Offensive line looks toward replacements

When offensive captain Tanner Hawkinson takes the field on Saturday, it will be his 47th career start for the Jayhawks, breaking Hessley Hempstead’s 1994 school record. It will also be the last time Hawkinson suits up in front of his classmates and asserts himself as the rock of the Kansas offensive line.

After five years, Hawkinson’s Kansas career is coming to a close.

He’s hoping that it won’t be the last time he steps foot in Memorial Stadium. Hawkinson said he has grown too attached to the football program and the University to let that happen. He will surely continue to follow the Jayhawks closely, and with good reason.

Part of his lasting legacy at Kansas will be the dominant run game that has puzzled virtually every Big 12 team this year. A large reason for the success is the blocking from the offensive line. With four of those blockers graduating this season, including tight end Mike Ragone, there will be plenty of question marks up front, especially with running backs James Sims and Tony Pierson looking to hit their college primes in 2013.

Hawkinson isn’t worried, though; he’s been watching the guys below him on the depth chart. He knows what’s coming.

“Some of the true freshman guys like Brian Beckmann and even some of the redshirt guys like Damon Martin have improved throughout the year,” Hawkinson said. “All of the young guys have done a great job of coming to work everyday and looking to improve.”

Some of those guys are already starting to pay dividends.

Luke Luhrsen redshirted his freshman year in 2011 and has spent time on the practice squad this season. Yet at 6-foot-3 and 292 pounds, it was hard to imagine him staying out of games for long.

His drought ended last week against Texas Tech.

“Sometimes guys like that just go unnoticed,” Kansas coach Charlie Weis said. “But we’ve started to sprinkle in more and more to get a little taste. We call it ‘get your feet wet,’ where you just get a little bit of game action.”

There may have been some doubt as to whether Luhrsen was ready, but he had his supporters, and they weren’t just on the offensive side of the ball.
Senior defensive end Toben Opurum has been facing Luhrsen all year in practice. He’s seen the Illinois native’s potential and how quickly he’s begun to reach it.

“I don’t think a lot people were real high on him at the beginning of the season,” Opurum said. “Since he’s come down to scout team, he’s helped us a lot. He’s a work-hard guy and a very physical guy, that alone will put him in a position to get reps.”

Even losing a big body like Mike Ragone at tight end will be a loss, and while Jimmay Mundine has started to emerge, he isn’t the only one: Jordan Shelley-Smith has been slowly rising as well.

It also helps the maturation process having an experienced 24-year-old Ragone helping out a 19-year-old freshman, even if it can be intimidating at times.

“He was so nervous the first day,” Ragone said of Shelley-Smith. “I was lined up in my three-point stance, and he was lined up in his, and he tried to undercut me, but he punched me right in the mouth. He was so shaken up.”

Apparently not too shaken up, though. Shelley-Smith ended up punching Ragone again a few plays later. Chalk it up to the learning process.

Luhrsen, Mundine, Shelley-Smith — they’re all coming, and they’ll be thrown into an experienced mix. A mix of guys like Gavin Howard, Aslam Sterling and Randall Dent. Guys who have had the fortune of playing with the likes of Duane Zlatnik, Trevor Marrongelli and Tanner Hawkinson.

While those three seniors won’t be around to see Kansas’ success, they will be a big reason for it if the wins start piling up. They’ve already made sure of that.

“We’ve been there to show the younger guys this is how you’ve got to work each day,” Hawkinson said. “We’ll talk to some of the guys who are going to be seniors next year, too, and tell them, ‘You’ve got to keep this going.’ I think they’re going to be in good hands for years to come.”

Blake is a senior from Chicago, Ill., studying journalism on the news and information track. Read more from .

  • Updated Nov. 14, 2012 at 11:10 pm
  • Edited by Ryan McCarthy