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August 13, 2005
Big expectations for big men
In a razzle-dazzle world where electric moves and blazing speed land athletes in the national spotlight, the big men who make it all happen often get left in the wake of their teammates.
But make no mistake: The Laurence Maroneys, Cedric Bensons and Cadillac Williams of the world would have no room to run from defenses and into sports highlight reels without their offensive linemen.
The athletes on this list take on the biggest and strongest that opponents have to offer, week in and week out. They take physical beatings from blitzing linebackers and rabid defensive ends so that their quarterbacks and running backs can leave the playing field in one piece. These are the top 10 offensive linemen in college football. Meet the men behind the men.
1. Marcus McNeill (Auburn)
It's not hard to see why McNeill dominates in the trenches - all you have to do is look at him. The 6-foot-9, 337-pound McNeill led the way for one of the best running attacks in the nation last season. He was voted first-team All-SEC by both the coaches and the media.
McNeill graded out at better than 90 percent for all but one game last season. He anchored a Tigers' line that gave up only 18 sacks and paved the way for 2,383 rushing yards. Though McNeill struggled with injuries early in his college career, he has still managed to start 28 games. McNeill is expected to be a force and a leader on the field for the Tigers in 2005 as Auburn replaces two NFL lottery picks in the backfield.
2. D'Brickashaw Ferguson (Virginia)
Ferguson played a huge role in Virginia's formidable offensive attack last season. Behind his blocking the Cavaliers led the ACC in rushing offense (242.8), total offense (423.4) and fewest sacks allowed (16).
Though Virginia lost an All-American guard and All-ACC center in Elton Brown and Zac Yarbrough, Ferguson's return at left tackle will go a long way to help ease the pain for the Cavaliers. The 6-5, 295-pound senior has started every game of his college career (39 in a row) and was voted an All-American last season. With another solid season in the trenches for Virginia, he could end up as a top-10 pick in the 2006 NFL draft.
3. Greg Eslinger (Minnesota)
When people think of the stereotypical dominating Big Ten lineman, Eslinger's image may well pop into their heads. Having started every game in his college career (38 in a row), Eslinger can do everything the backfield needs him to do.
With Eslinger and the other big Minnesota boys in the trenches, the Golden Gophers have surrendered fewer than 20 sacks in each of the past four seasons. Eslinger's run blocking has been even better, as evidenced by Minnesota having eclipsed 2,000 rushing yards for six seasons in a row. The 6-3, 285-pound senior is considered by many to be the best center in the nation. He was named to the All-American team in 2004.
4. Max Jean-Gilles (Georgia)
Behind the strength of Jean-Gilles, the Georgia offensive line was the most improved in the NCAA last season. After surrendering a SEC-high 47 sacks in 2003, the Bulldogs cut the total down to just 21 in 2004. That total should be cut to an even lower number in 2005, as Georgia returns its entire starting line.
For 2005, the 6-4, 340-pound Jean-Giles has already collected a number of honors. For starters, he was named a preseason All-American by Rivals.com and several other publications. He is also on the list of players to watch this season for the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award.
5. Jonathan Scott (Texas)
Scott is a four-year starter who has earned All-Big 12 honors for three consecutive years at tackle. He anchored a powerful Longhorns offensive line that allowed only 11 sacks in 2004. Scott also led the way for a Texas running attack that ranked second in the nation with 299.2 yards per game.
After allowing just one sack last season, Scott was an Associated Pres All-America team member. He is on the preseason watch list for both the Lombardi Award and the Outland Trophy for 2005. The 6-7, 310-pounder has tremendous footwork, an 82-inch wingspan, and is dominating both as a run blocker and pass blocker.
6. Marvin Philip (California)
Though a two-year stint on a Mormon mission has split up Philip's college career, the California center had shaken off all signs of rust by the start of last season. He led an experienced Golden Bears line that helped make J.J. Arrington the nation's leading rusher. The California offense also led the Pac-10 in yards per game.
The expectations for Philip are sky-high coming into his senior season. After registering 43.5 pancake blocks in 2004, the 6-2, 305-pound senior landed on the All-Pac-10 team and was a second team All-America selection. Some publications have named him as the No. 1 center in the nation coming into 2005.
7. Eric Winston (Miami)
After spending his freshman season as a tight end, Winston eventually developed into one of the Hurricanes' top offensive linemen in 2003. Last season, Winston was well on his way to being a Lombardi Award finalist before his season was cut short by a torn ACL during the fourth game.
Despite only having one full year of experience as a tackle, Winston has been named to numerous 2005 preseason All-American teams. He is a dominating, physical presence on the line and one of Miami's vocal leaders. Having fully recovered from his knee injury, the 6-7, 312-pounder will be one of the best tackles in college football this season.
8. Matt Lentz (Michigan)
Lentz is probably the strongest and most durable player in Ann Arbor. He boasts a string of 25 consecutive starts at right guard for the Wolverines, and has played in 34 games in his career at Michigan. Lentz was voted to the All-Big Ten team by the coaches, and was All-Big Ten second team in the media poll in 2004.
Though the Michigan line gave up 29 sacks last season, it paved the way for one of the Big Ten's best running attacks. On the strength of a Lentz-led Wolverines offensive line, Michigan freshman Mike Hart racked up 1,455 rushing yards last season. At 6-6, 305 pounds, Lentz fits perfectly in the mold of the large Big Ten guards.
9. Mark Setterstrom (Minnesota)
Setterstrom, like Eslinger, has started every single game in his college career. He has played a big part in the Minnesota offense that has racked up at least 300 yards of total offense in 27 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the Big Ten.
At 6-3 and 295 pounds, Setterstrom isn't the biggest lineman in the nation. With his quick feet and solid athleticism, though, Setterstrom fits perfectly in the Gophers' blocking scheme. The Minnesota line allowed only nine sacks in 2004 and cleared the way for a 6.3 yards-per-rush average. Setterstrom was named to the Rivals.com All-American Team in 2004 and is a Preseason All-America selected this season.
10. Travis Leffew (Louisville)
The offensive line will be the most experienced position for the Big East favorite Louisville Cardinals this season. Five players with starting experience return to the squad, including the 6-4, 301-pound Leffew. With a school record 38 consecutive starts, Leffew could be the best tackle in Louisville history.
Leffew is the leader of a Cardinals' line that paved the way for 3,005 rushing yards in 2004. He was named third-team All-America by the Associated Press and was a unanimous choice for first-team All-Conference USA. Leffew has the athleticism and the experience to be one of the best tackles in the nation this season.