OL finding its stride

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When the season began, first-year starting LSU left guard La'el Collins liked having sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk lined up next to him at left tackle.

"He's like a coach on the field," said Collins, a true sophomore who would often lean on Dworaczyk for guidance before the start of plays.

Against Alabama last week, Collins hardly looked like he needed anybody to point him the right way. Playing against one of the best defensive fronts in college football, the Baton Rouge native more than held his own, earning SEC Co-offensive lineman of the week honors after the 21-17 loss to the Crimson Tide.

He's part of a young offensive line that is steadily improving and changing LSU's outlook on offense, in both the short term and long term.

The current offensive lineup, which features two freshmen and Collins along with two seniors, has been a work in progress because of injuries and attrition -- but it has started to come into its own.

Asked how long it would take some of the young linemen to be able to take their training wheels off, Dworaczyk answered without hesitation "La'el is already there," while adding that the all-freshman right side, Trai Turner and Vadal Alexander, isn't far behind.

"I think with the experience they are getting and the way they are playing, they don't look like freshmen to me," Dworaczyk said.

The offensive line's evolution has changed the storyline of the line, and to some extent the entire LSU offense.

Entering the season the starting line included two seniors in right tackle Alex Hurst and center P.J. Lonergan, while Dworaczyk was a utility sixth lineman capable of backing up at most positions. It was widely assumed that junior left tackle Chris Faulk would leave after this season for early entry into the NFL draft.

That meant four of the six primary linemen would be players not returning after this season, making the 2013 season a rebuilding year for the line and the offense in general.

That perception has slowly changed.

Faulk was lost for the season after one game because of a torn ACL. Hurst left the team for personal reasons in early October and hasn't returned. Josh Williford, the junior right guard, missed two games with a concussion and P.J. Lonergan, the senior center, missed a start because of injury.

Those losses meant chances for young players, perhaps before they were ready. After Faulk went down and Dworaczyk struggled for a couple of games with a knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2011, true freshman Alexander became the starter at right tackle. Turner, a redshirt freshman, moved into the starting lineup after Williford was hurt against Florida.

In the 14-6 loss to the Gators, the LSU offensive line looked lost at times, as the Tigers failed to manage a first down in a stretch between the first quarter and the fourth quarter.

After the Florida game, Hurst left the team and it became clear that Williford would not return soon. The young players embraced their new roles. Dworaczyk said Turner goes to him every Friday to review information for a test offensive line coach Greg Studrawa puts the linemen through before each start.

"I'm glad to do it," Dworaczyk said. "Really, it helps me."

Turner, a 280-pounder with a barrel chest and a talent for getting off the ball quickly, said it won't be long before he, like Collins, won't need to rely so much on the veterans.

"I think it's coming. I'm taking my time," Turner said. "It's not something I'm in a rush to get. I'd rather be sure than go out there unknowingly."

Turner and Alexander played together on the second unit since Alexander arrived in the spring. Their chemistry has been so good it has allowed them to progress faster than one might think.

"I'm going to put the film on and watch guys who play a better game than a sixth-year senior," Dworaczyk said.

Statistics confirm it. LSU has 1,158 yards in the three games since Dworaczyk, Collins, Lonergan, Turner and Alexander have been starting. The Tigers have surpassed 400 yards against Alabama and South Carolina, two of the best defenses in the country.

If their play looks better than expected now, it completely changes how the Tigers might be perceived next season.

Instead of replacing four of its top six linemen, LSU could start Faulk, coming off his injury, at left tackle next to Collins. Both would be prime NFL prospects in draft-eligible years. Turner and Alexander will be back on the right side while Williford, who is back from his concussion, will be there too, competing for a spot somewhere on the line.

The only place where LSU will have little starting experience will be at center, where Lonergan will likely be replaced by sophomore Elliott Porter, who started a game this season while Lonergan was nursing a back injury.

Never mind a rebuilding job. The Tigers seem on their way to having one of the best offensive lines in college football next year.

"We're so much better now," Collins said. "We are better physically, mentally and we are still getting better. We can never stop getting better."