"Look at those dudes," Doug Marrone said. "They are big and they are ugly. But they need to be bigger and uglier. Like I was. I'm not as big as I used to be. But I am still ugly."
That was August 2011 when Marrone, former Syracuse Orange offensive lineman-turned-head coach, chatted with me at fall practice as members of the Orange O-line emerged from the athletics building.
Since his days at Syracuse (1983-85), Marrone played briefly with the Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints and London Monarchs before coaching O-linemen at a range of schools, including Tennessee, Georgia and the Coast Guard Academy. He returned to the pros in '02, coaching the Jets' line and then serving as offensive coordinator for the Saints when they became a Super Bowl-winning scoring machine. In his three years with the team, they threw 1,232 passes and gave up only 39 sacks.
Marrone knows about life in the trenches. It's a violent, underappreciated place to make a living, where no one notices you until everything goes wrong.
"The skill players are always going to get the most attention," he explained last fall as I talked to him about rebuilding the once-proud Syracuse program. "But it all begins and ends with the guys on the line. It doesn't matter if you're Don McPherson [whom he blocked for] or Drew Brees [whom he coached]. No matter how much talent you have, if you don't have the time to do your thing, it doesn't matter, does it?"
No sir, it does not.
Marrone ended our conversation by pointing to an upcoming opponent, USC, saying "everyone dreams of that kind of talent up front." One year later, just last week, as he prepared to play USC again -- a 42-29 loss to the Trojans -- he was reminded of that '11 statement. "Yeah, well, they're even better now," he said. "Maybe the best in the nation. Just ask Mr. [QB Matt] Barkley."
While Marrone wasn't available this week to talk about O-lines, I did the next best thing: I talked with multiple coaches around the nation to get their take on college football's best front five, detailed in the list below. (Don't worry, none of the players listed are offended by being called big or ugly -- or both.)
Three of the coaches I talked to said that they would have had Wisconsin on their list. But on Monday, the Badgers fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the team posted only 35 yards rushing against Oregon State. They are currently ranked No. 103 in rushing after finishing 11th last season when Montee Ball piled up 1,923 yards.
The coaches also said they would have included Oregon, but the Ducks lost ground because of guard and team leader Carson York's season-ending broken kneecap, the headliner among a slew of injuries across the Ducks' front five.
So that brings us to A&M, anchored by Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel, perhaps the nation's best tackle combo, and 37-game starter Patrick Lewis at center. "They're throwing that freshman quarterback (Johnny Manziel) out there and asking him to throw a lot," an SEC defensive line coach said. "But anything you're going to get, you'll have to get it by sneaking by the center or way out and around those two cinder-block tackles. All three of those guys are NFL guys."
That's how they played in the first half against Florida. But in the second half, they started to look worn down. "That's what they're going to have to get used to in this league," head coach Kevin Sumlin said earlier this week. "It's not going to get any easier."
The Sooners' world is one of consistency; for four years they have known that Landry Jones is going to either hand it off or stand tall in the pocket and fire. And Jones has always known that he will have plenty of time to work. Last year, OU attempted nearly 600 passes and the line gave up only 11 sacks. Meanwhile, Oklahoma running backs averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
This year they looked to keep on keeping on, returning six linemen with a combined 102 career starts. But now they are down to 43 starts among four players. Injuries to senior center Ben Habern and redshirt freshman Dylan Dismuke have created holes, even against lowly UTEP and Florida A&M. The OU O-line has already surrendered six sacks over two games.
The good news? The run blocking is still there, as the offense is grinding out 277 yards per game. The better news? The Big 12 schedule doesn't start until Sept. 22, and Oklahoma's opening conference game, a home date versus Kansas State, is sandwiched between two open dates. Which means the newly patched front five has some time to get things locked down.
3. USC Trojans
All of the coaches I chatted with agreed with Marrone that the Trojans' front force is as good as any in the country. The general consensus is that it's an NFL lineman machine because of the offense they run.
"You would think that because of losing Kalil and the [NCAA scholarship] restrictions that they would have lost a lot of ground this year," said first-year Arizona State head coach Todd Graham, who will face USC on Nov. 10. "But that right tackle [Kevin Graf] is a rock. And they have a bunch of young guys who have just stepped in and taken care of business."
When he says a bunch, he means it -- 11 linemen have received at least a little playing time over the first two games (some on special teams, but most on offense), allowing only three sacks while plowing the way for 339 rushing yards and 581 passing yards.
2. LSU Tigers
When it comes to experience, few teams can match the Tigers. They expected to return four starters from last year's squad, a group that came into the year with 104 combined career starts, which ranked fifth in the nation. Unfortunately, they lost NFL prospect Chris Faulk to a season-ending injury and have experienced depth erosion due to some academic eligibility issues. However, as one defensive coordinator said this week, "When you're LSU, you just plug another giant in there and keep going."
Case in point: de facto returning starter Josh Dworaczyk. He started all 26 games of his sophomore and junior years, but missed last season with a knee injury. He was granted a sixth season by the NCAA and moved from his natural position of left guard to left tackle, replacing Faulk. It was Dworaczyk who cleared the way on Alfred Blue's 21-yard touchdown against Washington last weekend.
"What you like about these guys is that they couldn't have possibly had more pressure thrown on them last year with all the quarterback stuff that was going on, but they never blinked," a fellow SEC offensive line coach said. "It didn't seem to matter who the quarterback was or who the running backs were, and they used a lot of running backs. That line took care of business no matter what."
"Honestly, this really isn't even all that close," one offensive coordinator said to me this week when asked which team had the nation's best offensive line. "When I sit down in Santa Claus' lap, this kind of line is what I ask for."
Such hyperbole shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who listened to ESPN Radio's College GameDay last weekend: In evaluating the Tide's front five, Trevor Matich said there were some NFL offensive lines that wouldn't have more than two or three guys start for Alabama this season.
"He's not wrong," an ACC offensive line coach said when I shared Matich's assessment. "They have three guys who could walk into the NFL tomorrow and start blocking. Jones, by himself, could have them ranked at the top of your list."
Jones, as in Barrett Jones. All he did last year was become a unanimous All-American and win both the Jacobs Blocking and Outland trophies. This year all he's done is move from left tackle to center. Who did Alabama replace him with? Former No. 3-ranked ESPN 150 recruit Cyrus Kouandjio.
Also on the line are planet-sized D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack. In total, the front five come in at an average of 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, with an average of 19 starts. The only weak link in the chain thus far has been a couple of rookie mistakes from Kouandjio, particularly on a sack given up via a textbook hook-and-swim move from Western Kentucky's Quanterus Smith. But it was just his second college start. "Get what you can now," said the ACC coach, "because that little hole will be gone soon."
"People ask me about getting more comfortable as a leader of the team," quarterback AJ McCarron said in January during the pre-BCS Championship media blitz. "Honestly, it's easy to just worry about what I have to do when I know those guys are up there taking care of me."
There's nothing ugly about that.