Maryland’s offensive line has plenty to prove

Each day leading up to preseason camp on Aug. 5, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Maryland football team. So far, we’ve reviewed the defensive backslinebackersdefensive line and special teams. Next up, the offensive line. 

Returning starters: LT Mike Madaras, LG De’Onte Arnett, C Sal Conaboy.

Projected starters: RG Andrew Zeller, RT Nick Klemm.

Starters lost: Bennett Fulper, Justin Gilbert.

Key backups: C Evan Mulrooney, LT Ryan Doyle, C Stephen Grommer, RG Gary Harraka, RG Maurice Shelton, RT Michael Dunn, RT Jake Wheeler.

Incoming: LG Silvano Altamirano (transfer), LT JaJuan Dulaney, LG Dylan O’Connor, RT Moise Larose

Competition: Through spring, the main competition focused on the starting center spot. Sal Conaboy made seven starts last year but was unseated for a five-game midseason stretch by Evan Mulrooney, who gained valuable starting experience against the ACC’s elite, including Clemson and Florida State. But a nagging hip injury kept Mulrooney sidelined for most of the spring, opening the door for the more experienced Conaboy — 14 career appearances vs. seven — to win the job. The way Coach Randy Edsall has talked about the offensive line this summer, it seems it’s Conaboy’s job to lose.

Silvano Altamirano, an experienced junior college transfer, figured to challenge De’Onte Arnett at left guard but endured some up-and-down outings this spring. And for all the inconsistencies the line showed last season, allowing an ACC-worst 3.33 sacks per game while protecting the revolving door of injured quarterbacks, it enters 2013 relatively stable among the starting five. Derwin Gray’s absence because of academic issues means Mike Madaras is alone at left tackle, the blindside protector of the future. Unless Altamirano comes on strong, Arnett, who boasts the most career starts among the returning linemen with 10, will start at left guard. Really, the only competition might come at right tackle, where Nick Klemm moved after having his starting left tackle spot usurped by Madaras last year after four games. If Klemm can keep it together, Michael Dunn and Jake Wheeler will battle it out for the backup spot.

Questions:

1) How much can the line improve? With two starting seniors and 48 combined starts gone between Justin Gilbert and Bennett Fulper, the line will be vastly less experienced than last season. Madaras (eight), Klemm (four), Conaboy (nine), Arnett (10) and Zeller (three) have four more combined starts than Fulper did alone, so there will probably still be some growing pains. But the offense is so loaded with playmakers at the skill positions — Stefon Diggs, Deon Long, even Brandon Ross come to mind — that really, the offensive line just has to be strong enough. But because the starting five worked together this entire spring, and given that any further change is unlikely, fans can expect greater cohesion, especially because the line won’t (theoretically) be dealing with five different starting quarterbacks from preseason through November. The offensive line entered this offseason with a massive chip on its shoulder after allowing the league-worst 39 sacks. The players know they’re surrounded by talent. It’s up to them to perform.

“We’re taking it upon ourselves to say, ‘Hey, we need to get this train rolling,’ ” Mulrooney said in late February. “We’re the backbone of this offense and possibly the whole team. Without a good offensive line, your team doesn’t really go anywhere far.”

2) Will the line build depth? For as little starting experience exists along the first five, there’s even less among the backups, save Mulrooney. Only Ryan Doyle (one career appearance) has even seen Division I action. Stephen Grommer, Gary Harraka, Maurice Shelton and Jake Wheeler all served redshirt years, but will be counted upon to serve valuable backup roles. The linchpin of the reserves could be Altamirano, an explosive junior from San Diego Mesa who earned all-Southern California Football Association honors as a starting tackle. Arriving this spring helped Altamirano get acclimated with the system and playbook, not to mention the cross-country move from his native California. If he can continue improving and working out the kinks, Altamirano could be a valuable second-team asset.

3) What effect will C.J. Brown have? Clearly, some of the line’s struggles in 2012 stemmed from a lack of cohesion, because adjusting to new quarterbacks on a weekly basis doesn’t exactly help foster unity. At its worst, things were disjointed and confused, allowing unwanted penetration as the offensive slogged to even gain positive yardage. But with Brown back under center — he’s a powerful locker room voice who’s commanded respect through his four full years in the program — will the line finally work as one under his direction? None of the ACL injuries were the fault of the offensive line — Brown’s occurred in preseason, Perry Hills on an illegal block, Caleb Rowe when he ran out of bounds — but protecting Brown and giving him enough time to hook up with Diggs, Long and others should be top priority.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt · July 28, 2013