The initial starting lineup for the Texas Longhorns offensive line to begin fall camp has a different look than expected, as position coach Matt Mattox revealed a bit of a surprise on Friday during a media availability — senior Kent Perkins will slide into his more natural position at guard and junior Tristan Nickelson will work at right tackle.
A junior college transfer who played in nine games last season, Nickelson was a spot starter in 2015, opening games against Oklahoma and Texas Tech at right tackle and right guard against Kansas.
The start against Oklahoma was due to an injury to Perkins and the 6’9, 322-pound Nickelson mostly held his own considering that he was regarded as a project coming off of one year at Navarro College and one year at Fork Union Military Academy after he wasn’t recruited out of Clear Falls High School.
However, Nickelson seemingly regressed during the Orange and White game in struggling with handling the Texas defensive ends in pass protection, a problem at times during the fall, too.
If his poor spring-ending performance reduced expectations entering summer conditioning, the biggest offensive lineman on the team turned things around by dominating the heavyweight division in the “Battle for the Belts,” winning all six editions of the summer challenge.
Now he’ll have to translate that success in the competitive conditioning drills into better technique and footwork along the offensive line.
In the process, he’ll provide an early look at the developmental ability of Mattox, who had a great deal of coaching junior college players, but has quickly bounced from job to job with new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert ever since then.
As for Perkins, this is the ideal move for him and for the team, assuming that the right tackle play from Nickelson or whomever else steps in can be adequate. Long seen as a player more comfortable working against interior linemen, lack of depth outside has often forced Perkins to play tackle.
But if he can remain inside, he could provide a serious upgrade over departed starter Sedrick Flowers, one of the weakest links last season at left guard, and keep freshmen Patrick Hudson and Denzel Okafor as potential depth alongside junior Brandon Hodges, who started at that position in the spring game.
Head coach Charlie Strong wants Perkins to become a better leader. For Perkins, a former Army All-American, it’s all about leaving a legacy.
“I want to be the best football player I can be,” Perkins said at Big 12 Media Days. “I’ve been that person that I want to leave my mark somewhere and that’s how I want to leave it.”
And left guard is definitely a better place for him to do that than right tackle.
Staying healthy is also a priority — the senior missed the TCU and Oklahoma games last season because of an injury after Texas allowed five second-half sacks of quarterback Jerrod Heard against the Cowboys following the injury to the 6’5, 320-pounder.
If Perkins can stay on the field and remain at left guard, doing so would also provide some stability around freshman Zack Shackelford, who will be tasked with slowing down opposing nose tackles just months after flipping to Texas from Kansas State and failing to impress the recruiting services — he was the No. 52 offensive guard and No. 1,056 player nationally.
Despite that lack of respect, Shack immediately earned the starting job at center after enrolling early against a weak group of competition following the departure of expected starter Jake Raulerson, who graduated early and eventually landed at Arkansas.
So now Shackelford will start fall camp with help from Perkins and right guard Patrick Vahe, the sophomore who earned freshman All-American honors last season, which reduces the pressure on him and should steady the interior of the line.
The lineup tweaks may only be temporary and there will be plenty of competition because of increased depth, but it is interesting to note the significant changes already made by Mattox despite conventional wisdom throughout the summer that Perkins would start out at right tackle, where he made his last public appearance in the middle of April.
How things play out remains to be seen, with Nickelson now facing the task of proving himself a Big 12 starting-caliber right tackle and Perkins potentially poised to have an All-Conference type of season at the position that can better showcase his ability.
The latter story will be a critical one to follow as it helps to define the upside of the entire group and is the ideal situation for the offensive line, but the big story here is the former.
Step on up, big Tristan.