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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - LSU's offensive line was among the most experienced and established units when the regular season began.
Not anymore, but the No. 8 Tigers are pleasantly surprised at how well they've played through unexpected upheaval up front.
When the eighth-ranked Tigers wrap up their regular season at Arkansas on Friday afternoon, center P.J. Lonergan and left guard La'el Collins will be the only two season-opening starters on the offensive line still in uniform.
"I never thought we'd be lining up like this," Lonergan said. "The landscape has changed tremendously."
Early this season, senior Josh Dworaczyk moved into a starting role because of a knee injury to left tackle Chris Faulk.
LSU later lost returning starting right guard Josh Williford to a concussion from which he has yet to return, and returning starting right tackle Alex Hurst left the team for personal reasons.
Two freshmen - guard Trai Turner and tackle Vadal Alexander - now comprise the right side of LSU's line.
"We have done very well with a lot of first-year starters," Lonergan said. "The offensive line is playing better than it was at the beginning of the season."
Dworaczyk was needed for the second game as Faulk suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice before the Washington game. In the third game against Idaho, Dworaczyk injured a calf. Hurst moved to left tackle and Alexander stepped in at right tackle.
Dworaczyk returned one week later for the Auburn game, but he was ineffective due to his injury. So, the Tigers went back to Hurst and Alexander as the starting tackles for the Towson and Florida games.
During the Florida game, Williford suffered a concussion and was replaced by Turner. During the week after the game against the Gators, Hurst left school. Dworaczyk was then reinserted in the lineup at left tackle.
In the first six games, LSU tailbacks averaged 6.1 yards per carry. However, their average was just 4.3 yards per attempt in the two Southeastern Conference games - against Auburn and Florida. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger was sacked 15 times in those six games.
"To say that all the changes on the offensive line had no effect on us would not be the truth," Lonergan said. "The changes have some bearing on the chemistry. But, we're all friends and we're all close to each other."
Lately, though, the new-look offensive line has performed well. In five games against SEC opponents, Tigers tailbacks are averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Mettenberger has been sacked a relatively low eight times in those five games.
"One of the reasons our passing game is better now is the offensive line," said Mettenberger, who is the first LSU quarterback in 23 years to have thrown for at least 250 yards in three consecutive SEC games. "Until recently, there was a new guy playing on the line every week."
Collins has been the iron man up front. He has not missed an offensive snap since the Washington game on Sept. 8 and has a team-leading 55Â½ knockdown blocks in his 722 plays - one every 13 snaps. Collins was heavily recruited and expected to be an outstanding lineman.
Less was known about Turner and Alexander. In the past five games, Turner has registered 30Â½ knockdown blocks, while Alexander has been credited with 30.
"I told Trai and Vadal before the last game that they had accomplished a lot of things," Dworaczyk said. "I also told them that it's time to cut out the little mistakes and they have to expect to play well all the time."
Turner redshirted a year ago. He entered preseason practice as the backup to Williford at right guard. Now Williford will have to compete to get his starting job back in 2013.
"Trai road-grates people," Dworaczyk said. "La'el and Trai are finally getting a chance to contribute. La'el is ahead of the game, but Trai is not far behind."
Alexander, a true freshman, had the benefit of enrolling at LSU last January and going through spring practice. By the end of spring drills, Alexander was working with the No. 2 offensive line.
"Being at tackle is rough," Dworaczyk said. "I know from experience that guard is a little easier. It's been a while since a freshman played at tackle. I am going to follow closely both of these guys' careers. I think both of them are going to play at an elite level."
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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