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Texas Longhorns OL still lacking high-level experience

Better depth and experience gained last season should benefit a group that grew during the spring.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Building experience along the offensive line takes time, as the Texas Longhorns will enter the 2015 season with only 63 returning starts, a number that ranks tied for No. 66 nationally, according to Phil Steele.

Few other positions require as much strength, maturity, and coordination as the offensive line, placing a resulting premium on experience -- there's not always a strong correlation between returning starts and success, but it does matter.

However, even though the Horns don't rank among the nationally elite teams in returning offensive line starts, those 63 starts offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline were hard-earned in 2014 after starting center Dominic Espinosa went down with a career-ending knee injury in the opener against North Texas and head coach Charlie Strong eventually suspended and then dismissed starting tackle Kennedy Estelle.

The two losses decimated the limited experience the group possessed -- between Espinosa's 39 starts and Estelle's eight starts, Texas lost 47 of the 49 returning starts entering last fall by the second game against BYU. By season's end, the line finished No. 76 in adjusted line yards and No. 96 in stuff rate, which measures drive-killing plays that go for zero or negative yardage.

There's no Espinosa among the current players, with senior left guard Sedrick Flowers possessing the most experience, having now started 14 games. With 31 total appearances, Flowers will serve a key role as the line's unquestioned leader, but he still needs to elevate his play to a higher level of consistency and battled a back injury during spring practice.

In fact, Flowers was the only lineman to start the entire season at the same position, as the Horns started six difference line combinations last season in the struggle to find the eventual starting five, with Kent Perkins moving inside to guard from right tackle, Jake Raulerson losing his job to Taylor Doyle, and Camrhon Hughes eventually replacing Darius James on the right side at tackle.

There's some continuity now since Doyle looks likely to remain as the starting center because the coaches value his ability to pick up schemes and provide leadership, while senior left tackle Marcus Hutchins faces a battle to hold his left tackle job because he's still undersized and can't create much displacement in the running game as a result.

The most important news for Texas along the offensive line doesn't even relate to experience, though, it's the benefit of having greater depth, aided by four early enrollees and the June arrival of guard Patrick Vahe. Last season, when players performed poorly or got winded during games, Wickline had few available options.

"It's like night and day," Flowers said during the spring. "We had a good like six last year. We'd go through practice with people dying, and then somebody would get hurt during the game and it was like who is going in. We almost have like three lines, and having that is a big blessing. If somebody is not tired or somebody is not doing well, the coaches call them out. We just have somebody that can roll in and give somebody a breather."

So it's possible that early enrollee Connor Williams could eventually move to the left side and replace Hutchins, allowing another recently arrived lineman to take over at right tackle. The top candidate entering the spring was probably junior college transfer Brandon Hodges, but right now he looks like a potential swing player as the first one off the bench.

How about Tristan Nickelson? Another junior college product, the 6'8, 318-pounder was further along in his development than anticipated, but he still needs to add strength and refine his technique. As a result, fellow early enrollee Garrett Thomas may be a better bet to see early playing time at tackle after working hard to reshape his body as a senior so he could play outside.

With three transfers along the offensive line since last fall, the season-long suspension of Desmond Harrison that resulted in his departure from the program, and the dismissal of Estelle, there's been plenty of turnover. Now Wickline has six of his own prospects hand-picked throughout the 2015 recruiting cycle instead of malcontents from the previous regime.

Is the group 10 times better than last season, as Flowers opined back in early April? Based on the Orange-White game performance overall, probably not. But even twice as good would represent a major improvement that could significantly empower the Texas offense.

And maybe even earn a few more rare compliments from the notoriously hard to please Wickline.

"When he stopped saying as many insults to us, that's when I knew that we were turning the corner and he was starting to like us a little bit," Flowers said during a Longhorn Network appearance.

"It's just not too much, just a little bit."

Every little bit counts.