The Texas Longhorns enter the 2013 football season with a great deal of experience on both sides of the ball with so few departing contributors, but no position is stronger in terms of experience when compared with the rest of the nation as Stacy Searels' offensive line.
Every summer, Phil Steele compiles a list of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. In 2013, the 'Horns rank at the top of the list with a total of 124 career starts, one ahead of the Tennessee Volunteers, a big part of the reason why Steele ranks Texas as his top offensive line group overall.
There is some notable evidence from 2009, though hardly systematic and extensively researched over years, that offensive line experience correlates to success:
Last season, eight of the top 10 teams in the final Associated Press poll began the season with at least 65 combined career starts by their offensive linemen, including title-game participants Florida and Oklahoma. Two of 2008's biggest surprises, Utah and Ole Miss, had more than 80 starts of experience, enabling them to improve dramatically on offense. Conversely, Georgia, Missouri and Clemson -- three preseason top-10 teams that disappointed -- were green up front, with fewer than 40 starts each.
And indeed, the Texas ascension to the Big 12 title was predicted that season by that article because the 'Horns returned 91 offensive line starts against only 29 for Oklahoma. Back in 2008, Ivan Maisel put the magic number for offensive line starts around 75 to somewhat accurately predict success at the position.
For fans at times frustrated by a running game that fell apart late last season against some strong defensive fronts like Kansas State, TCU, and Oregon State to close the season, the positive news was that the number of tackles for loss and sacks allowed by the group decreased drastically from the 2011 season, when the offense worked far too often from well behind the chains.
The hope is that a spring strength and conditioning regimen that focused on building explosive power through strength training and then extensive conditioning work to prepare for the up-tempo offensive this fall will help the experience group break through to the next level in their third season under Searals. It's certainly time, as the group will feature three senior starters and two junior starters.
An area that could impact the overall upside for the offensive line is depth -- especially with Texas planning on running so many more plays this year -- and the 'Horns may finally have some for the first time in years. Injuries that kept starters like Trey Hopkins and Josh Cochran from participating in spring practice allowed more crucial reps for sophomore guard Sedrick Flowers and sophomore tackle Kennedy Estelle, who both made steps to becoming contributors. Throw in the addition of junior college tackle Desmond Harrison, widely expected to compete for a starting job, and Texas should at least have three capable back-ups who can give the starters a breather several times a game.
It may be a bit of a stretch for Steele to project the 'Horns as the top offensive line in the country mostly based on their experience given their struggles to operate at a high level against good opponents, but after years of often shaky play, it does appear that it's finally time for the offensive line to become a team strength once again.