During his first spring at Texas, offensive line coach Stacy Searels didn't even have enough scholarship lineman to fill out his two-deep, stunting the growth of his unit, providing poor competition for the second-team defensive line, and in general reflecting the malaise that had overtaken the position in recent years.
Now in his second year, Searels has enough scholarship players to reach into the three-deep and is now once again focused on mixing and matching to find the best pieces. And throwing his hat when his charges let him down, on full display during the open practice last Friday.
When the season actually starts in the fall, Searels is surely hoping that he'll have to do less hat throwing and have cause to lavish some praise on his group.
As much as the poor quarterback play and injuries to the skill positions killed Texas late in the season on offense, a consistent problem throughout the season was the breakdowns that occurred on a regular basis in both the passing and the running games, causing running backs to have to break tackles behind the line of scrimmage and the quarterbacks to make throws under pressure or vacate the pocket early.
Early in the week, junior guard/center Mason Walters acknowledged the role that the line played in 2011:
I think we were the problem sometimes last year. We want to be able to do whatever we want when we go into the game. We just want to win.
According to Mack Brown, doing whatever it takes includes being able to run the ball successfully even when other teams know what's coming. Against terrible defensive fronts like the Red Raiders, the big uglies for the 'Horns were able to find consistent success, but against any decent unit struggled to regularly win the line of scrimmage.
A major piece of the puzzle is junior-college transfer Donald Hawkins, already penciled in as the starter at left tackle -- there doesn't seem to be a lot of mixing and matching there, despite the fact that sophomore Josh Cochran emerged as the starter there late last season -- for whom the first half of spring practice was about adjusting to the team and new scheme.
While Hawkins hasn't yet reached the pinnacle of that learning curve and may not until some time during fall practice, the potential there is obvious to Walters and pretty much every other observer:
I can see a lot of where we were last year with him, which is to be expected. He wants to play here and he wants to be really good. I see a lot of potential there.
Searels working players at multiple positions on the line is a philosophical decision for him. On Tuesday, Mack Brown described why his offensive line coach employs that strategy:
Stacy is one of the best I have ever seen at moving guys around. He took Mason Walters yesterday and put him in at center for five plays. He moves them around and wants to see how they look. He is not worried about just the success they have in the spring, but he wants to see if he puts them in a position they are not with how they will respond to try and build up.
Now, it's interesting to evaluate what Brown is saying about Walters in the context of how Searels chooses to prepare his line. On Monday, Walters only played a handful of plays at center -- hardly the makings of a permanent move. In fact, Brown cited it as a depth move at the time.
However, all reports out of the scrimmage on Wednesday indicated that starting center Dominic Espinosa struggled once again allowing penetration, giving the defense the upper hand throughout much of the work, forcing Searels to move Walters over to center once again. Word is that the former high school center acquitted himself well and helped solve some of the issues there, with Sedrick Flowers stepping in at guard with the first team.
As heartening as it is that Texas has an option like Walters to slide over there if Espinosa can't improve, it does highlight another issue -- the lack of development on the field from Garrett Porter, who was praised by Brown for his work in the offseason program. Likewise, other members of the 2009 class like Thomas Ashcraft and Paden Kelley haven't pushed the starters.
Establishing depth is a key to be able to confidently use the back ups to keep the starters fresh and as insurance in case of injuries at a position where every play could result in a teammate or defending rolling up on someone's knee or something similarly devastating.
Besides Flowers, there isn't much buzz around anyone else challenging the starters for a job, which could increase pressure on a guy like DeSoto guard Curtis Riser, thought to be the most college-ready of all the 2012 pledges, including early enrollee Camrhon Hughes.
The assessment from Brown?
The offensive line is so much better than what it was and still not where we need it to be.
Searels has about six months to get them there.