For many college football programs, building a national championship contender begins on the line of scrimmage.
Talented offensive linemen are the foundation for success in other phases of the game, which makes them some of the most coveted players in the country. The SEC is known for having a physical presence in the trenches, and 2017 doesn’t appear to be any different.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, we’ve compiled a list of the SEC’s top 10 returning players at each position. This ranking is based on past performance, opportunity and overall ability, so it isn’t just calculated from last year’s stats.
Here are the 10 best offensive linemen returning to the SEC in 2017.
No. 10: Tyler Howell, Missouri
Howell signed with Missouri out of Butler Community College as a member of the Tigers’ 2016 class, and he proved to be an important player in his first year. The massive 6-8, 320-pound lineman started all 12 games at left tackle and was part of a unit that allowed the fewest sacks and tackles for a loss in the SEC despite finishing third in the SEC in passing attempts.
No. 9: Erik McCoy, Texas A&M
After redshirting in 2015, McCoy started every game at center for the Aggies in 2016. He earned SEC All-Freshman recognition for his efforts and helped Texas A&M gain nearly 212 yards on the ground per game, sixth-best in the SEC. As McCoy continues to gain experience and more reps, he should emerge as one of the conference’s top interior linemen.
No. 8: Martez Ivey, Florida
Ivey didn’t have the freshman year many in Gainesville had hoped for, but he turned that around with a successful sophomore campaign. The left guard started every game and was named the SEC’s offensive linemen of the week twice. Next year, Ivey looks like a strong candidate to slide out to left tackle.
No. 7: Jawaan Taylor, Florida
Another player in the mix for Florida’s vacant left tackle job, Taylor was one of the Gators’ biggest surprises last season. As a true freshman, Taylor started nearly every game at right tackle and quickly became a vital part of the offensive line. The 6-5, 340-pound lineman earned Freshman All-American status for his efforts.
No. 6: Ross Pierschbacher, Alabama
Alabama had some early-season changes to its offensive line, and Pierschbacher was one of the beneficiaries. Originally pegged to to start at center, Pierschbacher moved back to his old position at left guard and began to play up to his standards. At guard, Pierschbacher helped fortify the Tide’s pass blocking and became much more effective in opening holes for the ground game.
No. 5: Will Clapp, LSU
Despite playing with a torn labrum last season, Clapp still managed to have a good fall. His performance at guard was indicative of LSU’s entire line, which was rated as college football’s best unit by Pro Football Focus even while dealing with several injuries. Clapp’s toughness is unquestionable. According to PFF, Clapp allowed just nine pressures and no sacks in 2016.
No. 4: Braden Smith, Auburn
PFF ranked Auburn’s line No. 2 in the country last season, and Smith was a major part of the equation. According to PFF, the Tigers gained 6.2 yards per carry on runs between Smith and right tackle Robert Leff. Smith’s return is a major boost for an offense that looks like it could be one of the most formidable in the conference this fall.
No. 3: Jonah Williams, Alabama
One of the best true freshman in the country last season, Williams might just be the next great Alabama offensive lineman. He started every game at right tackle and is a candidate to shift to the left side of the line with Cam Robinson heading to the NFL. The Freshman All-American looks poised to become one of the game’s best at whichever position he plays.
No. 2: Bradley Bozeman, Alabama
If possible, Bozeman might have been slightly underrated because of the talent Alabama has on the line. He became one of the most important players down the stretch for the Crimson Tide, however, earning an Offensive Player of the Week designation in seven of the team’s last eight games before the College Football Playoff.
No. 1: Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
Ragnow was rated the best center in all of college football by Pro Football Focus after the 2016 season. He could have bolted for the NFL but decided to return for his senior season. He was an anchor for the Razorbacks’ line, which paved the way for Rawleigh Williams III to rush for over 1,300 yards. Ragnow has excellent mobility and can finish blocks on the second level. It’s not easy for many players to switch positions and play center, but Ragnow handled the transition from guard flawlessly.