As a reminder, I’m posting one thought per day in a series of 15 posts over the course of 15 days until we get to game day.
With 12 days left until kickoff, this is the fourth post of the series.
If you missed the other posts, the links are below
Post #1 - “The Youth Movement Continues”
Post #3 - “Texas Needs To Score More”
We can discuss and debate the quarterbacks, we can analyze the new scheme, and we can get excited about the talent at the skill positions. But those conversations lose weight if the offensive line struggles to block.
Luckily for Texas, an argument can be made that the offensive line will perform better in 2016, even if it’s another season where one or even two true freshmen end up in positions to start or contribute as key reserves.
The starting five
If everyone is healthy, there’s reason to believe this would be the starting five.
LT - Connor Williams (So)
LG - Patrick Vahe (So)
C - Zack Schackelford (Fr)
RG - Kent Perkins (Sr)
RT - Tristen Nickelson (Jr)
With Shackelford and Nickelson both nursing ankle injuries, sophomore Jake McMillon has reportedly been handling the center duties well in Shackelford’s absence while both freshman Denzel Okafor and junior Brandon Hodges have been splitting reps at right tackle. Give the advantage to Okafor over Hodges if it comes down to that.
Before the season begins, I like where Texas sits with its starting offensive line compared to last season.
From the beginning of the season, last year’s offensive line grouping made my stomach turn and gave me headaches more than I’d like to remember.
Two of the consistently best offensive linemen were true freshmen, the best veteran was playing out of position, and the two seniors were often the biggest liabilities. It was a recipe for mediocrity from the beginning of the year.
With the three best linemen (Williams, Vahe, & Perkins) returning from last season’s group, there’s already more optimism heading into 2016.
They may just be sophomores, but Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe bring a lot to the table. Both held their own as true freshman, with Williams grading out as one of the best freshman lineman in the country and one of the best true freshman period.
And with Vahe moving to left guard, the left side of the line is set up to be the Longhorns strength in the trenches. Both Vahe and Williams are physical, tenacious blockers.
Vahe’s move to the left side was able to happen in part thanks to the emergence of right tackle Tristan Nickelson. A reserve last season, Nickelson will get his first shot at at being a starter when the season begins (if he continues to recover from the ankle injury in time). Offseason reports so far have been relatively positive for Nickelson when he’s been healthy.
The other reason Vahe moved to the left side is because Nickelson taking over at right tackle allowed Kent Perkins to slide inside to right guard, a position he’s a more natural fit for.
With Perkins inside, that gives the Longhorns an anchor at left tackle, strength at both guard positions, a presumed answer at right tackle, and only the center position left to figure out.
About the centers
I remember reading twitter and the message boards when Jake Raulerson announced he was transferring from Texas to play elsewhere in 2016. Though he hadn’t officially won the job as the starting center, as the only player set to return with any legitimate game experience, an uneasy feeling was cast among the fans knowing the only guy with any sort of experience at the position wasn’t returning in 2016 anymore.
Maybe Raulerson would have won the job and settled in well. Maybe not. I really don’t know what to make of Raulerson, who never found a home on the Longhorns’ offensive line during his three years as a Longhorn. Heck, he even had a brief stint on the defensive side of the ball.
What I am comfortable saying is that where the bar was left from last season’s performance at the position shouldn’t be hard to raise regardless of who steps in.
We have yet to see both Shackelford or McMillon play on the offensive line in any capacity in college. As most of us know by now, Shackelford is a true freshman who enrolled in early in the spring.
And thanks to an infusion of depth to the defensive line along with the need for more bodies at center, McMillon (RS So) was flipped over to the offensive line earlier in the spring as well.
Whether it’s McMillon or Shackelford, both will have a chance to improve the position in 2016. And with two strong guards on either shoulder, both should be in a better position than the Longhorns center was last season.
I’m not going to dive too deep into the scheme right now since we haven’t even seen the offense in a live game yet. But I do want to note how important having everyone on the same page, from the offensive coordinator down to the reserve linemen, will be.
We all know what happened last season with the coaching staff on offense, so I won’t recap that. But having the same coaches, specifically offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and offensive line coach Matt Mattox, coach the same scheme for an entire year will only give this unit a better chance at success.
I also am a fan of how Coach Mattox has been handling injuries on the offensive line, specifically at right tackle.
If Nickelson was ruled out for a long period of time, maybe this approach would change. But with Nickelson dealing with a somewhat minor ankle injury, instead of moving Kent Perkins back out to right tackle, Coach Mattox has left him inside (at his strongest position) and instead has given Hodges and Okafor a shot at right tackle.
Sure, this only works if guys like Okafor or Hodges are seen as viable options at right tackle. But keeping guys at their best position gives them the best opportunity to win their battles up front.
Thanks to a strong recruiting class and some late additions, the future for this group is also a bright spot on this young roster.
For the immediate future, it may not be the best unit in the conference, but this offensive line has a chance to end the season as a very solid unit in the Big 12.
The eight win mark is only possible if Texas has an offensive line that can help get them there. And I feel good, better than last year, with the what the Longhorns are working with heading into this season.