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OL coach Joe Wickline's revolving door continues along improving Texas offensive line

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Hiring the former Oklahoma State offensive line coach has paid off in a big way as he held a patchwork group together early in the season and now has an improving unit enabling offensive growth overall.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In Wickline we trust.

That was the mantra of Texas Longhorns fans after the hiring of former Oklahoma State Cowboys offensive line coach Joe Wickline as the offensive coordinator/offensive line under new head coach Charlie Strong was perhaps the most lauded of all the assistant hires that Strong made.

The dividends are now becoming apparent, as Wickline has turned a rag-tag group of offensive linemen into an increasingly productive and cohesive unit, even while constantly shuffling the lineup to find the best starting five.

All that after losing both of the prospective starters at offensive tackle and the most experienced offensive lineman on the team -- senior center Dominic Espinosa, who was set to become a rare four-year starter along the line.

But Wickline hasn't worried about those losses or felt sorry for himself.

"I'm going to make this very clear. I learned a long time ago you never worry abut the ones that aren't here," Wickline told the Austin American-Statesman in an exclusive interview ($). "I don't really think about 40 starts. I worry about who's next. And sometimes, that's kind of cold."

"They'll say, ‘Hey, what about me?,'" he said. "Well, yeah, go get your degree, Dom. Hopefully you play in the NFL, and what a great guy he is, but ... As a group and a staff, what's it going to take for us to get better each week?"

The laser focus for Wickline is so intense that his interview with the Statesman was the only one he's granted this fall -- despite the fact he's officially the offensive coordinator as well as the offensive line coach, it's quarterbacks coach/assistant head coach for the offense Shawn Watson who meets with the media every Tuesday evening.

In the article, the Statesman writer suggested the following:

The combination that Texas fans will see Saturday against Iowa State (2-4 overall, 0-3 in the Big 12) might work for the rest of the year.

In addition to the preceding inability of the author to correctly number the different starting combinations for Texas this season entering last weekend's game (four, not three), this statement represented a fundamental misunderstanding of just how Wickline works, even after getting the exclusive access to speak with him.

To whit -- Wikline is going to keep on tinkering until he finds the best group, and even then, he might just bench someone for having a bad week of practice if someone else has stepped up.

After the Baylor and Oklahoma games, one of the big changes was redshirt freshman Darius James moving into the lineup at right tackle, which moved sophomore Kent Perkins to right guard and initially resulted in junior guard Taylor Doyle heading to the bench.

Then Wickline spent an intense week prepping Doyle to take over the center position from out-matched redshirt freshman Jake Raulerson.

And against Iowa State, just when it looked like the final five might be in place? Another new lineup, this time inserting sophomore Camrhon Hughes at the right tackle position despite the fact he hadn't played at all since redshirting as a member of the 2012 recruiting class.

Even in practice, Hughes hasn't impressed until recently, earning himself a nickname from Strong that isn't exactly flattering.

"I started Camrhon Hughes at the one tackle, and we call him NCAA, no contact at all, no contact at practice," Strong said after the Iowa State game. "My man don't block anybody, but we ended up starting him tonight. NCAA, I saw him, I was like, wow! Sometimes that's all you have. That's what you play with."

But despite the nickname, Strong said on Monday that Hughes started over James because he had a strong week of practice.

"I'll say this, what happened was he had had a really good week of practice," the Texas head coach said. "What I said about the offensive line is you give guys the opportunity to go. If they practice well, then they're going to get that opportunity, and it's nothing that Darius [James] didn't do, it's just that he didn't practice that well, so we said, hey, let's give C[amrhon] Hughes a chance and see what he can do, and he played very well."

Strong then recounted the exchange that he had with Hughes before the game, one that reveals the type of interactions that he has with his players.

"I was surprised because looking at a guy for his first start, I walked up to him before the game, I said, 'you okay?' He's like, 'yeah, I'm ready to go.' I said, 'yeah, we all say we're ready to go,'" Strong said.

"'Okay, you have never been out there, so don't tell me you're ready to go. It's going to be your first college game, so let's calm down with that.' But I said, just relax and just go play. I said, even if something bad happened to you, don't drop your head, you have to have a short memory. Just don't get Tyrone hit. I don't care what happens, do not get my quarterback hit."

How did Hughes do in that regard? He was beat on one pass block, but it was on a screen, so it didn't result in a hit on the quarterback. Maybe No Contact At All now means no contact of the quarterback.

In all, other than a holding penalty and one missed run block, Hughes managed to hold his own in his first college action.

If a poor week of practice doesn't result in a change to the lineup, a desire to create more depth might just do it in the future, though that hasn't really happened yet, as the substitutions for the starting group have been few and far between.

"Sometimes they'll get tired and want to tap out," Wickline told the Statesman. "And I'll just stand there on the sideline and waive back at them -- well, either me or (strength coach) Pat Moorer."

In fact, the participation chart listed only James as a substitute against North Texas, in addition to Raulerson, who replaced the injured Espinosa. Against BYU, it was only the starting five that played, while James saw action against UCLA and Kansas before Doyle operated as the only substitute against Baylor. In the last two games, it was Raulerson again who saw the field.

And without an intensive film study, it's difficult to say whether or not the substitutes were seeing action offensively or on special teams like the punt coverage unit or field goal kicking unit.

Given the incredible demands of having to play almost every snap, it's impressive just how much the various starting groups have improved over the course of the season -- after struggling against the loaded boxes of Kansas, the rushing attack put up 190 rushing yards against Baylor and 191 rushing yards against

Wikline also shared some thoughts on the starting offensive line with the Statesman. The biggest revelation was that while Wickline is a big fan of Perkins, he thinks that the 330-pounder needs to lose some weight after gaining 20 pounds in the last year. Most of the gains appear to be positive for Texas in the strength and conditioning department, but Perkins represents a notable failure since those 20 pounds may be the difference in him being able to play outside or not.

At the least, the extra weight limits his mobility pulling or acquiring defenders at the second level.

The aforementioned laser focus for Wickline resulted in the coach walking off the field in apparent frustration without singing the Eyes of Texas after two losses.

Rather than out of frustration with the other coaches or even his own players, Wickline simply has high expectations for himself as a coach, and therefore of his players. The resulting no-nonsense philosophy has kept he and his charges moving forward despite all the losses along the line.

"In a nutshell, they've been through a lot and it's been a shock to their system," Wickline told the Statesman. "Now, the other side of this is that nobody cares. We all signed up for the mission here, and we all have a job to do. So we try to point that out. There's no crying party or pity-party for us. Each week, we prepare to be the best we can be."

As it turns out, the best that they can be is not too bad.

Wickline has even contributed to Watson's offense by installing some plays that have boosted the production of sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes in the running game.

"You look at [Shawn] Wat[son] and [Joe] Wick[line], and the thing about it is, you talk about those quarterback run plays, that's all they probably did at Oklahoma State, and that's what he inserted for us, because they ran the ball a lot with their quarterback and that's -- we knew that with Tyrone we needed something different, something that would get him started," Strong said after the Iowa State game. "So now with Wick installing the quarterback runs and the power play and the read play, it's really helped our offense."

So even though Wickline isn't making the final play calls, he is having an important impact on the offense beyond his work with the offensive line. And that offensive line has been growing quickly.

Probably not fast enough for the demanding Wckline, but certainly fast enough to keep Texas fans trusting in his work.