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Five Biggest Questions for 2022: What About the Offensive Line?

We continue our roundtable previews with a look at the big boys up front

Gus Malzahn overlooking his offensive linemen in the 2021 Spring Game
Photo: Derek Warden

It’s our last full week without UCF Knights football, and as we continue to preview the Knights for 2022, we give you our Five Biggest Questions facing the Knights heading into the season.

We continue with maybe the biggest question for every team every year: What’s the offensive line look like?

Once again, Jeff Sharon, Kyle Nash, Andrew Gluchov, and Bryson Turner all give their takes in Round Table format:

Jeff: I think a lot has been made about one of the reasons John Rhys Plumlee was selected as the starter is because his athleticism can help cover up some reported deficiencies in the offensive line. I, too, initially subscribed to that theory.

But I tried to challenge that thought and took a look at some projected depth charts, and I discovered something pretty remarkable: Four of the five projected starters (according to OurLads) are seniors (Matt Lee is the only junior). Two of them — Lee (Rimington) and Lokahi Pauole (Outland) — are preseason award watch-listers, and another, Tylan Grable, is a Senior Bowl watch-lister.

Lokahi Pauole
Photo: Derek Warden

All five projected starters — Lee, Pauole, Grable, Ryan Swoboda and Sam Jackson — all have at least 24 games of experience under their belt, and four of the five have 30-plus. I’ve said before: Experience matters, and this group has it. And while they may not all have gained that experience as one unit (who has in college football?), experience does help ease the learning curve.

Kyle: The state of the offensive line is a depreciation that traces back to the 2017 National Championship team. It featured bookend tackles in Aaron Evans and Wyatt Miller who were both on NFL rosters at one point after their college career as the anchors with solid talent on the inside as well. Once 2019 came along both Evans and Miller were gone, but center Jordan Johnson was taking snaps in his final year at center.

Matt Lee
Photo: Derek Warden

While Matt Lee snapping the ball does represent the biggest upgrade in the trenches on offense since 2017, the other positions inside and out. Most recently with Cole Schneider and Marcus Tatum graduating, depth at the position is at an all-time low. While G Lokahi Pauole and T Sam Jackson are both on Award Watch Lists along with Lee, the talent level and depth of this unit in the past four seasons have been in a state of gradual decline.

If head coach Gus Malzahn is looking to come out with a run-first scheme, he may need to turn his amazing recruiting efforts to acquiring some more beef in the coming years. During this season, if Lee struggles with injuries again, things could get dire really fast for new starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee.

Andrew: Like Kyle said, there has been a gradual decline in the offensive line. While you can argue when the pinnacle really was or who the top player was, there is no doubt that the offensive line as a unit over the last couple of years has not been as strong. More so than any other position group, the line is the sum of the parts and while you have individual players with accolades and talent, the quality of the line’s production really falls to the weakest man on the line.

The offensive line has had depth issues over the last couple of years. I recall seeing the second unit struggle in the 2021 spring game and it was reflected during the season when guard Cole Schneider was shifted along the line to play center when Matt Lee was too injured to play. This was a cause of concern. We’ve seen similar things happen on the offensive line during recent practices where first-unit players were being shifted over to play other positions. This is a tactic offensive line coach Herb Hand likes to help create versatility on the line. It’s also a tactic used when your depth isn’t certain. UCF has been using eight or nine players regularly in their rotation this fall.

Cole Schneider
Photo: Derek Warden

Losing seniors in Schneider and Marcus Tatum, there was an immediate need to plug in players and Gus Malzahn went to the portal and brought in Ryan Swoboda from Virginia and Tylan Grable from Jacksonville State. Grable, a quarterback who converted to tight end and later offensive tackle, has high expectations as he earned Second-Team All-American honors last year.

This is going to be a run-heavy team with players like Isaiah Bowser, Johnny Richardson, quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and more behind the line. This means the need for a lot of explosiveness and the depth to replace tired or dinged-up players.

Bryson: While the unit does lose Cole Schneider and Marcus Tatum, it still has a core of Matt Lee, Samuel Jackson, and Lokahi Pauole returning to the fold to build from.

With Plumlee’s ascension to the starting quarterback role, it’s likely the team is going to go for more of a run-first approach with him, Isaiah Bowser, and Johnny Richardson. So, the O-Line needed some depth and so the coaching staff went and got some.

Ryan Swoboda and Tylan Grable look like solid candidates for the main group, and it wouldn't be a shock if there is a similar strategy where Jackson might shift over to another spot on the line if one of the others is injured. However, with that said, I think this group's depth is a bit better off from where it was last season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 ACC Championship Game
Ryan Swoboda at Virginia in 2019
Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Pauole, Jackson, and Lee have all praised the development of Germany’s Paul Rubelt, a redshirt sophomore who is just as tall as Swoboda (6-10) and about 10 pounds heavier (330 lbs.). There is also Georgia transfer Cameron Kinnie and Mercer transfer John Harris joining the fold as well.

This unit is going to be entrusted with a lot this season, and it remains to be seen if it has the depth to handle it. However, if Malzahn and O-Line coach Herb Hand have proven anything, it’s that this unit is a priority for them and its success will be a key lynchpin for the offense this season.