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Improving the Texas offense starts with the OL

Finding a way to score points with a sub-par Longhorns offensive line is the obvious key to the season.

NCAA Football: Texas at Iowa State
Texas Longhorns running back Toneil Carter (30) carries the ball as Iowa State Cyclones tackles during the second quarter.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

We can debate which quarterback should start, gripe about the distribution of carries among the running backs, and ask why certain receivers aren’t getting the ball more, but the issues on offense really start up front on the offensive line.

As I sat there re-watching the Texas Longhorns win over the Iowa St. Cyclones over the weekend, the loss of junior left tackle Connor Williams was evident. As a result, the offense struggled to score points while the Iowa State defense game-planned directly around the weaknesses across the Texas offensive line.

The challenge for the coaching staff the rest of the season will be to figure out how to score points while managing the issues it has with its offensive line.

Below are my takeaways after re-watching Texas’ win over Iowa state.

1) Tristan Nickelson cannot be the answer at left tackle

I don’t say this with any ill will when I say Nickelson can’t be the answer at left tackle.

Nickelson, a 6’10, 315-pound senior, was one of the only options the coaching staff had to turn to when Williams went down a few weeks ago against USC. But after re-watching the Iowa State game, it’s evident the Longhorns will struggle to take steps forward on offense if Nickelson sticks at left tackle the rest of the way. Denzel Okafor, I’m look at you.

Look, I get it, Texas doesn’t have many options at tackle. Williams is hurt, Brandon Hodges and Jean Delance transferred, and Patrick Hudson and Elijah Rodriguez both went down with injuries as well. The offensive line is in desperation mode and the options are limited.

Playing Nickelson at left tackle, though, hinders this offense. The reality is he hasn’t figured out how to effectively block in his massive frame. And given he’s a senior, he may not ever figure it out.

I almost feel for the guy in some regards. He seems to play with effort and doesn’t give up on plays, yet his sheer size is what’s really holding him back. Its too easy for defenders to either get lower than him or to go right around him as he works to catch up to them.

As I watched the replay of this game, there were too many times when Nickelson would bend over in his stance to engage with the defender. And once he did that, it he was toast in his match up.

His inability to keep up with defenders was also emphasized by the freshman tackle playing opposite him on the right side. Aside from the false start and two holding penalties (one was declined) he picked up, freshman tackle Derek Kerstetter actually did a decent job of staying in front of his pass rusher on passing downs and finding a defender to engage with on run plays.

It’s a shame Kerstetter won’t have a year to redshirt and focus on weights because that’s what his frame needs the most. But for being thrown into the fire as a true freshman, I walked away with more reassurance as to why this staff flipped this consensus three-star prospect from Oklahoma State in the first place.

Moving forward, getting sophomore tackle Denzel Okafor up to speed has to be a priority, and it was something Herman mentioned in his weekly press conference earlier this week.

Okafor will likely come with his own issues — he struggled at times against USC when thrown into action — but I’d be surprised if he was that much less reliable than what Texas got out of its left tackle position against Iowa State last Thursday.

2) The rest of the offensive line has to play better

There’s not much more to be said about Patrick Vahe, Zach Shackelford, and Jake McMillon other than they haven’t really taken the big steps forward Texas needs. At least not yet.

Texas needs this group of interior linemen to be more consistent. Too often, one or two get out of position or whiff on their block, which causes the play to be blown up or sniffed out before it develops.

I’m not expecting any one of these guys to turn into All-Americans over the course of this season. But with questions at the tackle positions, the Longhorns’ need these interior linemen to step up.

3) I feel for the running backs, even if they have their own issues

Am I happy about the distribution of carries amongst the running backs? No. Frankly, the way the carries are being split amongst this group, especially between Warren and Porter, hasn’t made sense to me all season. And this was exemplified the very first two offensive plays Texas had against Iowa State.

Porter got the first carry for no gain and then Warren was inserted into the game on the second play and whiffed on a block that blew up the receiver screen.

Warren is the more effective runner and Porter is the more effective blocker... utilize them that way, Mr. Beck and company.

Four games into the season, though, Porter has four more carries than Warren while averaging half (HALF) the yards per carry at 3.1 to Warren’s 6.1 (I know, 6.2 would actually be half... MATH).

And if we take out the San Jose State game, Warren’s average drops to 3.5 yards per carry, while Porter’s drops to just 2.3.

Just like Nickelson can’t be the answer at left tackle with the way he’s played, Porter can’t lead this offense in carries with his ineffective running.

Really, Warren and freshman speedster Toneil Carter should be the leaders carrying the ball with Porter in to spell those guys and block when needed. Warren can at least pick up yards after contact (sometimes) and Carter adds a speed element this offense is lacking.

It’s not all on the running backs though. It was near demoralizing watching the running backs get hit by defenders at or before they ever crossed the line of scrimmage against Iowa State. And it’s not like the Cyclones were loading the box or are known for having a stout defensive front.

4) Is Shane Buechele the answer at quarterback?

The Buechele Truthers will wave his 73-percent completion percentage against Iowa State around in our faces with glee. Meanwhile, the Buechele Doubters will point to all his check-down passes and his lack of big plays with steadfast opposition. Neither will be right, and no one will be wrong.

The truth of the matter is Buechele saw more seven and eight-man coverages (16 of 26 times, if my notes are correct) against Iowa State than any other coverage the Cyclones threw his way. And they usually were in Cover 2 with two safeties roaming downfield as well. Not ideal for big passing plays.

Credit Iowa State for recognizing the weaknesses across the Texas offensive line and for basically telling the Horns they could have anything else on offense besides big passing plays. But to win more games than they lose in this conference, the Longhorns will need to generate more offense and more big plays.

And I’m still not sold Buechele is the best option at quarterback for accomplishing that.

When we talk about this ISU game, we can’t overlook that Buechele tossed one interception when driving the ball downfield and almost had two others as he forced passed into double coverage on longer throws. That type of decision making will eventually get any quarterback yanked.

I’m not saying Ehlinger has proven he’s clearly better because he hasn’t in his only two games in college. But Ehlinger at least brings a stronger arm. And if Buechele can’t drive the ball down the field effectively in this offense, the freshman should get another chance to help this offense score more points.

Along with the issues above, Texas also has to narrow down the number of receivers it utilizes. Eleven different Longhorns caught a pass last Thursday against Iowa State, and that’s about five or six too many. Collin Johnson should touch the ball at least five times a game, and Reggie Hemphill-Mapps and his speed need to be more involved in this offense just like Toneil Carter.

The focus on offense, though, still largely depends on what the offensive line can and can’t handle. It’s going to be a challenge all season for this injury-riddled line. But with continued tweaks and adjustments, and with some major help from the defense, this Texas team can still play well enough to end the season with a winning record.