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Texas football: Longhorns spring OL preview

The Longhorns can't continue to field a subpar offensive line and succeed offensively.

Texas offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline
Texas offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As most fan frustration aims squarely at Texas Longhorns assistant head coach for the offense/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline was in charge of an offensive line group that played as poorly in 2014 as quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.

Wickline largely got a pass because he lost almost all the experience along the offensive line within the first week of the season. Senior center Dominic Espinosa (40 starts) suffered a career-ending injury against North Texas, junior tackle Kennedy Estelle (nine starts) was suspended and then dismissed days later, and senior offensive tackle Desmond Harrison didn't play a single down all season because of suspensions.

By the BYU game, Wickline was fielding one of the nation's most inexperienced lines. And it showed, as the group struggled while Wickline tried nearly every combination available, inserting one-time defensive tackle Marcus Hutchins at left tackle, replacing Jake Raulerson at center before benching him and then eventually trying him at right tackle against Arkansas.

No position was as much of a revolving door as right tackle -- Kent Perkins started there after Estelle's suspension before moving back inside to his more natural position of guard. Darius James took over for the Baylor game and remained in the starting lineup until Carmon Hughes (a.k.a. NCAA -- No Contact At All) moved into the starting lineup against Iowa State.

In fact, Sedrick Flowers was the only offensive linemen for Texas to start all 13 games at the same position.

How bad were things along the line? Just have a listen to head coach Charlie Strong on the subject.

"I don't care if you had Teddy Bridgewater standing back there last year, people wouldn't have thought he was very good either," Strong told Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports.

So, yeah. Things were bad.

With all five starters back and four early enrollees along the offensive line, Wickline -- and the quarterbacks -- are looking for improved play in the trenches this spring in order to unlock the offense's true potential. Regarded as one of the top offensive line coaches in the country, Wickline got a pass last year. He won't get another one from fans if the offensive line is still a mess in the Orange-White game.

The returning starters on campus know what to expect from him, have worked under him for a season, so it's time to start making some serious strides along the offensive line and for Wickline to prove why he's so highly regarded around the country.

Can the early enrollees make an impact?

There are already positive reviews coming out of offseason conditioning regarding offensive lineman Connor Williams and Garrett Thomas, as well as junior college transfer Brandon Hodges, suggesting a strong short-term prognosis for each of those players, leaving only known project Tristan Nickelson as a clear redshirt candidate at this time among the early-enrollee offensive linemen.

Of course, it's too early to say that Williams and Thomas, who had "amazing" offseason workouts according to Strong, will play or that Hodges will earn the left tackle spot, as so many project. So here's what's known so far -- Strong loves the athleticism of Williams, who is up to 291 pounds now. And Thomas lost some weight and may have grown a bit since last fall as he works on improving his functional strength and punch.

As for Hodges, Strong didn't say much about the East Mississippi CC product except that he's followed directions, but his stock took off late in the process and Scout eventually named him a four-star prospect, a significant ascension since the Longhorns were one of the first schools to take a chance on him. His biggest transition will be in pass protection since his highlights show short sets due to the quick passing game used at EMCC.

Can the competition spur the older players?

Since every member of the offensive line played poorly at times last season, saying that all five positions are open despite five returning starters doesn't seem like a stretch. Wickline would probably agree were he the type to actually speak with the media, as his frustration clearly bubbled over at different points last season when he was absent from the post-game rendition of "The Eyes of Texas" on several different occasions.

Left guard Sedrick Flowers and center Taylor Doyle look the most entrenched, the ideal scenario since both will be seniors and need to provide some leadership and stability for the line. At right guard, Kent Perkins is still considered the best potential NFL prospect of the bunch, he just has to stay healthy and continue refining his technique.

And what about Marcus Hutchins? He's still undersized at well less than 300 pounds and doesn't have the strength to consistently create displacement in the running game, but he was solid for most of 2014 and was even something of a savior given the unsavory nature of the other left tackle options after Estelle and Harrison opted to remove themselves from consideration.

On the other side, Hughes looks like a career back up at this point. He's never recovered his athleticism after his ACL tear several years and simply doesn't have the foot speed or body quickness to deal with speed off the edge.

How many players wash out or enter the doghouse this spring?

Wickline has a reputation as a no-nonsense taskmaster with a high turnover rate among his offensive linemen, with one former Oklahoma State player speculating that around half of his former Cowboys pledges didn't particularly care for him. To bear that statement out, offensive guard Rami Hammed, a player who once committed to Wickine at Oklahoma State, left the program last fall for Baylor, while former star recruit Curtis Riser landed at Sam Houston State during the pre-spring round of attrition.

At the time Riser and several others players transferred, there was speculation that another offensive lineman could join the group. It hasn't happened so far, but there could be some attrition along the line simply as a result of Wickline's history and his desire to get his own guys into the mix. While getting in Wickline's doghouse, as Riser did last spring, may not necessarily herald an immediate transfer, it does put a player on the possible attrition list.

Some of the players to watch include the group that redshirted from last season -- center Terrell Cuney and guards Alex Anderson, Elijah Rodriguez, and Jake McMillon. With the lack of healthy bodies at defensive tackle, if McMillion isn't cracking the depth chart early, a move back to defensive tackle would make sense. Even if that doesn't happen, one of the three needs to take advantage of the back injury that will limit starting left guard Sedrick Flowers.

Then there's James, the former five-star prospect who had some strong moments as a run blocker at right tackle before being benched and then eventually suffering a knee injury. He wasn't listed on the spring injury report, but head coach Charlie Strong said on Monday that James has some work to do in the classroom, which could limit his participation in practice or keep him out entirely. Of all the interior line prospects, only Perkins is seen has having as much ultimate upside as James.