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Depth issues aside, the Texas Longhorns OL is young and talented

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For the Longhorns offense to achieve success in 2016, the offensive line must continue to improve.

The Texas offensive line
The Texas offensive line
via @CoachBedfordUT

I would like to take a moment and declare a fact many football fans tend to overlook -- your team’s offense will only travel as far as your offensive line can take them. The often-underappreciated big uglies anchor the ground game and passing attack, and unlike other positions, can turn an offense to college football gold. For personal reference, look at the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Alabama routinely sits atop the college football world because of one constant item on their offense: the offensive line. An extremely physical, technically-skilled group, the line acts as the cornerstone of an offense that paved the way for two Heisman trophy winners in the last seven years. Despite not having elite players at quarterback, the offense routinely finds success against SEC defenses.

I’m not trying to praise almighty Nick Saban or Alabama, but I’m merely establishing a key fact -- offensive lines separate the great teams from the good ones. You can have the most talented quarterback or running back in the country, but without the support up front, their talent goes to waste. For recent examples, look at former Texas Longhorns running backs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, both highly-recruited players who faltered behind poor offensive lines and never fulfilled their potential.

Unfortunately for Longhorn faithful, it’s been a long time since Texas has fielded deep talent at this much-needed position. In fact, Texas hasn’t landed a single offensive lineman on an all-conference team since 2013 and hasn't landed an offensive lineman on first-team all conference since 2008, which also happened to be the last year a Longhorns offensive lineman was drafted. In 2016, the group at offensive line looks to be extremely thin, but good news looms for Texas -- this season marks a potential transformational moment for the offensive line, which is the return of exceptional, all-conference type talent to the position.

Returning Freshman All-Americans Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe headline the offensive line group. Likely future NFL players, Williams and Vahe are the clearest examples of where the offensive line is headed over the next two or three years. The Longhorns will also rely on incoming freshman Zach Shackleford, an early enrollee from Belton who started in the Orange and White game who will need to mature fast. Alongside the young guns will be senior Kent Perkins and junior Brandon Hodges who need to demonstrate leadership and better their play for the Longhorns to establish a credible Big 12 offense.

Depth Chart

LT

Connor Williams, So., 1L

Jean Delance, Fr., HS

Garrett Thomas, Fr., RS

LG

Brandon Hodges, Jr., RS

Denzel Okafor, Fr., HS

C

Zach Shackelford, Fr., HS

Elijah Rodriguez, So., 1L

Terrell Cuney, So., SQ

RG

Patrick Vahe, So., 1L

Jake McMillon, So., 1L

Tope Imade, Fr., HS

RT

Kent Perkins, Sr., 2L

Tristan Nickelson, Jr., 1L

Buck Major, Fr., RS

Notable Departures

C/G Jake Raulerson-Transfer

G Sedrick Flowers-Graduation

C Taylor Doyle-Graduation

Starter Breakdown

When you begin the discussion of the offensive line, you need to start with Connor Williams. The sophomore from Coppell returns to campus as the most talented player on the entire front. Williams started every game during the 2015 campaign, anchoring the left tackle position. Because of his outstanding play, he earned Freshman All-American Honors and Big 12 honorable mention. Although only a sophomore, Williams comes back with lofty expectations to become an all conference player and compete with the conference's most talented pass rushers. In an otherwise grim season on the offensive front, Williams was a bright spot.

Throughout his freshman season, Williams battled some of the best defensive ends in the conference and never backed down to a single challenge. Standing at 6'6, 288 pounds, Williams possess good size for the tackle position and carries the weight on his frame very well. During 2015, Williams showed impressive extension and technique against opposing defensive ends, rarely getting beat on the pass rush. A former tight end, Williams also shows great feet on pass blocking, allowing him to protect the quarterback against speedier outside rushers.

In run protection, Williams excelled throughout the 2015 season as well. For a young player, Williams has excellent technique and skill that separates him from players across the Big 12. On run blocking assignments, Williams set the edge well, using his fundamentals and strength to block down on defensive ends. His extreme physicality allows him to consistently beat his man on the defensive line, creating holes and winning the line of scrimmage. Younger players across the country simply lack the technique and strength that Williams routinely displayed in 2015.

His early development and extraordinary play as a freshman cannot be overstated. According to Pro Football Focus, 14 freshman offensive tackles played at least 240 snaps in 2015 and only one received a positive grade: Connor Williams. If he continues his development, Williams will be considered one of the best tackles in the entire country. For the first time in many years, Longhorn fans can say they have an offensive lineman who will play on Sundays in the NFL.

Alongside Williams is another outstanding sophomore, Patrick Vahe. Another Freshman All-American, Texas will ask Vahe to anchor the interior of the line on the right side. A 6'3, 326-pound guard, Vahe epitomizes brute force with incredible physicality at the point of attack. Perhaps Vahe's best traits are his natural aggression and tenacity. He is relentless at the line of scrimmage and shows an excellent burst after the ball is snapped. His aggression is something that coaches can't teach.

Vahe's technqiue, though not as strong as Williams', is strong for a young player and will continue to improve over the course of his career. And while his footwork may not be exceptional, he showed improvements in the spring game in that regard, both on pulling plays and pass protection. His strength as a lineman is in his run-blocking ability where he consistently opened holes up for the Longhorns ground game last season.

Vahe also returns to campus stronger than he was in 2015, putting on seven pounds in addition to refining things like footwork and speed. He is easily the second best lineman on the entire Texas team and could make strides to becoming the best, assuming he improves in key areas like footwork, strength, and his pass protection ability. With incoming freshman Zach Shackelford at center, the Longhorns will rely on Vahe to anchor the interior of the line in a run-based offense.

After staring the Orange and White game earlier this spring, freshman Zach Shackelford looks to be the presumptive starter at center. A center/guard prospect from Belton, Shackelford will need to mature quickly on the offensive line. He will replace graduated Taylor Doyle, who struggled for the majority of his career as a starter at center. Unlike Vahe and Williams, Shackelford doesn't come to Texas as a heralded recruit. Ranked as a consensus three-star prospect, Shackelford garnered most of his recruiting attention during a senior campaign where he compiled some impressive film. During the spring game, Shackelford impressed coaches by not allowing any disruption and maintaining the line of scrimmage on run blocking. However, during the season he will go against much stronger competition and the question remains if he can handle it.

Although starting as a freshman, Texas fans should have reasonable expectations for Shackelford. He's not a physical monster like other players in his class, and he needs time to develop. He's a smart football player with above average technique and strength for an incoming freshman, but he likely will not shine as bright as Williams or Vahe. That's not to say he can't/shouldn't start against Notre Dame, because I feel he's vital to the line, but expectations need to be tempered for the true freshman. He certainly could be a step above the sometimes horrendous play of Taylor Doyle, but fans should expect to see bumps along the way from him, just like any other true freshman.

At right tackle, Texas will start its lone senior on the offensive line, Kent Perkins. The former four-star recruit and 2013 US Army All-American has experienced a roller coaster career at Texas, never quite living up to the lofty potential set before him upon entering the program. While some may believe Perkins career has largely been disappointing, his senior year will be vital to the success of the offensive line.

Perkins has played all across the offensive line in his four years at Texas, but will most likely be asked to hold down the other tackle spot across from Connor Williams. At 6'5, 320 pounds, the question about Perkins has never been about his strength or size, but rather fundamentals and feet that haven't translated as many thought they would. Experiencing several coaching changes over his career, Perkins has struggled to develop into the all-conference type player many thought he would be. Sometimes, Perkins looks too stiff in pass rushing situations and will get beat by quick defensive ends. Other times, Perkins lacks the footwork or physicality at the point of attack and doesn't seem like the truly elite player he's capable of being. He shines in occasional moments, but overall underwhelms in his play as a whole.

Under new offensive line coach Matt Mattox, Perkins will need to refine his skills quickly. If Perkins can improve his footwork and technique over the summer, the Longhorns will feel much more comfortable about their offensive line. A senior with less-than-stellar film, Perkins needs to fine tune his game quickly in order for this Texas line to go places. Can he put it all together in one last campaign on the 40 Acres?

Last, but not least of the starters is Brandon Hodges. After redshirting last season, little is known about the junior college transfer from Mississippi. A top-rated player coming out of East Mississippi CC, the Longhorns are going to ask Hodges to secure the interior next to an inexperienced Shackelford. During the Orange and White game, Hodges graded well overall, but played against inferior competition. A strong player with a good punch at the snap of the ball, Hodges already looks to be an immediate upgrade over graduated Sed Flowers, who was the most criticized player on the entire line in 2015.

Key Backups

After the staring five, a lot of question marks are raised about this offensive line group. The five starters seem to be in pace, but the two-deep on the depth chart is filled with struggling returners or young freshman. However, some of these players will have to step up.

One of these players on the two deep who will certainly see time in 2016 is Elijah Rodriguez. Rodriguez appeared in seven games for Texas last season, and he is an incredibly versatile player along the line, as he may be capable of playing every position except for left tackle. With several freshman two deep on the chart, Rodriguez stands as the most experienced back up with credible playing time and will probably be the first option off the bench.

Another key back up for the Longhorns will be offensive tackle Tristan Nickelson. Nickelson may have the most impressive size of any offensive tackle in the Big 12, standing at 6'9 and 316 pounds. He appeared in several games at tackle last season, but struggled in those appearances. Often times, he looked too stiff in his movements and over extended, especially in pass protection. Many figured Nickelson would challenge for the right tackle position, but his lack of development seems like a concern. Nonetheless, he will be asked to step up if one of the starters go down.

Three freshmen also look to be apart of the line rotation in 2016. Buck Major, Denzel Okafor, and Jean Delance all appear on the two deep chart at the position and will probably be asked to play at some point. Major, a redshirt freshman, wasn't ready to play after missing practice time with academic eligibility questions at the beginning of 2015. After a year of coaching and gaining strength, coaches at Texas feel Major has very high upside at the position and could potentially make his way into the starting lineup for Texas.

Delance and Okafor come in as highly-regarded members of the 2016 recruiting class. Delance, an Under Armour All-American, comes with excellent upside and great size (6'5, 291). He needs time to refine his skills, but with proper development, Delance looks to be next up in a series of excellent, young lineman. Okafor, a four-star recruit out of Lewisville, is better equipped to play early than Delance is and may be needed early at a thin guard position. In a best case scenario, Okafor is given a chance to easily work into the rotation and gain confidence, but it will depend on the performance of those in front of him.

Imade is a redshirt candidate who will need developmental time before he's ready to contribute.

Conclusion

With three underclassmen projecting as starters on the offensive line, the Longhorns are a very young, but talented bunch. The group may not rank among the best in the conference, but Vahe and Williams will carry this group a long way. Since coordinator Sterlin Gilbert figures to run the ball a lot in 2016, the offensive line will have to be at its best in the season opener against a tough Notre Dame group. This unit is awfully thin though, which will cause problems if one of the starting five lineman goes down.