The Texas Longhorns will face off against a talented Oklahoma State Cowboys defensive line on Saturday, testing an offensive line that is improving, but still making too many mistakes. Unfortunately, many of those mistakes are coming from the two most experienced linemen.
Two of the ugliest plays for the Longhorns this year have come from senior left guard Sedrick Flowers, the most experienced lineman for the Horns and a guy who is supposedly a team leader.
Against Notre Dame, Flowers drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and was lucky to avoid an ejection when he punched a Fighting Irish player during an altercation. Last weekend, Flowers drew another unsportsmanlike penalty when he cut blocked a Cal player well after the whistle and right in front of an official. He was lucky not to injure his opponent.
It wasn't just a borderline dirty play, it was one that cost the Longhorns 15 yards of critical field position with a defense that was having tremendous difficulties stopping the Golden Bears offense.
Asked about it on Monday, head coach Charlie Strong wasn't happy.
"I address it," he said. "That should never happen from a vet, personal foul calls. That hurts us, really hurts our offense, especially when we have to go backwards. Those are things that have to be corrected. Just undisciplined. You can't allow those things. We cannot allow those things to happen."
But while Strong can address it with Flowers, the line doesn't curently have the depth to hold the senior accountable. If he commits another similar penalty against Oklahoma State this weekend, he won't come out of the game because offensive line coach Joe Wickline doesn't trust the back up,
The penalties aren't the only problem for Flowers, either -- he's struggling with missing blocks and isn't an asset in pass protection or in creating displacement when he fires off the ball. Only three games into freshman right guard Patrick Vahe's college career, he's already a better choice to pull on Power plays than Flowers, who has now started 17 games at Texas.
The other senior, center Taylor Doyle, hasn't been making the same type of egregious mental mistakes as Flowers, but his play has regressed this season after he was a steady presence last year once Wickline inserted him into the startling lineup. The Lake Travis product was responsible for killing one drive when he had a holding penalty in pass protection on a 2nd and 6 and then got bailed out by redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard's 13-yard touchdown scramble across the field when he committed another holding penalty on 1st and goal from the 9-yard line.
Doyle's lack of strength is a culprit for some of his struggles when he goes against good nose guards and that's an issue that an improvement in effort or technique won't solve. So why doesn't sophomore Jake Raulerson play more? Besides the fact that Wickline seems to trust Doyle in setting protections, Raulerson isn't an upgrade in the strength department.
To furhter illustrate the issuse that the two are having, when Heard fumbled early in the second half last weekend, it was a result of both Doyle and Flowers getting beat:
To be sure, the offensive line played its best game of the season against Cal -- and its best game since the 2013 season -- but the improvement is coming from players like freshman left tackle Connor Williams and freshman right guard Patrick Vahe. At right tackle, Kent Perkins struggled in the second half against the Golden Bears, yet he's basically holding his own in pass protection even though he's much better suited to play inside at guard.
Williams is the only offensive linemen to post a positive grade so far this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and has been especially good in pass protection, an area where all the tackles struggled for Texas in 2014. At the guard position opposite of Flowers, Vahe is demonstrating a learning curve in pass protection, but makes up for it by consistently finding someone to block and playing hard every snap.
So the biggest impediment to further improvement lies in the seniors. While Doyle could presumably return to his production level of 2014, Flowers probably is who he is at this point his career physically, but must eliminate the mental meltdowns that lead to personal foul penalties.
Neither is likely to come out of the lineup any time soon, leaving any the 2015 Texas offensive line's upside residing almost solely in the two youngsters and a guard playing right tackle.