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Persistent recruiting misses by Texas at OL have hurt program

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Young players have been thrust into key roles in the offensive trenches for the last several seasons and that won’t stop in 2016.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma vs Texas Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Sophomore. Junior or freshman. Freshman. Sophomore. Senior.

From left to right, that’s how the starting offensive line will look for the Texas Longhorns in terms of class when head coach Charlie Strong’s program takes on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for the season opener in early September.

The explanation for that reality? A series of recruiting misses, attrition, and poor development from 2012 to 2014 forced former offensive line coach Joe Wickline to turn to young players last season, a trend that his replacement, Matt Mattox, will likely have to continue in form of Zach Shackelford and other incoming talent like Patrick Hudson, Jean Delance, and Denzel Okafor.

The 2012 prep players washed out entirely

On paper, the offensive line portion of the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class looked like one of the strongest position groups, featuring three four-star prospects and highly-rated junior college transfer Donald Hawkins, who became a productive two-year starter at left tackle for Texas.

None of the three prep products were on the roster last season.

A Pearland Dawson alum, Kennedy Estelle was the No. 5 offensive tackle nationally before appearing sporadically as a freshman, then taking over for an injured Josh Cochran in starting eight games in 2013.

Everything quickly fell apart for Estelle the next fall — he was suspended after the season opener and then dismissed as part of the wave of disciplinary actions undertaken by head coach Charlie Strong in his first season.

Estelle’s dismissal opened up an opportunity for Camrhon Hughes, whose ACL injury in 2013 set back his development and limited his mobility. When Hughes took over the starting job in 2014, he quickly earned the nickname of NCAA — No Contact At All — from Strong because he struggled so much in acquiring defenders in pass protection and run blocking.

In the bowl game against Arkansas, Hughes lost his starting job and then quietly left the program prior to the start of the 2015 season.

The ‘Horns got even less from Curtis Riser, the No. 4-ranked player in the class and the No. 4 offensive guard nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. When the new staff arrived in 2014, Riser never cracked the depth chart and transferred shortly after the season ended.

Of the four takes in 2012, Hawkins was the only one to start for an entire season.

Rinse and repeat in 2013, with even higher stakes

After taking a large group in 2012, the Longhorns had to be selective in 2013, ultimately landing only 15 players total. With the impending loss of multiple starters, former head coach Mack Brown and his staff needed the five members of the group to live up to the hype that earned superlatives as the top group in the country.

After all, the group featured the No. 1 offensive guard in Darius James, the No. 2 center in Jake Raulerson, the No. 3 offensive tackle in Kent Perkins, and the No. 3 junior college offensive tackle in Desmond Harrison, in addition to late-rising Rami Hammad.

Of those players, only Perkins is left and he’s a questionable tackle who has played his best football inside. Without a strong senior season showing a jump in consistency, Perkins will depart Texas without breaking the long streak of Longhorns offensive linemen going undrafted by the NFL.

Harrison and James were both massive disappointments.

The former left the program after the 2014 season without ever becoming a contributor despite projections that had him taking over the starting left tackle role that Hawkins vacated when his eligibility expired.

James was the only consensus five-star prospect in the class and played reasonably play in a brief starting stint in 2014. Unfortunately, he quickly lost Wickline’s trust and then departed the following spring in a decision that was generally seen as mutual, though he did land at Auburn, an unusually good landing spot for a transfer.

After becoming eligible again last year, James didn’t play for the Tigers.

Despite a brief commitment to Oklahoma State, Hammad never got along with Wickline either and didn’t even last until the start of his first season under the notoriously prickly coach. He transferred to Baylor and then trashed Texas back in February after a series of departures from the Longhorns program.

Hammad is expected to start this season for the Bears.

The most curious situation was that of Raulerson, who opted to become a graduate transfer this season even though he was the projected starter at center. Making it even more perplexing was the fact that he made his decision before Texas hired a new offensive line caoch, even though Wickline barely recruited him.

As a graduate transfer, the former US Army All-American will have a chance to contribute next season at Arkansas, his eventual destination after he was denied admission to UCLA in the two programs to which he applied.

Raulerson and James earned a few starts during 2014, but only Perkins was the only one of the five to emerge as a starting-caliber player at Texas.

The 2014 group has been passed by younger players

Though publicly discussing potential attrition is generally considered unfair to current players, it’s not hard to determine the most likely candidates by looking at the depth chart.

In that regard, the future doesn’t look especially promising for the three players Strong signed roughly a month after arriving in Austin.

Right now, none of them look like potential starters after arriving as three of the eight lower-rated members of the class. Only the massive miss by the services on running back D’Onta Foreman kept Alex Anderson and Elijah Rodriguez from occupying the bottom two spots.

And the stock of center Terrell Cuney was hardly on the rise, either — once ranked the No. 1 center nationally in the class, the Jasper product slid to No. 7 by National Signing Day, in part because he is much shorter than 6’3.5, his listing coming out of high school.

Cuney has struggled to impact the depth chart at any of the three interior positions and Anderson wasn’t a factor at all in the Orange and White game a year after a report that he was leaving the program.

Of the three, Rodriguez has the best chance of becoming a contributor — he’ll hold the crucial role of backing up freshman Zach Shackelford at center and could serve that same role at the other two interior positions.

Wickline and Strong were put in the difficult position of needing linemen late despite few available options and it appears that Wickline will, at best, hit on one of the two players added in those hectic weeks.


In sum, the Longhorns landed two consistent multi-year starters over a stretch of three recruiting class, a group that includes 12 scholarship players (one five-star prospect, seven four-star prospects, and four three-star prospects).

Half of those three-star prospects were generally highly-rated — Hawkins and Harrison were both close to the threshold for earning a fourth star, which is a difficult task for a junior-college player because of limited eligibility and the academic/citizenship concerns that surround players who failed to qualify out of high school or washed out of other programs.

As a result, Texas started two true freshmen in 2015 and could start two more in 2016, in addition to featuring as many as four players on the overall depth chart this fall.

Barring any more attrition or injuries, the need to play true freshmen should finally subside in 2017, but because of systematic failures in the evaluations of the previous class and the shortcoming of Wickline as a coach, the ‘Horns will in all likelihood end the 2016 season having relied primarily on freshmen and sophomores for two years.

Not exactly a recipe for success in trenches, which demand a high level of physical and intellectual maturity, with the second particularly crucial on offense.