It's not hard to pick which position group will be the strength of the offense heading into the spring game on Saturday. Competition rages on at quarterback, running and wide receiver to replace talented playmakers such as Todd Reesing, Jake Sharp, Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe. The offense line though, well, they return everybody.
Last season, former head coach Mark Mangino constantly used the words "tough" and "smart" to describe his young line. Now, after having six players gain a total of 86 career starts, new coach Turner Gill can use the word "experienced."
Offensive tackle Jeff Spikes, who is currently working behind Brad Thorson at right tackle, doesn't shy away from giving his opinion on the 2010 version.
"This is the best line that I have been a part of since I have been at KU, and that contributes itself to the fact that we have been together for a while," Spikes said. "When you around somebody for a while you just understand each other and their games."
If you don't believe Spikes, just ask new offensive line coach J.B Grimes. He has coached offensive lines for more than 30 years, and he has seen his share of both good and bad o-lines. When Grimes settled into his office over the winter and started watching film from last season, he saw a well-coached unit. He even went as far as to call the old assistant John Reagan, telling him how he admired the job Reagan did with the line.
"They are excellent pass protectors," Grimes said. "They have been taught to identify defenses and defensive personnel. You know the last guy in the room had done something with these guys that was pretty good, and for any coach to deny that, I don't think that is right."
Of course, with a new coaching staff and a new offense, there have been some changes. The last three seasons, Kansas has operated from a no-huddle spread offense, and now that Kansas is using the huddle, it means the offensive line has to adjust how they get their calls out.
"You have to learn a different way of thinking," Spikes said. "If you run a spread offense, the o-line is already on the line and can see the defense and the defense is already set so you can make the calls a little bit faster. If you go to a huddle, then you have to make the calls coming out of the huddle and be able to visualize things before it happens. It's not any harder or easier, it's just different."
Spikes said the team is also dedicating more time in practice to run-blocking than they have before.
"We didn't emphasize run blocking last year because we were a successful passing team, and when you are successful with something, you stick with it but this year we are trying to be successful in both areas on offense," Spikes said.
So, who can you expect to see on the offensive this year? Redshirt Trevor Marrongelli should compete for a starting spot at guard. OG Sal Capra and RT Brad Thorson provide the senior leadership on the line, not to mention they are the unit's best run-blockers according to Spikes.
"Sal Capra because he knows how to use his weight and his technique to the best of his ability and Brad Thorson because he is a 4.0 fundamentally sound lineman so that puts him in perfect position to do anything in football," Spikes said.
At center, Jeremiah Hatch returns as a starter, although the coaches have issued a challenge to the redshirt junior to lose some pounds to his 6-foot-3, 332-pound frame before fall camp begins in August.
"He's a good football player but he's got to get a little weight off and that's just the bottom line," Grimes said. "He knows it, Coach Gill knows it, we all know and now it is just a matter of getting it done. He's the type of guy who has character and he is smart. When you got those two things, you got a chance."
Then, of course, there is Tanner Hawkinson. Despite never playing offensive line before in his life, he was thrown to the wolves last year as a freshman at left tackle, and came out of the 2009 season as one of the best freshman offensive tackles in the country. Quietly, some in the program feel that if Hawkinson keeps developing at the rate he is going, he could be one of the team's best pro prospects down the road. Still, he will be just a sophomore and should benefit from a summer with strength coach John Williams in the weight room.
"He's got a chance to be a really good player," Grimes said. "He's got to get stronger in his upper body. He's got tremendous hip and leg strength, but he's just got to get stronger upstairs. As he gets older, he will continue to mature."
When Grimes is asked what this group has to do to become one of the better lines in the Big 12, the coach talks about depth. He thinks redshirt freshman Riley Spencer and redshirt sophomore Duane Zlatnik could find themselves in bigger roles and increased playing time next season. It all depends on how they develop over the rest of the spring and summer.
"We need those young guys to get better to give us the ability to go out and play a lot of people," Grimes said. "We want to insert those young guys into games to get some quality reps. If our depth will come along we have a chance to have a good unit up front."
If anything else, with so much uncertainty with the rest of the offense, the coaches can rest easy when thinking about the big guys up front.
"You can't coach experience, you either have it or you don't," Grimes said. "We have six guys who have played a lot of football. As a result, that made my job easier going into the spring and they have continued to improve and get better."