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Texas offensive line keying improved run game

Fewer mistakes have made life easier on the Longhorn backs.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

According to Texas Longhorns head coach Mack Brown, his offensive line likes to do two things -- eat and run block.

Against the TCU Horned Frogs last Saturday, the group had the opportunity to indulge in the former, munching on chicken fingers during the weather delay that lasted for more than three hours.

Over the last two games, the Longhorn offensive line has been able to do plenty of the latter, as well, as Texas attempted 114 rushes in the contests against the Horned Frogs and the Oklahoma Sooners, a number that represents 37% of the season total in only two games.

All that after the inexplicable decision to abandon the running game against Iowa State after running back Johnathan Gray found success early with a 45-yard touchdown run.

"We had 62 rushes against Oklahoma, we had 52 the other night and then you start breaking those bigger plays in the third and fourth quarter," Brown said Monday. "That's who we are, that's what we're going to continue to do, and still throw the ball down the field."

The big plays are still hard to come by, in large part because opposing defenses are now committing significant resources to stoping the run game, but what has changed since early in the season?

Simply put, the tight ends have been used more often, which has been a major boon to the run game, as tight end Geoff Swaim has been quietly spectacular, successfully executing 45 good blocks with only one glaring mistake. Likewise, partner-in-crime Greg Daniels has been good as well -- connecting on 18 good blocks with only three mistakes.

Play caller Major Applewhite believes that Swaim's experience in an offense similar to the Chris Petersen/Bryan Harsin offense was one of the factors that helped him transition quickly after enrolling this spring.

"When (former offensive coordinator) Bryan Harsin found him out there in California, he played at a JC with some guys that had worked in the same type of offense," Applewhite said on Tuesday.

"So, he understood the language, he understood just kind of what we were doing. He could play on the ball; he could play off the ball. We liked that kind of versatility and we thought we were getting a tough guy that had good discipline. He's not a Shannon Sharpe or Vernon Davis or that kind of guy. That's not him. He's a guy who can play on the line of scrimmage, off the ball and will enjoy his contact. He takes great pride in his assignment work and (tight ends coach) Bruce Chambers has done a good job with him."

Things have also noticeably improved on the interior as well. The combination of center Dominic Espinosa and right guard Mason Walters has been seen as the weak link on the line for some time and the two were downright bad at times -- in the first five games of the season, Walters made only eight good blocks, but missed on more than twice as many run and pass blocks combined.

In fact, his eight good blocks against Oklahoma matched his season total at that point, but he was solid against TCU as well, perhaps as a result of a return to health -- he left the Ole Miss game with an injury nearly kept him out against Kansas State.

But while Walters has gotten better, Espinosa struggled against TCU, missing four blocks that accounted for almost half of the team total of nine whiffs, though he turned in one of his better efforts against Oklahoma with only one mistake along with several plays where he missed in space, normally an area of strength for the Cedar Park product.

Overall, Espinosa leads the team with 26 missed blocks, which matches his number of good blocks exactly. Sedrick Flowers has arguably been much more effective than Espinosa and was probably out-playing Walters heading into the Kansas State game, but he hasn't been on the field much recently and the injury to Josh Cochran and lack of dominance from Desmond Harrison has kept the rotation the same as it was entering the season, despite the struggles from Walters and Espinosa.

The best two offensive linemen have been left guard Trey Hopkins and left tackle Donald Hawkins, who combined to play flawless football against Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma, and TCU outside of two missed blocks, two false start penalties against Hawkins, and a hold against Hopkins. In run and pass blocking, Hopkins has only missed five blocks all season, compared to 44 strong efforts, which trails only Swaim on the team. Hawkins, meanwhile, trails Hopkins by only one successful block.

Because of the steadily excellent play of Hawkins and Hopkins, competent work from Kennedy Estelle replacing Cochran at right tackle, and the improvement of Walters, Texas is starting to find more consistent success without as many total breakdowns, even as defenses key on the run.

The BYU game was a complete debacle, as there were more mistakes (21, including 16 missed pass blocks) than good blocks (12). After the problems in pass protection against the Cougars, it was the run game were the most missed blocks occurred against the Rebels (nine total). Since then, the Longhorns have rebounded to keep mistakes to a minimum (seven missed blocks each against Iowa State and Oklahoma).

And how has the group managed to keep Case McCoy clean during the last nine quarters? By not missing pass blocks, with only four mistakes by offensive linemen or tight ends in pass protection over the last three games, highlighted by a perfect performance in that regard against TCU.

There's no question that the lack of elite edge rushers in the league has helped and so has running the ball, but Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker is quite effective in that regard, putting McCoy on spin cycle early in the Red River Rivalry, and he wasn't able to record a sack despite giving Estelle has much trouble as he has had this fall. Texas has also executed well on third downs, when McCoy has been able to complete big passes downfield with no pressure in his face.

Looking forward, the biggest concern isn't from edge rushers, though Hawkins clearly worries at times with his three false start penalties, but rather from the interior of the line, notably the two lowest-performing members of group in Walters and Espinosa. Combined, the two have 19 mistakes in pass protection, one more than the rest of the offensive linemen who have played significant snaps combined, the latter number of which was significantly increased by the four miscues of Cochran in limited minutes.

Oklahoma State is probably the team left on the schedule with the best chance of exploiting the interior of the Texas line with two productive tackles in Calvin Barnett and James Castleman, though neither have made the number of tackles for losses expected of them. Individually, West Virginia's Will Clarke and Texas Tech's Kerry Hyder, Jr. represent the greatest challenges remaining on the schedule in terms of defensive tackles.

Right now, however, the line looks capable of rising to the challenge.

"Those guys are playing at a very, very high level." Brown said of the offensive line. "It's fun for them. They've taken a lot of criticism over the last couple years. This is who we've wanted to be for the last three years. Certain moments it's shown up."

Looking back, at some point in 2011, this line proved that it could find success, running for 880 yards in consecutive games against Kansas and Texas Tech before cratering against Missouri and Texas A&M when injuries to the running backs sapped depth and defenses responded to the success. Last season, the run game ranked No. 23 nationally in S&P+, but performed poorly against the two best fronts it faced in Oklahoma and TCU.

"Everybody would ask, 'When are you going to do it against a good defense like OU? When are you going to run the ball against a good defense like TCU?' We've been able to do that the last two weeks. That's confirmation we can do it," said Brown.

And while the takeaway from the bludgeoning put on Oklahoma that included 56 blocks executed at a high level is diminished by the absence of nose tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Corey Nelson, the two best players in the front seven of that defense, creating enough running space to remain stubborn against a good TCU front with intentions to take it away answered one of the most monumental questions the team faced in regards to the its upside, especially offensively.

"Now we have to continue to create the edge for this weekend, play up to a standard, make sure we continue with that same attitude."

For the first time, that standard has been set against a good defense, even though it was a struggle for parts of the game, a struggle that may continue against other teams this season.

"They rose to the challenge and did a great job against Oklahoma and TCU and like I said, it wasn't always pretty," said Applewhite. "There were some negative yardage runs in that first 15-yard drive against Oklahoma. There were some blowups in that game."

"We kept with it, stayed with it, stayed committed to it and then your chunks started to come, your backs got lathered and now it's just about playing up to a standard and that's what coach Brown and the rest of the staff is talking about with the guys, just what standard are you playing to? Are you playing to the Oklahoma standard, the TCU standard, or are you playing like some other games that we didn't play well in?"

Now the offensive line knows that Applewhite is going to run the ball behind them. Like a quarterback who benefits from being named the starter, the experienced group has probably benefited from knowing that even if they make a mistake on one play, they're going to have a chance to run block again on the next play.

It's hard to say how much of the success is about pure attitude and how much it is on pure coaching, but in the trenches, wanting it more than the person across from you is the difference if technique is relatively equal. Right now, the Texas offensive line looks like it wants it more and continues to increase its confidence every week.

So the offensive plan appears simple for the remainder of the season -- feed those big guys up front.