Amazing the difference that a generational talent at the game’s second-most important position can make.
On Saturday against the West Virginia Mountaineers, junior left tackle Connor Williams played for the first time since the first half of the season’s third game against the USC Trojans.
And though Williams is soft spoken off the field, he loudly announced his return to the field from an injury that impacted his MCL, PCL, and meniscus:
Connor Williams is back. #Hookem pic.twitter.com/Oa82SKIZEU— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) November 18, 2017
That was just the first play.
Since losing Williams, the Longhorns have struggled with rushers coming free relatively easily on the left side and an inability to run consistently in that direction. Against a West Virginia defensive line that isn’t especially strong, Williams made a huge difference.
The quarterbacks could stand in the pocket with confidence in their blind side remaining protected. Running backs Daniel Young and Kyle Porter ran in that direction on a two-play touchdown drive that stretched the lead to 21-7 late in the third quarter.
As former standout offensive lineman Dan Neill noted on the Longhorn Network, the steady presence and physicality of Williams boosted the rest of the offensive line and the entire team.
Williams didn’t have to return this season — he could have opted for surgery or protected his draft status by sitting out, but he wanted to play and help out his team. On Saturday, he did that in a big way.
There was also dancing. Glorious, glorious dancing.
Update on the status of @Connorwi1liams’ knee: pic.twitter.com/WkQy6zt5j9— 40 Acres Sports (@40acressports) November 18, 2017
So yeah, the knee looks good, NFL scouts.
Two others takeaways from the game...
The offense still looks different with Sam Ehlinger
The freshman hadn’t started or played a significant role in a game since his concussion symptoms surface after the Oklahoma State game. Following a brief cameo last week against Kanas, Ehlinger returned to the lineup with a performance that was reminiscent of all his highs and lows this season.
There was the bad, like his ill-advised toss towards the sideline in the red zone that was returned 94 yards for a touchdown to represent a 14-point swing in a close game.
There was also all the good, like his 50-yard pass on 3rd and 4 through the pouring rain to Reggie Hemphill-Mapps. In the post-game press conference, Ehlinger said that Hemphill-Mapps struggled to even pick up the ball because of the heavy precipitation. The ‘Horns scored on that drive to take a 7-0 lead.
Ehlinger finds Hemphill-Mapps for a big gain. #Hookem pic.twitter.com/AJplUr1e61— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) November 18, 2017
Whether it was scrambling to make plays down field or picking up a 3rd and 9 with a 17-yard gain that included big blocks by Devin Duvernay, Kyle Porter, and Hemphill-Mapps or converting a fourth down on power or converting another third down on a draw, Ehlinger provided a different dynamic to the offense with his legs.
Ehlinger. Wow. #Hookem pic.twitter.com/REru80r3D4— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) November 18, 2017
By the end of the game, Ehlinger had accumulated 68 yards on nine carries, exactly the type of number the ‘Horns would prefer. He wasn’t sacked, either.
In the open field, Ehlinger has the vision, power, and elusiveness to pick up extra yardage. He can bail out the offense with off-schedule plays. He provides a high-quality option in long down and distance situations because he can run the quarterback draw.
It’s not clear why the staff doesn’t trust him to produce on run-pass options that would put more defenders in conflict and he has to cut down on the big mistakes, but it was clear that the offense missed what he can bring to it.
There he goes again. #Hookem pic.twitter.com/M5oCJKAUTD— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) November 18, 2017
DeShon Elliott continues to raise the level of his play
A few weeks ago, coordinator Todd Orlando picked now-suspended cornerback Holton Hill as his best defender. With Hill out, safety DeShon Elliott confirmed why he’s a deserving Thorpe Award semifinalist with another physical, clutch performance against the Mountaineers.
Elliott also continued to make unassisted tackles — all five on the day were of the solo variety.
But it was really a two-play stretch early in the fourth quarter illustrated the versatility that Elliott is bringing to the defense. With West Virginia threatening at the Texas 24-yard line and the ‘Horns holding on to a 21-7 lead, Elliott followed wide receiver Greg Jennings across the formation in man coverage and arrived with the football on 3rd and 9 to help break up the pass. On the following play, as Chris Chugunov heaved it towards an open receiver in the end zone, Elliott closed at the last minute to break up the pass.
DeShon Elliott. #Hookem pic.twitter.com/Ifupwfv26I— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) November 18, 2017
The start to the season wasn’t without some rocky moments for Elliott, but it’s easy to forget just how far he’s come — he’s making big hits around the line of scrimmage in ranking third among all defensive backs nationally with 8.5 tackles for loss, has consistently been in the right place on the back end to come up with interceptions, and has eliminated his mistakes in coverage.
Even if he’s not ultimately honored as the nation’s top defensive back, Texas fans should take a moment to appreciate how far he’s come since last season because there may not be another one on the Forty Acres.
Consecutive plays like he made in crunch time against West Virginia could make sure of that.