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Wolves' O-line 'a work in progress'

by Mitchell Gladstone | August 18, 2021 at 6:47 a.m.
Butch Jones is shown in this April 21, 2018, file photo. (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

JONESBORO -- There's no holding back with Butch Jones. He knows there's only so much time with a group that wasn't complete until earlier this summer.

"They're kind of sipping through a fire hose," Jones said of his 50-plus newcomers last week.

Although there may not be the same turnover on the offensive line as other spots -- all five starters who finished out the final four games of 2020 are on this Arkansas State University roster -- it's a group where Jones has quite literally made big switches. The Red Wolves look set to slide a pair of transfers, 6-10 Nick Lewis (Kentucky) and 6-4 Robert Holmes (Austin Peay), into their left and right tackle spots, meaning that even with continuity through the middle of the line, the group remains "a work in progress" 2 1/2 weeks from the season opener.

"Every day, we're trying to search for the best five, the best combination that gives us the opportunity to win the most," Jones said Tuesday. "The big thing is just consistency and performance every single day. It's about trying to find the best five individuals that can work together [and] communicate well."

While Lewis and Holmes -- along with the rest of Arkansas State's offensive linemen -- adjust to Jones' more physical system, redshirt senior Andre Harris Jr. and senior Ivory Scott are likely locked in as guards. They'll team up with redshirt sophomore center Ethan Miner to form the heart of a unit that Jones has repeatedly emphasized as key to his pass-heavy scheme.

The trio started one game together a year ago and it was a successful one. The Red Wolves piled up 489 yards and 26 first downs on their way to a 35-31 victory at Kansas State.

"We have to be solid," Harris said of the interior linemen. "Being veteran guys, we know what we need to do to get things done. We've got young guys who can also come in and compete also, so you've got to have pride in it. You're that interior three that's in the trenches."

Harris was far and away the best of the group last season, grading out as the 59th-best guard in the nation per Pro Football Focus. No other Arkansas State lineman ranked in the top 100 of their position, and the data suggests the Red Wolves' tackles were among the worst in the Sun Belt.

As a result, Arkansas State finished 95th in run blocking and 118th in pass blocking among 128 FBS teams, according to PFF, despite having an offense that averaged nearly 33 points per game.

But there's something to be said for bringing back the same group, just with a new approach.

"It's one thing to be a year older but are we a year better?" Jones said. "The [interior three] is providing stability and leadership to our program ... and I do see those individuals being much better from what I saw on video last year."

Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Matt Limegrover has led successful units at both Minnesota and Penn State, and he knows Jones' style from the 1997 season in which they overlapped at Ferris State.

Limegrover will have the benefit of figuring things out with a deep group.

Redshirt seniors Nour-Eddine Seidnaly, Jacob Still and Wyatt Luebke all started multiple games last season. Both Harris and Holmes are cross-training, per Jones, giving the Red Wolves positional flexibility in case of injury. And there are younger options such as Little Rock Central alum Makilan Thomas who could play their way into the lineup down the line.

The intended identity of this group is evident.

"When teams play us, we want to be feared," Harris said. "We really take pride in being the most physical unit out there."

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Offensive line at a glance

Returning starters Nour-Eddine Seidnaly, Andre Harris Jr., Jacob Still, Ivory Scott, Wyatt Luebke

Losses Jarrett Horst, Jennings Stanley, Thomas Vaughan (playing TE), Kideam Diouf, Logan Gray

Who’s back Justin Dutton, Ethan Miner, Avery Demmons, Ernesto Ramirez, Austin Woods, Christian Hoz, Kyle Kelly

Who’s new Nick Lewis (Kentucky transfer), Robert Holmes (Austin Peay transfer), Darrell Harden, Noah Smith, Nason Simmons, Mehki Butler (junior-college transfer), Race May, Makilan Thomas

Analysis: Despite bringing back the entire quintet who started the final four games of 2020, Butch Jones already appears to be reshaping the men up front. Although opportunities to see the first- and second-team units in practice have been limited, a glance at the top group last week featured only two returners in Harris and Scott, at left and right guard, respectively.

The major changes could be at the tackle spots. Lewis, a former three-star prospect out of Jacksonville, Fla., played 11 games for Kentucky during his redshirt freshman campaign in 2019, but the 6-10, 310-pounder didn’t see any offensive action with the Wildcats last season before departing Lexington. He’ll likely man the left end of the line with Holmes bookending the other side of the offensive front. The 6-4, 340-pound Holmes played every game in 2018 and 2019 at Connecticut before picking up second-team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors at Austin Peay this spring.

Still, who started at center in 11 of 12 games last fall, will likely be the understudy to Miner in the middle, and Luebke and Ramirez should be the top reserves as Jones continues to sort through a group with eight additions.

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