Over the last couple of days several members of Thekeyplay community have asked me for my reaction to the daily offensive line depth chart changes. I have not attended practice, so I can't comment on how each player is performing, or the level of summer work that each player underwent in order to improve. I am not sure that speculating on their performance is fair, but I would like to comment on how Grimes is using the depth chart. Laurence Gibson and Andrew Miller seem firmly entrenched, but Jonathan McLaughlin, Mark Shuman, Caleb Farris, Brent Benedict, and David Wang seem to be deadlocked in a battle over three starting positions.
"I'm not settled at all and I really like it like that," Grimes said Monday. "I told them in our first meeting: 'Nobody has a position. Nobody's earned anything yet and everyone has the opportunity to win a job.' I don't have necessarily a specific deadline to say we've got to have our starting unit by the end of Week 2 or Week 3. We're just gonna let it play out and let the best five prove it to us."
New offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler said he'd like to have a starting five on the offensive line sooner rather than later, but Grimes appears to be taking a more patient approach.
My initial reaction was one of frustration. The Alabama game is a mere three-and-a-half weeks away, and seeing so much volatility in the depth chart worried me. If you're like me, then you want a cohesive unit that can start to develop the timing needed to smoothly execute combination blocks, and the communication required to effectively protect Logan Thomas. That familiarity takes time to develop, and the lack of experience coupled with the new system leave us grasping at straws for evidence that somehow the competition will create that chemistry. I want to see three candidates clearly establish themselves as starters, so Grimes can speed up the learning process. Install, install, install.
Despite my initial reaction, moving people around this week is a smart move. Many things have changed since the spring. Coach Grimes has a healthy Andrew Miller and David Wang. Brent Benedict (from 301 in spring to 292) and Mark Shuman (314 to 295) are lighter. Jonathan McLaughlin benefitted from several extra months of summer strength training and conditioning. Grimes is trying different combinations with different lineups to not only find his top five guys, but establish the five guys who can work the best together to open up holes and keep Logan Thomas upright. Each player has had the summer to study the playbook and work on individual skills. Now, they can compete at full speed with a better grasp of the fundamentals of the offense. The crme will rise to the top quickly.
Grimes likely has a starting lineup in mind, but for those who may not win jobs, injuries could result in players who are not his first choices being needed to contribute. He needs everyone fighting for jobs on the field, and fully engaged in the classroom while he installs the full offensive blocking scheme.
The learning curve is very steep for every player playing offensive line, and the toughest job for a coach is keeping the guys who don't get many practice repetitions mentally engaged. While my experience is playing for a D3 program, I know that if players don't feel like they have a real chance to beat out the players up the depth chart, they have a tendency to check out mentally and go through the motions. If they do not feel that they have an opportunity to compete for a starting position at the beginning of camp, they may check out mentally during the install process. Those guys who are second-tier in Grimes' mind are still a rolled ankle away from being counted upon to contribute. He has to keep them engaged.
I expect to see the lineup changed through the scrimmage on Saturday. Live contact work over the next two days and the scrimmage on Saturday should allow a pecking order to develop. I imagine that we will see a starting five next week, while the backups continue to get some rep work with the ones during game preparation. But, unlike Curt Newsome, I do not expect Jeff Grimes to rotate his offensive lineman unless injury or poor performance forces his hand on gameday. Hopefully, we see leaders start to emerge this weekend. If that happens, Grimes can devote the rest of camp to molding five guys into one unit. The offense needs a unified group up front to run the football like Virginia Tech teams that established the Hokies as a national power.