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UConn Football Position Preview: Offensive line

UConn’s front line is largely an unknown quantity heading into the 2021 season.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The basis of any good football team starts with the offensive line. Former o-line coach Frank Giufre, now the offensive coordinator, has done a decent job of developing the line in UConn’s previous seasons.

Despite the team’s overall lack of success on the field, UConn’s offensive line hasn’t been the root issue. But it hasn’t been exceptional either.

Continuity is also important on the offensive line, perhaps more important than any other position group. UConn returns two starters this season: tackle Ryan Van Demark and guard Christian Haynes. Much of the offensive line is unproven, and even though they’ve had a two-year offseason to gel, we won’t know what we’re getting until after the first snap.

The starters project as follows: senior Van Demark at left tackle, redshirt sophomore Haynes at left guard, junior transfer Sidney Walker at center, redshirt sophomore Dylan Niedrowski at right guard, and redshirt freshman Chase Lundt at right tackle.

The incoming starters have big shoes to fill with the departing pieces on the offensive line. Matt Peart left for the NFL after the 2019 season, while Nino Leone and Cam DeGeorge both transferred away from the program, taking between them over 2,000 snaps.

Van Demark has been the rock at the end of the Huskies’ offensive line since he arrived on campus in 2017. The senior has started all 36 games he’s had the opportunity to participate in at left tackle, which has seen him grow up fast. Demark is up from 250 to 300 pounds since his freshman year, and now stands at 6-foot-7. He has also matured as a leader, named to the leadership council as a junior and one of the Huskies’ captains for 2021.

The 2021 season will be a big one for Demark, as he looks to solidify his place as a 2022 NFL Draft prospect and has already received preseason accolades, including being named to the Senior Bowl watchlist.

Christian Haynes enters 2021 as the Huskies’ most experienced interior offensive lineman, taking 835 snaps at right guard in 2019. Haynes is up to 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, and will look to marshall another strong UConn rushing attack. Both Demark and Haynes ranked in the top 40 blockers in the American per Pro Football Focus, but will have to lend a helping hand to their three new linemates.

Junior Sydney Walker is the projected starter at center, based on snaps in preseason camp, which can be admittedly hard to draw conclusions from. The Crestview, Florida native spent the first two years of his college career at Kilgore College in Texas, before transferring from the junior college to UConn in 2019. He has had the equivalent of two offseasons practicing with the group, but his first test against FBS defensive linemen in a live game scenario will come on August 28. UConn is especially short at the center position due to the departure of Leone and Stanley Hubbard, who both left the program after the 2019 season.

Outside of the 2019 starters, guard Dylan Niedrowski will bring the most experience to the UConn offensive line in 2021. Niedrowski is tall for a guard, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing in at near 300 lbs. He featured in all 12 games in 2019, filling in at both the tackle and guard positions as well as operating as a lineman in heavy or unbalanced formations.

At right tackle, Chase Lundt has had the opportunity to make an impact with the starters this preseason. Standing 6-foot-7 and weighing in at 285, Lundt has the ideal frame to play offensive tackle, and he originally impressed the coaching staff during the 2020 offseason where he competed for the starting tackle job after the departure of Matt Peart to the NFL.

The Huskies have plenty of bodies along the offensive line, but don’t have much experience in depth. Valentin Senn, a redshirt freshman who started his career at Colorado, is a candidate to push Walker for the starting center spot. Senn has unusual size for an interior lineman, standing 6-foot-7 and weighing in at 310, and can fill in at either tackle spot in a pinch. Rayonte Brown redshirted his freshman year and will be available to cover at tackle if needed, or could see some time on special teams.

On the interior line, Peter Rooney, a redshirt sophomore who went to Westminster in Simsbury, Connecticut will provide the main backup along with fellow redshirt sophomore Noel Ofori-Nyadu, who saw a limited amount of game time in 2019. Jonathan Pace started his career at UConn on the defensive side of the ball, but has since converted to an offensive guard, and will be an interesting option at 6-foot-5, 293. A handful of 2019 enrollees, including Christopher Fortin, a true freshman from Quebec, and Robby Rochester from Southlake, Texas could also be emergency backup options.