I first started reading and commenting on this blog in August 2007. Since that pre-season of Colt euphoria (coming off his record-setting freshman season) and justified anxiety about the defense, the most consistent complaint about the Horns, like a festering boil in the nether regions, has been the poor play of the offensive line. From observations of wussiness, to consternation about the zone blocking schemes left over from Vince young's zone read days of 2005, to derision by recruits (see Jake Matthews, 2008) the line was a laughing stock (ridiculed even in defeat by Rice defensive linemen in 2010). Even I likened the line to a collection of "dancing bears" during the 2009 journey to the MNC game. Though many UT players and units dug themselves holes in the slime at the bottom of the proverbial barrel in 2010, no unit reached the depths of the offensive line. Poor coaching, missed assignments, flailed reach and cut blocks, and two tackles (Hix and Mitchell) with the feet of mermaids produced the catastrophic inconsistency that turned the mush that was Garrett Gilbert's confidence into a final, cold soup worthy of the Bastille circa 1789. Given the recruiting assessments of the assortment of flesh that began 2010 as the Texas offensive line, it was not an understatement to to rate the Horns' 2010 performance as a "big ugly."
So here we are in 2011, and what are the prospects? The mainstream media claims that bad line last year plus only 36 collective starts must mean bad line this year. On the other hand, one could argue that the raw material is there in terms of beef and athleticism; what is needed is something to turn that meat into a gourmet meal. Even the most tasteless corn-fed anti-bioticized rump roast can be converted into a spectacular entree with the right sauce. As Texans, the sauce we'd all like to have on the plate would be a slow-cooked third generation recipe barbecue mix. So the question is whether the Texas coaches can create that "sauce" in the environment of offensive plays, blocking schemes and techniques, and the collective attack psychology of the group.
In the restaurant that is the Texas football season, Mack Brown fired the chefs, remodeled from 1970's avocado to 21st century eclectic, and re-opened for business in late July. Brian Harsin and Major Applewhite have designed an offense that creates favorable blocking angles, and Stacy Searels has taken the concept of football boot camp to a new meaning. Those in need of attitude adjustments need not apply (are you hearing me Paden Kelley?). All has been whipped, pressure-cooked, and deep-fried together from scratch in a frenzy that would make McDonald's logistics engineers blush, and there's still a lot of experimenting in the kitchen. The aroma is tantalizing, but the question is, is this new simple, whisked sauce worthy of a successful re-opening of the Texas offensive menu? Or will we be muttering about the failure of the fancy new chefs by mid-course and despairing of any hope? My take is that the Texas offensive line will fall short of a "to die for" barbecue sauce but just might come together as a satisfying au jus.
The Texas coaches simply haven't had the time to forge an unbeatable barbeque. The Horns' best hope may be to get the right players in the right positions for some running and playaction success, but the line likely can't withstand the pass rush assault that would come on repeated third and long plays.
if you can't have.....
So what will this collection of stock, onions and salt look like? After the jump, I explore the key players, schemes, and overall outlook for the Texas offensive line in 2011. Explore after the jump.
First let's deal with personnel. The Horns have three returning starters, David Snow, Mason Walters, and Trey Hopkins. In 2010, Snow was the center, Walters played right guard, and Hopkins had played pretty much everywhere by the end of the season. A fourth warm body is fifth year senior Tray Allen, who saw limited action as a junior in 2009, but was injured and redshirted in 2010. Junior Luke Poehlman has seen backup action in both of the last two years, but was overpowered as consistently as my German mother-in-law is by the mere sight of a jalapeno. After these five, we have a mix of redshirt freshmen and sophomores, such as Dominic Espinosa, Thomas Ashcraft, Paden Kelley, Garrett Greenlea, Garrett Porter, whose games are as big a mystery as the cranial contents of SEC-eding aggies. For a roster breakdown, see Peter Bean's highlight from Longhorn Kickoff 2011 and Scipio Tex's preview. Stacy Searels has surveyed this meat locker in the light of desired attributes to run Harsin's collection of powers, counters, traps, and play-action looks and apparently created a line with some exciting, but completely unproven potential.
Before I evaluate, let's get some assumptions out of the way. First, I assume that the Texas defensive ends Okafor, Jeffcoat, and Wilson, along with Kheeston Randall, rank with the best defensive linemen in the conference. This means that if linemen are successful blocking these guys, they will be successful blocking against even the best of the competition. This gets past the zero-sum problem of whether the offensive linemen are good only because the defenders are bad: let's be clear, the defenders are good.
Second, it is apparent from practice reports that the defense has only rarely opened the beehive of blitzes that Manny Diaz likes to run in the interest of making Horn quarterbacks have a chance to impress and "separate," and so we can't really evaluate any of the players in recognition and assignments. There was a Black Monday a couple of weeks ago where Diaz opened up the can of Whup, and the result was epic fail all along the line. However, the offensive line did somewhat better the next day, and pass protection has improved somewhat after switching Snow to guard and Espinosa to center. But the line's real ability to sniff and stuff a blitz will have to be updated after the season starts.
Left tackle, Tray Allen
There's little doubt that Mr. Allen has been a disappointment since he arrived on campus as a five star recruit. Fans expected him to move into the left tackle position following the departure of Tony Hills in 2007, but injuries and a failure to meet coach Greg Davis' expectations for pass-blocking in a third and long offense left the Horns with Adam Ulatoski and Kyle Hix, both misplaced right tackles, on the blind side from 2008-2010. However, in 2011, Tray was apparently installed at left tackle in the first days of fall camp and has done everything necessary to vice grip the position. He has spent a lot of time facing Jackson Jeffcoat, and has held up so well that some observers have been a little disappointed in Jackson's performance. This, methinks, is good news.
So what does Mr. Allen bring to the table? In limited action in the past, Tray showed outstanding mobility and good power at the point of attack. I recall one block in particular in which he ran to the left sideline on a wide receiver screen against Wyoming to annihilate the cornerback, a block that sprung the receiver John Chiles for a touchdown. He was good in keeping his feet under him when engaged. He showed good power and a strong right leg when sealing defenders to the outside He was a guard in the Greg Davis offense because of other features: relatively short arms that could not control speed rushers off the edge and a head that tended to play "spin the bottle" at the first sign of a blitz. From the few available glimpses of Allen's past play, his problem appeared to be mostly in the noggin, and Greg Davis' limited use of him prevented from getting the experience necessary to build recognition. In short, Tray was asked to do things his natural skill set wasn't up to doing, and like many Horns, languished on the bench. Then, last year, he was out with an injury.
From watching the limited available practice clips, Tray seems to have found a happy place. It's hard to tell whether this nirvana was created by coaching of new techniques or simply his own maturation, but he seems to be ready to be a force in the running game and surprisingly effective in pass protection. He has a unique style of controlling the defender with his forearms and elbows underneath the defender's pads and using his great strength and quick feet to frustrate any moves. This contrasts with the classic method for left tackles of extending their arms to control rushers and then cutting off the attack angle with deft footwork. Tray's method is more like a sumo wrestler trying to dance the waltz, he's in so close on the defender as to simulate running in a pit of hardening cement. It would be interesting to know if this technique was taught by Stacy Searels or whether Tray figured it out for himself. In any case, it seems to have frustrated Texas' ends, but may leave him vulnerable to speed rushers, like outside linebackers in a 3-4, to which he may have trouble getting close enough to maul.
Regardless, rather than the five car pileup that many knowledgeable fans and media (is that an oxymoron?) expect from Texas' left tackle position in 2011, Tray Allen appears to at least make the position competent, and could prove to be a strength. It will be fun to watch.
Left Guard - David Snow
Mr. Snow has received extensive playing time since he was a true freshman in 2008. He's easily the most experienced lineman, having had significant snaps at guard in 2008 and 2009 and then was the starting center in 2010. The book on David is that he is an excellent athlete and may be one of the Big 12's best interior linemen at identifying defenders and blocking in open space. I remember him destroying two defenders in sequence, one 5 yards and the other 15 yards downfield, on a wide receiver screen against Oklahoma State in 2008. His weakness, in the past at least, has been strength at the point of attack against 3 technique defensive tackles. I have a nightmare of watching him being eaten like the last pecan pie at a bake sale, play after play, by the Sooners' Gerald McCoy during the RRS in 2009. He seemed to perform better at center where he generally had help from a guard in moving the other team's nose tackle, and in which his primary block was often a linebacker. In Greg Davis' scheme, he was not a tremendous dancing bear in pass coverage, as he lacked the upper body strength for command and control.
Bryan Harsin's scheme, with its emphasis on movement and favorable blocking angles rather than sheer size and power, may give Snow a new outlook on life. Snow began the fall at center but was later moved to guard with the rise of Dominic Espinosa. He has outstanding potential to be a pulling guard in the Power O series because of his quickness and speed and great recognition skills. In pass protection, his experience will be absolutely essential in picking up blitzes and hopefully some improved strength will help him seal off interior stunts better than in the past. I think David will prove to be a better-than-average guard and an essential amplifier for Harsin's dynamic running offense.
Center - Dominic Espinosa
One of the surprises of fall practice reports was the emergence of this redshirt freshman at center. Listed at 6-4, 298, he doesn't look that tall compared to the other linemen. What he does have, based on limited glimpses in released practice videos, is a low center of gravity. He doesn't seem to be a pancaker, but has some quickness and is almost always underneath the defender on his initial block. The smaller defensive lines on the schedule aren't going to be able to cheat against their lack of size by getting under Dominic, and the Horns should have a consistently good quarterback sneak. He seems to be able to keep his head and recognize where he's needed in pass blocking, but I would capitalize that SEEMS because of the general lack of blitzing. Texas defensive players describe him as "nasty," and so perhaps what we will see is a pugnacious Rottweiler holding the center of the line and freeing up pulling guards, tight-ends and H-backs to search and destroy in the running game. Likely early on, he will miss some blitzes and stunts, but hopefully such whiffs will be scarce enough to avoid strangling the offense and bleeding out Garrett Gilbert's confidence.
Right Guard - Mason Walters
Mason emerged from a chronic foot injury and the apparent curse (see Tray Allen) of five-star recruit status in 2010 to start every game at right guard, and he's back there again, holding down the fort in 2011. Mr. Walters is apparently a paragon of strength and conditioning and does many things well on the line. In my opinion, he was Texas' best offensive lineman last year, showing elite ability to stone defenders at the point of attack, decent ability to pull in the running game, and was difficult to get by in pass protection. He made a few boneheaded plays that would be expected for a redshirt freshman, but he's been trialed by the 2010 fire, as it were, and would appear ready to become a major force on the line. Early fall practice reports placed him in his offensive teammates' faces, which is a sign of leadership and aggressiveness not seen since Justin Blalock.
So how does Mason fit into Bryan Harsin's scheme? Coach Searels tried him at right tackle (with Walters' seals, how many jetsweeps would DJ Monroe score on this year?) but despite success in the running game, he struggled mightlily with Alex Okafor in pass protection. Some of the practice clips suggest that Walters doesn't quite have the lateral quickness needed to keep in front of speed rushers or push them beyond the pocket, and because of his inexperience, he hasn't yet developed the hand techniques for controlling a smaller, quicker player. At guard, however, he can pull on counters to the left and his pass protection should be adequate, protected as he is on the inside of the line. But his highest value may be in having the sheer size and strength to collapse the center of the defense to his left and open holes for blockers and backs running right. Fans tend to focus on the pulling linemen on traps and counters, but great seal blocks in the targeted gap are as often the reason for success.
Overall, Walters may be the Horns most powerful offensive lineman, and he will have multiple key roles within the Harsin offense. But perhaps the best news is that, unlike last year, Mason may no longer be Texas' best up front.
Right tackle - Trey Hopkins
The most versatile and athletic front man for the Horns is, at this point, Trey Hopkins. Thrust onto the scene in 2010 as a true freshman following an injury to first Britt Mitchell against Iowa State and then Kyle Hix against Baylor, this natural guard can play any position in the line. His combination of quick feet, low center of gravity, natural strength, and great recognition make him probably Texas' best lineman. At first in fall camp, Searels played him at left guard with Tray Allen at left tackle and David Snow at center, Thomas Ashcraft at right guard and Mason Walters at right tackle. Such a lineup might be the Horns' best at power running, with Hopkins the key pulling guard.
After Black Monday, when Diaz set loose the Hounds of Firezone Blitz, it apparently became clear that there were too many struggles with pass protection on the right side. Enter Dominic Espinosa, and Hopkins slid down to right tackle while David Snow shifted to left guard, and Walters slid left to right guard. This apparently had the effect of buttoning down the pass rush, as Okafor and Hopkins battled to a draw over several practices and a scrimmage after that.
It has been clear from last year that Hopkins would be a future star. It's just a shame that Texas' recruiting at tackle has been so miserable that he is forced to play at tackle whereas he might be legitimately all-conference if he was able to stay at guard. Nevertheless, together with Mason Walters, he forms a formidable right wall behind which to run the Power O and all the derivative plays from it.
Bench - Thomas Ashcraft, Garrett Porter, Luke Poehlman, Paden Kelley
A multiple game injury to any of the starters except Espinosa would likely dramatically affect Texas' offensive efficiency. The sense of most fans is that the depth is thin, but cross-training of key players like Walters, Hopkins and Snow at multiple positions will allow Coach Searels to keep his top 6 or 7 lineman on the field. Depth is thus achieved through versatility in much the same way that Chris Hall's versatility kept the Texas line band-aided together during an injury plague in 2007.
The depth chart is thus complicated because likely any injury would result in other starters shifting positions. If either Snow or Walters is hurt, all 6-5 and 315 pounds of redshirt freshman Thomas Ashcraft would be the first guy off the bench. There has been no report of this, but I wouldn't be surprised if Ashcraft doesn't come in for some of the special package plays like the wildcat, option and jet sweep combinations because he is a player like Walters - strong enough to stone and seal defenders and his inexperience in pass blocking wouldn't be very much of a liability in those situations. If Espinosa goes down, Snow would likely shift to center and Ashcraft would take his spot at guard. Fans should expect Garrett Porter to get some snaps at guard and center as well. An injury to Tray Allen would be of deep concern, but likely result in Hopkins switching to left tackle, Walters to right tackle and Ashcraft coming in at guard. The alternative, which is to put in Poehlman or Kelley at left tackle, seems fraught with risk, but we may see that some of the time, particularly on series focused on running the ball. By mid-season, the coaching staff hopes that true freshman giant Garrett Greelea (6-7, 300+) can be the direct reserve to Allen, which would avoid breaking up the continuity on the right side. Finally, If Hopkins is injured, Walters would likely slide out to right tackle and Ashcraft would step in at right guard.
Overview and Prospects
The Texas offensive line gets no love whatsoever from the media, even Big 12 and AAS beat writers who should know better. This is because Texas doesn't fit the "formula" for college line success of lots of returning starters and lots of collective starts. However, sometimes inexperience is an upgrade, and in the case of the Greg Davis 2010 pathology, green is good.
I think this line has a chance, with scheme and new coaching, to completely turn around their play and become one of the best run-blocking lines in the conference. Pass protection on the other hand seems more sketchy. The tackles seem capable, and given that they are likely to receive help from fullback, H-back, and TE "chip" blocks on opposing defensive ends and outside linebackers, they shouldn't be too exposed. Their are two seniors on the line, and a combined 30 or so starts among the first five, but inexperience in the form of Allen and Espinosa may render the Horns particularly vulnerable to complex blitzes until mid-season at least. Then again, there won't be any blitz in games that the men haven't seen in practice, there could be surprisingly positive results. Finally, Texas will run an offense that doesn't depend so heavily on pass protection and thus mitigate the line's greatest weakness.
How might this all play out? Hopkins and Walters could become all-conference performers, and Snow could get in the mix as well. Texas has the potential to average over 200 yards rushing per game for the first time since 2006. Thus while the line might not represent prize-winning barbecue sauce, it seems like a tasty au jus that just might leave fans satisfied with offensive line play for the first time in five years.
Alternatively, when opposing teams blitz, we could be seeing the new group "Five Damiens" and their rad spinning head dance routine. In which case, we can expect to have David Ash and his "run for your life" ability as the starting QB by Oklahoma. Almost certainly Texas' coaches won't know what they really have until after OU. Despite the risks, I'm looking forward to watching the linemen grow up and be men.
Now, about that barbecue... Where are my keys?