With 53 starts departing from the Texas Longhorns offensive line, new position coach Matt Mattox is looking for new starters at left guard and center this spring despite limited experience behind those former starters. So while there are two cornerstones to build upon in sophomores Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe, as well as the steady presence of versatile senior Kent Perkins (24 starts), Mattox faces a significant challenge.
One issue Sterlin Gilbert's longtime assistant will have to overcome is the lack of experience at the center position -- Jake Raulerson will graduate this spring and depart for UCLA after spending three years in the program and playing sparingly last season, but he was the prospective starter and the only returning player who has snapped the ball in a collegiate game.
Enter early enrollee Zach Shackelford, the Belton product who flipped to the 'Horns from the Kansas State Wildcats hours before making his move to Austin. Regarded as a consensus three-star prospect, he's nonetheless much more valuable to the program than that. Just check out the early returns -- the 6'3, 296-pounder started with the first team during practice on Monday.
Backing him up are sophomores Terrell Cuney and Elijah Rodriguez, the latter originally a prospective tackle when he was a January addition to the 2014 recruiting class. While Rodriguez may emerge as a swing player at all three interior positions, Cuney is undersized (he was formerly listed at 6'1) and needs to prove that he can adjust to the college game after playing his high school ball at Jasper before adding 30 pounds since arriving in Austin.
Next to Shackelford at left guard on Monday was junior college transfer Brandon Hodges, who redshirted last season after joining the program from East Mississippi CC. Once considered a candidate to step in immediately at left tackle, Hodges is now up to 318 pounds, 10 more than last season. He's still a relative unknown as this point, but did see his recruitment take off prior to his enrollment and looks like the top candidate to replace Flowers.
"[Brandon] Hodges is a guy that's very talented that has not come on for us yet and had an unbelievable spring," said Strong. "He's one of those guys we'll be able to count on to come in."
Mattox certainly hopes so.
Outside at tackle, the situation looks more settled -- Williams is locked in at left tackle, while Perkins is currently working ahead of junior college transfer Tristan Nickelson, who has been working to add strength and refine his technique. One player to watch behind Williams and Nickelson is redshirt freshman Garrett Thomas, as Strong singled out the Louisiana native as someone who has undergone a lot of physical maturation over the last year.
In high school, Thomas was a doughy guard prospect listed at 306 pounds entering his senior season. By the time that he started his redshirt freshman season last fall, he was down at least 30 pounds. And now he's back up to a legitimate playing weight of 300 pounds, which should position him to back up Williams this year.
In looking at the position overall, what is evident is that the Longhorns are still continuing to build ideal depth after suffering a tremendous amount of attrition along the offensive line in the last several years, including numerous highly-ranked prospects like Rami Hammad, Darius James, Curtis Riser, and Raulerson. All were supposed to be important long-term pieces when they signed, but none emerged as major contributors.
As a result of that attrition, Strong understands the reality facing his offensive line group.
"I told our guys the other day, 'You know what? Some of our help is coming.' So once we get that help in there -- because it's more about building depth now -- when we get those guys in there, even with our offensive line and defensive line, the help is coming and we just have to wait for it to get here and just get through this spring," Strong said.
Of the three offensive linemen set to enroll in June, Under Armour All-American Jean Delance should immediately find his way onto the depth chart and underrated Denzel Okafor could use his combination of length, height, and mobility to do so the same.
However, as Strong mentioned, until those players arrive, Mattox will have to make the most of what he has on campus.