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Maryland Football Preview, Position-by-Position: Offensive Line

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In the coming days, we'll preview Maryland's football chances position-by-position, ala CFN. Only a lot more accurate, and in reverse order (ie, secondary to quarterback). Quite simply, because there's nothing else to talk about.

Oi. There are some things that you enjoy writing about. Like, oh, I don't know, basketball recruiting and conference expansion talk always comes easy. So does basketball writing when things go well. There are other things that you really, really don't enjoy writing about, like, uh, Maryland's offensive line. And that's just about it.

Maryland's OL was horrendously bad last year. You know that. If we're grading them, it would probably be an F minus. Maybe F minus-minus. Quite simply, it was porous and disrupted any sort of offensive rhythm Maryland tried to create. It was a very big reason that Maryland's offense was one of the worst in the country last year.

Last year, I mentioned that my motto for next year was "It can't get any worse." Well, guess what? I was probably wrong. Bruce Campbell left for the draft, Phil Costa graduated, Lamar Young left the team, and Maryland landed little in the way of instant-impact linemen in their recruiting class.

That all accounts for no entrenched starters, a convoluted mess of a depth chart, and the potential that the line next year will be just as bad - if not worse - than it was last year.

But there is also reason for optimism. Even though Campbell leaves, he missed a good chunk of Maryland's season due to injury anyway, and was limited for many of the games that played in. And even though no Arie Kouandjio-level players joined the team this year, the staff did the smart thing by saving the redshirts of Pete White and Pete DeSouza, both of whom can contribute as redshirt freshman next year. Of course, everyone on the line has one more year of experience and is one year wiser because of it. And hey, Maryland's offensive line actually wasn't that bad in the spring, either.

Still, there's plenty of uncertainty surrounding the line, and it's hardly comforting. With a plethora of talent at wide receiver and running back and a quarterback that will probably be satisfactory at a minimum, Maryland's offensive line may be the deciding factor to the ultimate success of their offense. Either they'll limit its potential, like last year, or they'll free it and let the considerable talent - like Torrey Smith - fly free, maybe all the way to a bowl game.

The starters. Few players have a job locked down. Those that do have a job locked down may not even end up at the same position that they're playing right now (like Paul Pinegar, who stands a good shot to move out to tackle again). But at the very least those guys help provide a consistent, calming presence that was largely absent from last year's team, with the obvious exception of Costa at center.

Pinegar is by far the most secure of all the linemen. A former walk-on, Pinegar earned his scholarship last season and fully deserved it after being a starter for parts of two seasons. He's a tackle by trade, did some spot work at guard last season, and is slated to start at center right now. If you couldn't tell, versatility is a big virtue of Pinegar, one of his many. Like most walk-ons, he's a hard worker that knows the game, which is key for playing center. Mental mistakes there can cost teams in a big way, so having a smart player like Pinegar there should be a relief.

The worries start to come in when you realize that Pinegar hasn't played center in his collegiate career and simply seems cut out to be a guard. There are questions of rust and maybe even his a lack of natural skill for the position. He's a bit of a gamble, but his experience makes him less of one than almost anyone else on the team.

Elsewhere, Andrew Gonnella is likely assured of a starting spot somewhere along the line as well, and his position is probably closer to being nailed down than it is for Pinegar. We're pretty certain, for example, that Gonnella will be playing one of the guard spots in the fall. We're not quite sure which one, but for the moment he seems set at LG (he's also played RG). And that's pretty good for Maryland; Gonnella, a former walk-on that, like Pinegar, earned his scholarship last year, is experienced and didn't look awful when he got playing time last year. As sad as it might be, that's good enough for me to feel great about a player with the state of this offensive line.

But that's not really giving Gonnella enough credit. He's a solid option at guard and will at the very least provide starting experience and the relatively steady presence that comes with it. If he can prove himself better than adequate in the skills category - and I believe that if those around him hold up, he will - it's gravy.

And after those two, it begins to get a lot fuzzier. Justin Gilbert is probably pretty well set at LT, mostly because there just aren't a lot of other compelling options right now. He's seen a little bit of playing time and started the occasional game, and I can recall exactly nothing he did. With offensive linemen, that's usually a good thing. After all, it's better to remember nothing than remember a bunch of holding calls and blown blocks. I'm cautiously optimistic there.

Bennett Fulper was a huge bright spot last year, and probably the only one on the offensive line. He saw serious time in the season opener against Cal, which is definitely unusual for unheralded true freshmen. Most of his time came at guard, either opposite Gonnella or spelling him, and he actually did pretty well. The coaches praised him, as did most reports from practices. Despite being unheralded out of high school, he was impressive and has a high ceiling.

Unfortunately, he was injured halfway through the year and never really got back on the horse. That was unfortunate, because Maryland needed the help. The plan going into the offseason was to use him as the center next year, but for whatever reason that didn't happen, and Pinegar moved inside from LT. Ultimately, that's one of the more disappointing revelations of the spring; Fulper, an interior lineman already, seems more suited to center than Pinegar, and it would allow Maryland's best linemen on the field at all times. But it is what it is, and Fulper should be able to help out at guard anyway.

Finally, R.J. Dill is the likely starter at right tackle. It took him quite a bit to earn that spot last year, including beating out Pinegar and Tyler Bowen, who's no longer on the team. He's custom-made as a right tackle; big, tall, and strong, with long arms and a nasty streak. But his technique was lacking and he missed more than a few blocks. Dill's potential is among the best on the line, but he needs to be more consistent to earn and retain his playing time, which will likely be plentiful.

The hope is that his playing time last year, when he was one of the few linemen not hit hard by injuries, will help to rectify those problems. He wasn't astoundingly great - in fact, he was rather average - but he was a redshirt freshman, a fact often forgotten. If he improves, he has the best chance of being an anchor of the line.

This group is made up of players have never proven themselves anything more than "okay." It's not meant to be mean; everyone here would be good on a line that already had good players on it, but there's no rock of the line and certainly no star. Will someone become that? Maybe. But perhaps now you see why there's so much concern; Maryland's line is currently made up of two walk-ons - albeit impressive ones - a player who's greatest achievement is not being remembered by me when writing this, a solid but ultimately unproven sophomore, and a big but inconsistent tackle that has one average year under his belt.

Again, I don't mean to be disrespectful. There's talent here. On their own, it's possible, maybe even probable, that no one here is "bad." But when everyone is little more than not "bad", the line is a scary proposition.

The backups. Maryland's offensive line backups aren't as talented and pressing the starters as much as the defensive line backups are, but that doesn't mean that they're devoid of talent. In fact, a potentially bright future for Maryland's line lies in the 2- and 3-deep.

The most prominent backup is Pete White, a redshirt freshman and former Under Armour All-American from St. John's in DC. White is an absolutely massive guard that has more potential than anyone else on the line (anyone else a UA All-American? didn't think so). The urge to play White and burn his redshirt last year must've been strong, so kudos to the staff for withholding it and doing the right thing.

White has needed to lose some weight and get into better shape since he arrived on campus, but there's no doubting his brute strength, push off the line, drive, and technique. His biggest problem has always had to do with weight - stamina, speed, finishing blocks - but Maryland's S&C coach, Dwight Galt, has always been one of the best in the business. The next problem has to do with actually succeeding on the field, which seemingly has been a problem for him throughout the spring. Until he steps it up in practice, he won't see the field, but he has a better chance than anyone else of becoming an offensive line star.

Then there's another DC-area redshirt freshman that should be pushing for a starting spot before too long: Pete DeSouza. The DeMatha grad was moderately highly recruited in high school, and is smaller than White but still strong and rather sizable. He's always been able to play either at tackle or guard, and he's currently listed at tackle on Maryland's depth chart. His versatility means he could potentially fill three or four line positions, so there's probably a good chance he'll end seeing serious time before the season ends. His footwork and athleticism has often been lauded, and most reports have pegged him as a solid lineman without star potential. Given Maryland's current position, I'm sure they'll take that in a few years.

And who could forget about Justin Lewis, Mr. Mixtape himself? Though the left guard is probably better known for his rapping endeavours than on-field successes at this point, Lewis has started a few games and did well enough in them for me to be okay with him seeing playing time at some point. (Oh, and for the record: his debut was better than I originally pegged it. He's actually a pretty good rapper, but production isn't his strong suit (if he produced it himself). Either way, there's some potential there to be pretty good).

Nick Klemm was a late commitment two years ago, and redshirted last year. Now he's a redshirt freshman that's just an injury away from seeing a lot of playing time at one of the most important positions on the field, left tackle. Currently Gilbert's main backup, Klemm has drifted under the radar since his time here, and I'd be lying to you if I told you anything about his game. I have heard vaguely positive reports, which is encouraging considering his current status.

There are a few incoming freshmen that could do nicely in a pinch if Maryland found themselves in a pickle. Max Garcia is the most highly regarded of all of them, and has been listed as both a guard and a tackle. He's light on his feet and surprisingly agile, which will be important as speed becomes more and more prominent in college football. Likewise, Sal Conaboy is a guard/center from Pennsylvania that is perhaps undersized but great technically and a force in the running game. Jake Wheeler is a LT from Florida with great athleticism and size, but is rather rough around the edges. I wouldn't be shocked if Garcia or Conaboy received time; Wheeler would be a surprise.

Actually, though, I'm saving the best for last: Nate Clarke. The offensive guard/defensive tackle from Archbishop Carroll was possibly Maryland's best commitment from 2010, and holds a better chance than any other offensive freshman of seriously contributing in his first year. It's still unseen if he'll end up on offense or defense, but he's big, quick, and has a killer motor. In four years, he'll probably be the best recruit out of all the linemen. If Maryland finds themselves in need of a guard and are seriously contending for a bowl game, Clarke's name has to come up.

Where to watch. "Everywhere," would be an acceptable answer here, but I'll go out on a limb (kinda) and say center, with left tackle a close second. Pinegar is one of Maryland's best linemen, and I'm conflicted about him playing at center. If Conaboy or Fulper can play the position, I'd feel a lot more comfortable with either of them at center and Pinegar at LT. Those are the only two positions that are staffed by truly questionable players and have almost nothing in the way of backups. That being the case, it's safe to expect an injury to either of them. Regardless, the fate of the line will heavily rely on how these two spots turn out.

Importance level. Ultra-high. If the line can give Jamarr Robinson (or Danny O'Brien) some time behind the line and those two aren't utter disasters, Maryland's offense will be fine. There's a ridiculous amount of talent; the offensive line is the only real limiting factor here. If it gels, a bowl game is a distinct possibility. If it doesn't, 2-10 is far more likely.