On a three-hour plane ride back from the Bay Area to Central Texas, a disappointed group of Texas Longhorns players had plenty of time to think about what might have been following a 50-43 loss to the California Golden Bears.
Not normally a vocal leader by nature, senior right guard Kent Perkins is growing into a larger leadership role during his final season on the Forty Acres, so he felt comfortable delivering a message to his teammates.
"Listen, the real season starts in two weeks,’" Perkins said. "We learned something today. Let’s build off of that. Let’s focus."
"We played a good game, we played against a good opponent and we didn't play up to the ability we know we can play at. So it all comes back to us taking this week and working hard and focusing and getting prepared."
In the past, the 6’5, 325-pounder wouldn’t have felt comfortable making such a statement. In the past, leadership from seniors spilled over into press conferences, as it did last season when senior Sedrick Flowers called out fellow senior Marcus Hutchins for not being prepared to replace Perkins against Oklahoma State.
Now Perkins is assuming that role behind the scenes.
"Being a leader, it was a time where I felt like I probably should have said something and I didn’t say anything," Perkins said. "Just young guys not being focused. You’ve just got to say something. Not being focused, by that I mean, when you’re called out there you go out there. You should not be calling someone more than once to go out there. It’s just lack of focus."
For the most part, the efforts by the seniors behind the scenes to ensure that younger players are ready to step up when necessary have been successful — just reflect back on offensive linemen like sophomores Alex Anderson and Terrell Cuney holding their own against UTEP when pressed into service due to injuries.
Even in the Notre Dame game, Anderson was ready in the fourth quarter and overtime when Perkins left the game, providing steady play and helping spring quarterback Tyrone Swoopes in the 18-Wheeler package on several ocassions.
How much does that contrast with last season?
Leadership also happens in the moment, too, so Perkins was there to lift up his teammate, center Zach Shackelford, when the freshman committed several costly penalties against Cal.
Playing in his first collegiate road game, Shackelford was penalized for holding on a 21-yard run by D’Onta Foreman down to the Cal seven-yard line early in the third quarter. After the penalty cost the ‘Horns 31 yards in field position, Trent Domingue ultimately missed his 49-yard field goal attempt.
On the following drive, the ‘Horns methodically moved towards midfield by gaining 37 yards on seven plays, setting up a critical 3rd and 3 down by two points.
But Texas never got the play off, as Shackelford was flagged for a false start, making the conversion much more difficult. A Cal defender broke up Shane Buechele’s pass intended for Armanti Foreman, forcing punter Michael Dickson to trot onto the field.
"After the play, I told him — Shack is one of the hardest workers — and I told him ‘Bro, don’t focus on the last play,’" Perkins said. "Don’t let the last play beat you. Take that play out of your head.’"
Early in the fourth quarter, Texas got the ball near midfield and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert dialed up a simple zone slice play with tight end Caleb Bluiett as a lead blocker from his H-back position.
Uncovered by a defender, Shackelford quickly climbed to the second level to block a linebacker to provide the running lane that Foreman found behind the freshman center and senior tight end for a 47-yard touchdown that gave the Longhorns the lead.
After Texas rushed for 715 yards on 4.6 yards per carry through the first three games despite widespread injuries to starters along the offensive line, Perkins feels good about the progress the group has made from last season.
"Yeah, I feel like as an offensive line, we have really got things right," Perkins said. "Things are coming like clock work for us. We're working as a unit, we got communication going."
Of course, having two big, bruising running backs like D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren helps — the Smash Brothers sit at No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big 12 in rushing yards. When combined, the 548 yards between the two primary ball carriers for the Longhorns would rank 54th nationally, ahead of the LSU Tigers.
Suffice it to say that the Texas offensive line enjoys blocking for those two players.
"To have great backs like that behind you is great," Perkins said. "I love D'Onta, I love his energy. Chris Warren, I love his energy. They all bring a different type of style and energy and it gets us going."
The line will have a week to further return to health before conference play and can build on the confidence of knowing that the tempo and physicality of the offense can wear teams down.
So Perkins isn’t sitting around still caught up in last weekend’s loss. He’s ready to move forward and knock over some defenders in the process.
"Yeah, we are fired up, man," Perkins said. "We're just ready to get to work. Me personally, I want to do my part as being a senior and being a leader of this team, and just work, get better, make the guys around me better, and I feel we can have a great year this year. We haven't been set back. We just know we need to work a little harder and that's what we're going to do."