Oregon’s 2015 offensive line recruiting class entered the program and quickly became inseparable. Calvin Throckmorton, Shane Lemieux, Jake Hanson and Brady Aiello continued to grow as they led the line their sophomore season, spending time with each other on and off the field.
“We just move like a herd,” Throckmorton said. “We’re just kind of always as a big group, either laying around or eating together. I think we just have a bond that’s pretty special that demands a lot from each other.”
Oregon has always been a running team, averaging 3,592 rushing yards per year since 2010, but the last two seasons they have rushed for under 3,300 yards. Last season’s returning starters — Hanson, Lemieux and Throckmorton — played over 980 snaps. That playing time offered a lot of experience, but hurt the development of depth and became a burden on only five players.
Through top-recruits and transfers, head coach Mario Cristobal, a two time national champion lineman with Miami in 1989 and 1991, and offensive line coach Alex Mirabal have increased the depth to the point where Oregon has upward of 10 linemen that they feel confident in keeping Herbert healthy.
“You’ve got to play guys,” Cristobal said. “We have a lot of good offensive linemen and playing time is going to be divvied out as they deserve it. … We do feel we’re gonna have eight, nine, 10 guys that can help us win a championship up front, and we’re gonna play them all.”
The depth chart, renamed the “organizational chart” by the staff, currently projects freshman Penei Sewell, transfer Dallas Warmack, Lemieux, Hanson and Throckmorton as starters. Names like Aiello, junior George Moore III, redshirt sophomore Jacob Capra, redshirt freshman Alex Forsyth and freshman Steven Jones are all fighting for that final starting spot as well as being the first player off the bench.
The herd was without one of their leaders in the spring with Hanson being limited while recovering from a persistent injury.
“It was tough sitting out spring, but my injury was something that caused me so much trouble during [last] fall,” Hanson said. “I was able to stay level headed during the recovery process. It was tough, but I am glad to be out there healthy.”
Now that Hanson has returned, his job, along with his four partners on the line, will be to protect Herbert, which is imperative to Oregon’s success. In the games Herbert played last season, the Ducks averaged 49 points and 459 yards per game. In games without No. 10, Oregon averaged 15 points and 320 yards.
Communication will be key, and knowing the assignments up and down the line will be crucial to keep Herbert upright.
“You know, playing together for three years now, we just got more and more comfortable each year with each other,” Hanson said. “I feel like we know what everybody else is thinking. We really feel confident in the group that we got.”
The fifth lineman (most likely the right guard spot) is up in the air. Capra has the most experience with Oregon, starting his first career game last season against UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Warmack, a transfer from Alabama, has received first team snaps with the Ducks after playing sparingly for the Crimson Tide. Warmack was a highly rated recruit out of Georgia, where he ultimately chose Alabama thanks to then recruiting coordinator and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal.
Although the four 2015 recruits have the most experience with Capra, Cristobal has made sure everyone understands that competition will bring out the best in each other and they will play regardless of experience.
“Competition is a beautiful thing,” Cristobal said. “That’s the best part about camp right now. Why are our guys getting better and pushing? Because there is a guy right behind him and a guy right behind him, and that’s the way it should be.”
The freshman class has fueled that competition. As some of the largest in the country, the six freshmen, Sewell, Jaramillo, Jones, Devin Lewis, Justin Johnson and Chris Randazzo average out to 6-foot-5-inches and 364 pounds. That is more than 40 pounds heavier than the 2015 class.
“They’re coming along well,” Hanson said. “The first couple of days are always a little rough. Guys are still trying to figure out the plays and trying to adapt to the challenge of blocking college athletes instead of the high school guys they are usually going up against. At this point in camp, they’re all starting to figure it out.”
As for freshmen standouts, Cristobal was quick to name Sewell.
“He’s almost an autocorrect guy,” Cristobal said. “You kind of put some information on him and in him, and you do it in sound bites. … ‘Foot in the ground, hat inside,’ and let him take care of the rest. Then, when you see the result with that block or particular play, it is the absolute best and most rewarding part of the profession.”
Sewell, a highly coveted four-star recruit who came to Oregon from Utah, received offers from over 20 schools. Despite his 6-foot-6-inch, 360 pound stature, Sewell has been looking up to the veterans to pick up any knowledge he can.
“Brady, Cal, Shane, they’ve all been good mentors and I just gotta stay under their wing,” Sewell said. “They’ve helped so much. Midplay, I would kind of ask one of them and they’ll tell us right away. I’d like to thank them for being very inviting and helping us out as freshmen to get going.”
Helping each other is common with the Oregon offensive line, and it’s not just freshmen asking for help.
“This O-line, we have four starters that have played the last two years,” Capra said. “So I just try to take tidbits from what they do from their success. Not to toot their horns too much, but try to model myself after what they do well.”
Although there are only five starting spots, every player has a chance to earn valuable snaps as long as they continue to show effort, talent and improvement.
“Every day’s got to be new,” Sewell said. “You’ve got to learn something every day to get better each and every day.”
Follow Maverick Pallack on Twitter @mavpallack