Starters' absences give other LSU offensive linemen a chance to shine

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s offensive line will not be intact again until preseason practice, when Ethan Pocic and William Clapp return from injury.

The two starters’ absences have given position coach Jeff Grimes the opportunity to take an even longer look at the numerous talented reserves in his meeting room. Grimes would have used spring practice as a time to experiment anyway, but with Pocic and Clapp out, a versatile lineman such as K.J. Malone has been able to collect valuable practice time at multiple positions.

“It’s really equal right now,” Malone said last week of the time he spends at tackle and guard in practice. “I’ll do like one series at guard, one series at [left] tackle and sometimes they’ll move me to right tackle just so I can be multiple. If someone goes down, they’ll have someone who can step in.”

Count the fourth-year junior among the leading contenders to play a bigger role in 2016 after handling a small workload in previous seasons. The spring practice time available to players such as Malone, Andy Dodd -- filling in for Pocic at center -- Chidi Okeke, Adrian Magee and George Brown Jr. provides Grimes with an opportunity to evaluate his confidence level at each position along the line.

Unlike projected starting tackles Maea Teuhema and Toby Weathersby -- who combined to start 12 games last season -- Class of 2015 linemates Okeke, Magee and Brown sat out last season as redshirts. It was a necessary learning opportunity according to Brown.

“I feel like it was a great experience for me because I got to go against the ones every day in practice,” Brown said. “I learned a lot of technique and fundamental things.”

Okeke is still in the early stages of that process, having picked up football midway through high school. The native Nigerian grew up playing basketball and striker in soccer as a young boy before moving to the United States to play hoops.

Now listed at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds, Okeke possesses a left tackle’s frame but realizes he still lacks the knowhow to play the position in the SEC.

“I just played like two years of football here in the states, so I’m trying to still learn,” Okeke said. “That’s why I redshirted last year, to get better, so this year I’ll have the chance to compete.”

However, LSU’s coaches are not afraid to project greatness for the redshirt freshman once he consistently figures out what he’s doing.

“Probably the best athlete [at left tackle] is Chidi Okeke,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “With that being said, it just takes some time. He is probably the most athletic, but not necessarily as seasoned as some of the other guys. Yeah, you’d love to have your best athlete at left tackle, but you also have to have a guy that understands exactly what we’re doing start to finish.”

That’s what spring practice is for, along with giving Grimes a chance to pencil in a pecking order from which to work once the Tigers reconvene for preseason camp. LSU likely boasts its deepest offensive line group since Grimes joined Miles’ staff in 2014, but there are only so many snaps to go around.

Injuries allowed Malone and Weathersby to earn the majority of their playing time in single SEC games -- Malone against Arkansas and Weathersby in a starting role against Ole Miss. Both players believe those opportunities prepared them to fill larger roles this fall.

“There’s a lot of benefit,” said Malone, who played 46 snaps at left tackle against Arkansas in place of injured starter Jerald Hawkins. “Usually when I got in, it was like non-SEC opponents. But then when I finally got in against a good SEC opponent, it really showed what it was like to play in the SEC.”

His regular shifting between positions has put Malone in position to contend for the designation as Grimes’ sixth man along the line, at minimum. And if Teuhema falters at left tackle, Miles said, “K.J. Malone’s looked pretty athletic out there, as well.”

It will be more than four months before Grimes makes final decisions about who fits best at which position, although he likely already has an idea of how things will shake out once preseason camp arrives.

For now, his linemen -- especially the young reserves who practiced on the scout team last season -- are getting a chance to catch their coach’s eye and perhaps earn playing time in the fall.

“If I keep working hard, anybody has a chance to start,” Brown said. “So I just come in every day and work hard.”