What you can say about much of the Falcon team holds true for the offensive line: An young and inexperienced group struggled during the 2020 abbreviated season.
Want some more bad news? BGSU projects to be even younger along the offensive trenches for 2021.
Entering the spring, the unit featured just one upper-classman, and most projected two deep depth charts featured numerous freshmen, as the position group returns only three total lineman with at least one collegiate start.
Gone from last year’s line are center Cameron Stage, who started all five games before transferring to Western Kentucky, left tackle Joe Ware, who started 4 games before transferring to Austin Peay, right tackle Derek Downs who started four games a year ago to medically retire, and reserve Joe Maxwell, who transferred out to North Alabama. Tim Tanner-Blair, who started threee games in 2020, graduated this off-season as well.
The good news on the plains of northwest Ohio is that guard Sam Neverov returns. The redshirt junior started all five games a year ago across both guard spots. He also played in 12 games during the 2018 season and eight games with five starts during the 2019 season.
After Neverov, however, the depth chart gets murky. Without a spring ball depth chart and limited looks at the Falcons during the spring due to COVID, we can only write in a two-deep in pencil, at best.
Based off game notes from last season, one would assume freshman Jeremiah Banks-Wall is set to start at left tackle after playing in all five games and starting at left tackle against Akron a year ago. Freshman Jalen Grant, a protege of former NIU star Joedan Lynch while in high school, likely ends up at the opposite guard spot of Neverov, after starting the final three games of the 2020 season. As the only three players on the roster with any starting experience, they’ll be considered the favorites entering fall camp.
Brian Kilbane, a redshirt freshman, seems to have a chance to start at center after appearing in three games a year ago. Fellow freshman Alex Wollschlaeger would appear to be the front runner at right tackle as well after playing in three of five games at tackle last year as a true freshman.
Local product Joey Carroll converted from tight end to the offensive line to see action in all five games last year. He features impressive size at six-foot-six, and is another year into his transition. BGSU will also be hoping that former defensive tackle Chris Oliver can make the transition to offensive line this offseason to provide some much needed depth.
There will also be a handful of Class of 2021 recruits joinging the room, with three-star tackle Alex Padgett, two-star interior lineman Dawson Hildebrand, and another local product in center Cade Zimmerly, a two-star recruit from nearby Perrysburg. They might not make immediate impacts, but with the lack of experience on the line, it could be a prime opportunity to establish themselves if they can impress in camps.
Another important change to the line is in their coach, as assistant Chris Hedden takes over coaching the offensive line after coaching the tight ends in 2020. Previous coach Terry Malone was shifted over to the running backs, as part of a staff restructuring in January.
Often, a team with a young offensive line will use their redshirts as much as possible to allow the players time to physically mature and grow their game. However, given the relative urgency for bodies along the line at present, it will be interesting to see if BGSU adopts this approach, and if they play their true freshman beyond the three games to preserve their freshman status.
The Falcon program desperately needed a full offseason of reps last year, a full 12 games to gain experience, and a more normal offseason this year. Needless to say, this wasn’t possible, leaving BGSU a bit behind the eight-ball in the way of experience. They’ll enter 2021 uncertain at perhaps the most important position on the offense.
An inexperienced offensive line is even less than ideal considering that the Falcons enter 2021 without their top two returning backs from last season with Andrew Clair and Bryson Denley moving on. Starting QB Matt McDonald missed the spring recovering from shoulder surgery.
When Scot Loeffler took over the Falcon program, he decided to build from the ground up without taking shortcuts. He welcomed players who didn’t buy into his system to transfer out of the program. He didn’t sign JUCO recruits to mask the youthfulness of his roster and despite losing several linemen to the portal, he didn’t act to add any incoming transfers leaving BGSU with this young group.
How fast the Falcon offensive line gets their wings will go a long ways towards deciding if the Falcons can have their first winning season since 2015.