The Offensive Line Paves the Way

A year ago, in my opening column for the 2017 season, I tried to put into perspective the oozing, unbridled optimism that had infested the Longhorn fan base, talk radio hosts, and Longhorn focused bloggers.  You may remember, the consensus opinion of the above was that anything short of a 9-3 regular season record would be a downright disappointment. As we know now, that consensus was simply the product of group hysteria.

This season, I not only believe Longhorn fans should be optimistic, I think they can righteously expect their team to win a minimum of nine regular season games with a good possibility of a berth in the Big 12 Championship Game.  That is, if Tom Herman and his coaching staff can tell the difference between their elbows and end zones in-game in 2018, a perception that was lacking in 2017 in many situations.

There are hundreds of ways to analyze and predict the fortunes of a football team before the first game is played. No doubt many of you have spent time in the last couple weeks reading in-depth analyses of the 2018 Longhorns. My analysis distills the complexity of all the in-depth analyses down to one factor.

As your offensive line goes, so goes your football team

If there is one thing I know for sure from 50+ years of watching football, it’s that if your offensive line plays consistently well, you have a chance be good, period. A good offensive line can turn an average quarterback into a reliable “game manager.” Journeymen running backs average more than four yards per carry with a good offensive line. A good offensive line allows you to play ball-control offense, which comes in especially handy on the road, taking the “hostile” out of a hostile environment. What about the defense? A well-performing offensive line can make your defense better by limiting its time on the field, and by relieving the pressure of having to be perfect because the offense can’t score.

So let’s take a look at the Horns’ 2018 offensive line.

Center: A highly decorated, three-star recruit in 2016, Junior Zach Shackelford will be the starter for the third straight year.  He hasn’t been a great player, but he’s played OK. Not a ringing endorsement, but he’s experienced which is more important for an offensive lineman than for any other position except quarterback. Zach Shackelford with 17 starts under his belt is an upgrade over Zach Shackelford the freshman or sophomore.

Left guard: Patrick Vahe, a four-star recruit in 2015, will be the starter for the fourth straight year. He also has not been a great player.   Many analysts suggested that he was over rated 2015 Freshman All-America pick. However, he was regarded as having played well in 2017, and with 31 starts is even more experienced than Zach Shackelford.

Left tackle: Calvin Anderson is a graduate transfer who started all 36 games he played at Rice. He was an honorable mention All-Conference-USA pick in 2016 and 2017.  Experienced center, experienced left guard, experienced left tackle.
Getting redundant, isn’t it?

Right guard: Elijah Rodriguez, a fifth year senior, was slated to be a starter in 2017 but missed the entire season due to a preseason camp injury. He’s played in 20 games with four starts. He’s not as experienced as the players on the left side of the line, but he’s considered very talented and has been elected a team captain by the players this year.

Right tackle: This is the least experienced position on offensive line. Texas lists sophomore Derek Kerstetter and redshirt freshman Samuel Cosmi as either-or starters. Due to the rash of injuries on the offensive line, Kerstetter started 10 games in 2017. Obviously Cosmi has no game experience. For what it’s worth at this point, both of these players are considered to have high-end potential.

Tight end: Andrew Beck is a fifth-year player who missed the entire 2017 season with a foot injury. He’s a starter because of his blocking ability. He has played in 37 career games with 16 starts. Like Elijah Rodriguez, he was elected a team captain for 2018.

Key backups: Third-year sophomore Patrick Hudson is the backup at left guard. He played in the first two games in 2017 before suffering a season-ending injury.  He was No. 15 on the American-Statesman’s fab 55, and was rated the No. 3 guard nationally by Rivals in 2015. Like Kerstetter and Cosmi, Hudson is considered to have a high upside.

Junior Denzel Okafor is the backup left tackle. He started four games in 2017, again, because of the rash of injuries.  He was all-everything in high school and No. 48 on the Statesman’s Fab 55. He didn’t exactly take a starters role and run with it last year, but it’s a tribute to the quality and experience of the starters that he’s a backup.

Herb Hand

Hand’s title is Co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, but Herman hired him for one thing, to coach the offensive line. He was offensive line coach at Auburn in 2017 where they averaged 218 yards per game rushing.

Hand has stronger resume than Herman’s offensive coordinator Tim Beck, and Derek Warehime who was the offensive line coach in 2017 and now is the tight ends coach.

On paper, Hand is an upgrade as the new offensive line coach.

Elephant in the room

This is the best starting offensive line Texas has had since maybe as far back as 2008, but there isn’t great depth. If Texas suffers anywhere near the rash of injuries to the offensive line that it did in 2017, my premise of a good season built on the play of the offensive line could be scuttled.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Elbows from end zones

I mentioned the coaching staff and their understanding of elbows and end zones near the top of this column. For those of you from Bryan-College Station, I was referring to Tom Herman and his staff’s in-game decision making.  I found grave fault with three decisions Herman made last year that arguably cost Texas three games.

  1. Running Sam Ehlinger on a power play up the gut in overtime that resulted in a game-losing fumble in overtime to USC. As Oliver Wendell Douglas used to say, “What the . . . ?”
  2. Putting Ehlinger back in the game after his head was slammed on the turf in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma. Ehlinger made a visit to the little tent on the sideline for the concussion protocol examination after the play, and he passed. Really? Come on man.  When he went back in the game, he was obviously fuzzy, as evidenced when he intentionally threw the ball out of bounds on a fourth down.

In Ehlinger’s absence, Shane Buechele came in and converted a third down with a nice pass on Oklahoma’s side of the 50. Buechele was experienced and a better passer than Ehlinger and he might have been able to exploit a weak Oklahoma pass defense where Ehlinger had not for three quarters.

  1. The bonehead call of the year—if not the decade—was the pass play call against Texas Tech on a fourth and two with just over two minutes left in the game and Tech with no timeouts. If you need more detail on this one, look it up yourself. I’m too disgusted with the subject to go on further about it.

Those decisions might make you wonder how Herman won so many games at Houston. And what’s with Herman and the strip club story while he was the offensive coordinator at Ohio State?

Do better Tom. Do better. After all, you are a Mensa member.

Don’t be surprised if Daniel Young emerges as the feature running back this year.

Season Predictions

The Horns go 9-3 in the 2018 regular season, play in the Big 12 Championship Game and will be invited to the Sugar Bowl.

Maryland

Don’t assume the turmoil surrounding Maryland because of the tragic death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair means they will be distracted or in disarray on Saturday. They could be—but I suspect that the Maryland players and coaches will be no less motivated or prepared than they were last year in Austin.

Remember 51-41 and . . .

HooK ‘EM,

Willie Earl

8 Comments to “The Offensive Line Paves the Way”

  1. This just in: We still suck.

  2. 7-7 overall and 0-2 in openers under Herman. Uhg.

  3. Hey, I picked the Horns to win, 34-17. That’s a good word or two. ????????????????

  4. Starting out with high hopes…..again. Who “steps up” this year to become a leader?

  5. Billy,

    The 3rd and 2 pass play call against Texas Tech was not the bonehead call of the year or decade. I think it was It was the worst play call EVER in the history of Texas Longhorn Football that i have seen in the last 55 years.

    A 7th Grade Coach would put the big QB under center and call a QB Sneak or hand the ball to your biggest Fullback. Do we have a fullback on the roster? I think Alabama has 4 fullbacks on their roster. When was the last time we recruited a Fullback?

    Do we have a goal line short yardage offense? Or is the fade pass to the corner of the end zone our goal line offense?

    What do we do in bad weather? Your thoughts?

    Mark Adams

    • Mark-I’ve heard from one of my inside sources that the tackle-eligible play is in the mix.

  6. We suck until we don’t. Check back with me at about 2:30 Saturday.

What Say You?