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O-line paves way for title run

The quickest way to find out the value of an experienced line may be to ask the experts. When Nebraska coach Bill Callahan surveys the work he has to do to convert the run-oriented Huskers to his West Coast offense, he says of his line, "As they go, we go."

When Texas senior Cedric Benson is asked to explain the benefits of playing behind a line with four returning starters, a smile spreads across his face.

"Man, you can't describe it," Benson says. "You've got all those experienced guys, knowing how the game goes, knowing how to move people for a gain -- big gain, small gain. It's almost like having the world. You're on the same page. They know. You know."

If you want to be a star, shave down your 40 time. If you want to come home with a championship ring, latch on with a team that has an experienced offensive line. As bellwethers go, veteran blockers are as dependable a measure of team success as sold-out luxury boxes.

Look no farther than a year ago, when LSU began the season with linemen who had started a combined total of 91 games. USC's unit had an aggregate of 85 starts.

Experience on the offensive line won't guarantee a national championship. However, of the six teams that won or shared the national championship in the last five seasons, four of them began the season with linemen who had started a cumulative total of at least 75 games.

This season, No. 2 Oklahoma will send out a line in their Sept. 4 opener against Bowling Green that has 129 starts. Three of the five linemen -- right tackle Jammal Brown, center Vince Carter (like Brown, a fellow All-Big-12 first-teamer), and left tackle Wes Sims -- have started for three seasons.

Only one other team ranked in the 2004 preseason top 10 has at least 75 starts among the returning offensive linemen: Florida State, with 81. Sleeper alert: 19th-ranked Virginia has 95.

"We're older, stronger, faster and we've got the same people," Oklahoma's Brown says.


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So how does that advantage play out in practical terms? If the guard likes to take a deep set when he pass blocks, the tackle learns to adjust so that there is no gap between them. If the tackle recognizes a twist coming from the defense, he need only point it out. The guard will be ready to take over the block after a couple of steps.

Baylor head coach Guy Morriss, who played offensive line in the NFL for 15 seasons, says the mission of an offensive line is simple: Five guys have to function as one. The problem is the amount of time that a coach has to sync them up.

"In the NFL, it took me five years to be a really good lineman, to where you can say you can take anything anybody can throw at you," Morriss says. He doesn't have players for five years. "It's got to take at least one season. To become really seasoned, it's got to take two."

That makes Oklahoma's experience all the more impressive, especially considering that the Sooners fell a touchdown short of the national championship a year ago. That is reminiscent of the dominance that teams developed in the 140-scholarship, no-early-NFL years of a generation ago.

The ability of a college coach to build an offensive line is more difficult than ever. When a coach could carry 95 scholarships, he felt comfortable carrying as many as 20 offensive linemen on the roster -- four per position.

With the scholarship limit reduced to 85, most coaches try to keep the number of offensive linemen around 15 or 16. That appears to be big pool in which to find five players. It's not.

For one thing, rare is the freshman who can contribute on the offensive line. There is a reason for the football maxim that says the farther away from the ball that a freshman lines up, the quicker he can play.

Wide receivers, as Mike Williams proved at USC, can step in right away. Tailbacks get into the lineup around midseason, about the time they catch up to the dos and don'ts of pass-blocking.

But budding offensive linemen are not only mentally tortured by the demands of learning multiple pass protections, they can't measure up physically as well. They may arrive on campus at 300 pounds, but they are still growing boys. A year ago, Georgia did not repeat as SEC champion largely because of inexperience on the offensive line.

Quarterback David Greene, who isn't a four-year starter because of his speed, got sacked 47 times last season.

"All we had were freshmen and sophomores," Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway said. "Multiply that by half of them missing (portions of last season) because of injuries. It really makes it tough to go through."

What coaches would like to do is to regulate the flow of talent coming in so that a line never loses more than two starters. But rarely does anyone recruit so well that every player signed contributes. When it does happen, it's exciting to see.

Virginia senior guard Elton Brown is not only one of three third-year starters on the Cavaliers' front five, he won the Jacobs Award as the top blocker in the ACC. In terms of football knowledge, Elton Brown says, "The line was in college. Now we're in graduate school."

In this case, graduate school is a feeling of comfort with the familiar.

"You don't have to wonder when the game is on the line, 'What is he thinking?' I know," Elton Brown says, "In the fourth quarter, I can look from my left to my right, and everybody is ready to play. There's no more wondering what the person next to you is going to do. Once you go for that bond, that brotherhood, you can't take it away."

That bond comes in handy, not when the team is prepared, but when it is not.

"The Xs and Os, when you get on the field, mean nothing," Elton Brown says. "There have been times when we practice what the defense is going to do all week and in the game they give us a new look. You throw all that work out the window. You got to look to your left and look to your right and say, 'We can get over this.'"

The linemen will need to get over it. The starting quarterback is no longer 6-foot-4 Matt Schaub, who combined size with accuracy -- completing nearly 70 percent of his passes in each of the last two seasons. Instead, it's Marques Hagans, an athlete good enough to play receiver last season, but no Schaub.

"Hagans is going to hate me for saying this," Elton Brown says, "but he's 5-9, not 5-11 like he says. You got to keep that pocket firm, keep the defensive line out with your hands a little bit. We have to pick up the blitz. If we pick it up instead of the running backs, they get out and catch a pass. There are things like that we can do."

As Callahan says about the Huskers: as they go, the Cavaliers go.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.