By now we all know how Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline operates with his unit -- he is going to get the best five out there on the field by an means necessary. If that means sitting an upperclassmen and throwing a true freshmen into the fire, that's exactly what he will do.
After tinkering with the line combination in several different ways all offseason, Wickline will roll true freshmen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe at left tackle and right guard, respectively. Williams enrolled early and took part in spring practice, drawing rave reviews for his performance and sparking talk about the possibility of him starting in the fall. Vahe, on the other hand, didn't get to campus until the summer and was recovering from shoulder surgery, but many speculated prior to his arrival that he had a chance to push for early playing time.
I was a fan of both Vahe and Williams during the recruiting process. I felt like Williams was ridiculously underrated because he possessed tools that you couldn't teach. He was transitioning from tight end to tackle, so he had good athleticism and he had good feet. On top of that he plays the game with a mean streak, and not all guys have that in them.
With Vahe, even though he played tackle in high school, he had the body of a future guard, and I absolutely love his tenacity. He's a soft-spoken kid who will try to bury you every chance he gets on the field and that's something I will prioritize on the interior where you deal with big defensive tackles from snap to snap.
As much as I loved both Williams and Vahe coming out of high school, I still figured they would need to redshirt their first year on campus. There are two positions I will always firmly believe need to be redshirted when they reach campus and that is quarterback and offensive line. Of course there have been exceptions to the rule, but those are often players that are physically superior than the rest. Most players at these positions need that redshirt year to adjust both physically and mentally to college football. Offensive lineman often need to trim off the baby fat and pack on solid muscle in teh weight room and need to get acclimated to going against college defensive lineman and schemes.
This is why I think starting guys like Williams and Vahe will be a double-edged sword this year, and especially on Saturday against Notre Dame. While their talent certainly will flash early, there will be several times where their youth will show throughout the season.
One of the harder things to grasp as a young offensive lineman is being able to be disciplined with your eyes. This comes into play when it comes to detecting and picking up blitzes and being able to pass them off with other linemen, which is the most important thing to keeping your quarterback clean. With young guys up front, you can bet that opposing defensive coordinators will come out and play games up front from the start in an attempt to get into the head of the young guys early. If Brian VanGorder is successful at doing so, it will be a long night for Texas in South Bend.
The beauty of playing these guys so early is that you will see how they will respond to adversity early in the season. How will they respond to the hostile environment of South Bend? How will they respond to busting an assignment? Will they be able to put their mistakes behind them and go on to the next play? These are all the questions we won't have to wait long after to kickoff to find out about.
I probably just scared you about the idea of playing freshmen offensive lineman. Well, lets talk about the upside of things. As I said before, Texas fans should be absolutely giddy about having Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe on their team. For two freshmen to come in and force their way onto the field this early says a lot about them as players and their mindsets this early in their careers. Getting their feet wet this early will result in some negative plays, but you will also be thankful by the end of the year that they were able to get those butterflies out because they have the skill sets to become All-Big 12 players, and Texas hasn't had one of those on the offensive line in YEARS.
The Texas offensive line was atrocious last year, there is no sugarcoating that. The bright side is you can't possibly be worse as a unit going forward and the overall talent level of the position group is getting an upgrade across the board and the depth will be infinitely better than it was last year when Wickline had zero flexibility if someone got hurt or players got tired.
Yes, there will be some hiccups along the way in the short term, but in the long term Texas will be better along the offensive line by playing these young now rather than trying to buy time and wait until later. I'm anxious to see how the young pups look under the light come Saturday.