Decimated by attrition, the Texas Longhorns have been scrambling to find quality offensive linemen since the disastrous 2014 season and are finally building depth for the first time under head coach Charlie Strong.
The rise of junior Tristan Nickelson to the starting right tackle position has pushed junior Brandon Hodges down to the second team line at the tackle and guard positions, while several young players have emerged to fill critical roles.
One of those players is freshman center Zach Shackelford, who earned the starting job in replacement of departed starter Taylor Doyle virtually as soon as he stepped foot on campus as an early enrollee this spring.
However, Shackelford suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week and while Strong is confident that he’ll be ready for the opener against Notre Dame on September 4, there is some concern behind the scenes that the injury is more serious than the Texas head coach is acknowledging publicly.
On Saturday, sophomore Jake McMillon, a former defensive tackle who was recruited as a defensive end, worked as the starter at the position, but position coach Matt Mattox may also take a look at several other players there, including sophomore Patrick Vahe, the current starter at left guard, and freshman Denzel Okafor, who is currently working as the back-up right tackle.
Okafor has been a revelation during fall practice after a strong senior season and looks like a player who will be in the rotation this fall. A strong work ethic and some leadership qualities have helped him push the other young players at the position, according to Strong.
In addition to Okafor, several other freshmen are making an impact, including Under Armour All-American Jean Delance, the second-team left tackle. Strong also cited the nation’s No. 2 offensive guard, Patrick Hudson, as a player who is emerging, though it doesn’t sound like he’s currently in the mix to play this season with players like Anderson in front of him at guard and right tackle.
The biggest surprise, however, has been an older player — sophomore Alex Anderson. A late take by former offensive line coach Joe Wickline just before National Signing Day in 2014, Anderson has been buried on the depth chart ever since his arrival, is now in the mix as a back-up guard, Strong said, even though he didn’t play at all last season as a redshirt freshman.
“You have so many options now with all these linemen,” said the Longhorns head coach. “I told Matt [Mattox] before fall camp that it’s going to be interesting to watch how we piece that offensive line together because they’re very talented. So now it’s just a matter of game experience for some of the young guys.”
The move of senior Kent Perkins from right tackle inside to right guard has been a critical development so far. Always more suited to play on the interior because of some liabilities in pass protection, Perkins has embraced the new role.
“I personally like playing on the inside,” Perkins said after fall camp started. “Basically I just went with it and I'll do whatever I can to help my team. I feel like I'm a better player on the inside. I love the inside. I love the trenches.”
If Perkins can help secure the interior and the young players can keep emerging, the coaches may love watching the trenches on offense for the first time in years.