When Texas Longhorns offensive line coach/run game coordinator Matt Mattox arrived in Austin, he brought with him a positive, upbeat style that was supposed to help him better identify with players, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, the notoriously prickly Joe Wickline.
"We're going to coach them hard, but at the end of the day we're going to love them hard, too," he said at his introductory press conference. "It's got to be about an open relationship between myself and the players and our o-line."
So far, the results have been positive in that category — the Longhorns didn’t suffer any attrition along the offensive line during the spring or summer. More than that, Mattox is all about building confidence.
“It's not going to be anything where I am just tearing them down,” Mattox said. “I don't find that to be successful with them. I am going to keep them positive and keep things moving."
A longtime associate of new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, Mattox has already shown an ability to translate those relationships into success on the field, a significant question mark for him entering the season given his relative lack experience — he never spent more than one season at his three Division I coaching jobs.
And despite all the preseason hype, it’s been the older players who have stepped up, even though most of the focus during the summer and early part of fall camp was on highly-touted recruits like Jean Delance, Denzel Okafor, and Patrick Hudson.
Through two games, none of those players have seen the field, but due to injuries to five offensive linemen, including four starters, numerous back ups have seen the field, many of them unproven and considered unlikely contributors as recently as the start of fall camp.
At the top of that list is sophomore Alex Anderson, who made his first career appearance against Notre Dame and played an important role in the overtime rushing success for Texas.
After putting himself in position to earn his first start against UTEP, head coach Charlie Strong couldn’t help but engage in a bit of teasing with the 6’4, 320-pounder.
“I never, ever thought you would be running out here starting a game,” Strong said.
To some extent, he wasn’t joking — before fall camp began, Anderson wasn’t anywhere close to the depth chart and looked like a guy content to merely occupy a scholarship.
The Texas head coach had challenged everyone to emerge to replace injured players, especially the guys who have been in the program for multiple years under Strong.
“We're in a position now where some of you guys been in the program and it's time for you to step up and help us and help this program,” he told his team.
Fellow sophomore Elijah Rodriguez had some rough moments in giving up two sacks and committing a penalty, but he started at left tackle in place of sophomore Connor Williams because he’d earned the trust of his coaching staff.
Two more sophomores also stepped up — former defensive tackle Jake McMillon, who replaced freshman Zach Shackelford due to his continued ankle issues, and Terrell Cuney at offensive guard.
McMillon has been a success story after being recruited as a defensive end, quickly growing into a defensive tackle, moving to offensive line, moving back to defensive tackle, and then moving back to the offensive line.
With the December departure of graduate transfer Jake Raulerson, the prospective starter at center, McMillon was able to take advantage of his opportunity despite the fact that he spent most of spring practice at defensive tackle, earning the back-up role to Shackelford.
Players who change positions that many times rarely become contributors, but McMillon has become an exception to the rule.
A US Army All-American in 2014, Cuney was once rated as one of the top centers in the country, but his lack of size and inability to make a serious dent in the depth chart made him look like an unlikely contributor this season — just another older player set to get passed on the depth chart by younger, more talented players.
Instead, there was Cuney stepping in and holding his own against the Miners in his second career appearance.
The ‘Horns often talk about the next-man-up mentality when injuries hit, it just doesn’t normally work out as well as it has during the last two weeks. Sophomore offensive guard Patrick Vahe, the only starter along the line for most of the UTEP game, put it into perspective this week.
“It shows everybody is on the same page in practice, paying attention, executing the plays we need them to,” he said. “When they need to go in, they don't hesitate on anything.”
Indeed, they did not, as Texas managed 416 total yards and 171 on the ground despite giving walk ons plenty of playing time in the fourth quarter. In fact, one of the best moments of the night was junior walk-on center Garrett Graf entering the game for one series and part of another, a sign that Mattox is willing to reward players for their hard work in practice.
All in all, the approach by the new offensive line coach has, at least for the moment, completely altered the narrative of the 2014 offensive line class. No longer full of apparent busts, it’s now full of important contributors who have played important roles in two victories.
“I just look back the other night at our offensive line, when we walked out there for the first time with Alex Anderson, with Rodriguez at tackle, you had Vahe, Shack, then McMillon came in the game, Hodges was a staple for us from the past week,” Strong said on Monday.
“Even with Cuney coming in, you have enough confidence where those guys are playing, they want to prove to you that they can play, which is great because you have confidence and it continues to grow and build within guys.”
Thanks, Coach Mattox.