the move inside. With 27 starts at tackle currently on his resume, the starting job should have been a given as a senior. However, the transition to guard could be his ticket onto an NFL roster in 2018 if the move proves beneficial. At 6-4, 300 he lacks the ideal size to play tackle on Sunday so the switch would have come sooner or later if he’s to continue his playing days beyond the ACC.

The other guard spot will likely be manned by Donaldson with RS-sophomore Hayden Mahoney (6-5, 295) and RS-junior Jahair Jones leading the way among backups. Additionally, Herbert could provide extra depth at the guard spot in year one.

CENTER: How quickly Linder recovers from an injury that cost him the final four games of 2016 and all of the spring is the biggest question mark at the position. At the moment, junior Tyler Gauthier leads the way at center but when Linder is at full strength, he could bump Gauthier to guard, or vice-versa. Gaynor is a long-shot at seeing the field but could turn out to be the steal of the recruiting class.

Regardless of which (or any) freshman get redshirted in 2017, there are plenty of positives to take away from the young guys competing right away. It’s a breath of fresh air to have new blood on the O-line after consecutive subpar seasons. One thing is for sure, the best player will play and class superiority is out the window. Some of the older players, like Darling, have stepped up to the challenge while others have transferred out of the program. And with a plethora of talented big men on the way in the Class of 2018, the O-line should once again be the strength of the program, reminiscent of the late 90s and early 2000s when the Canes were churning out stud running backs on an assembly line and the QBs were rarely touched.

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