Entering the 2017 season, the Texas Longhorns couldn’t afford injuries at two key positions — left tackle and quarterback. Before halftime of the third game, the ‘Horns had already lost All-American junior Connor Williams and had been without Shane Buechele, the sophomore starter at quarterback, for six quarters.
But those were ultimately far from the only key injuries faced by the offense, before or since.
To understand why the offense has struggled so much, it’s worth looking back on a timeline of the injuries and the resulting impact on the team.
August 8 — Elijah Rodriguez suffers a high ankle sprain
Only days into preseason camp, the prospect right tackle, redshirt junior Elijah Rodriguez, went down with a serious high ankle sprain in practice. Two days later, he had surgery that left him with an indefinite timetable for a return. Rodriguez hasn’t played this season and doesn’t appear likely to return for any of the final three games.
Impact: The injury to Rodriguez not only cost the team one of its best offensive linemen, it also left it without the most versatile player in the unit — the Houston-area product was capable of playing four positions. Ultimately, the loss of Rodriguez forced a sub-par senior — Tristan Nickelson — and an inexperienced sophomore — Denzel Okafor — into roles for which they were not prepared.
August 17 — Andrew Beck fractures his foot again
Less than 10 days later, the ‘Horns lost another key player at a position with limited depth when senior tight end Andrew Beck suffered a fracture foot. Within days, he was declared out for the season.
Impact: Entering preseason camp, Beck was the only player on the roster with experience playing the position at Texas. An effective blocker, he also had the potential to emerge as a pass catcher in a more tight end-friendly offense. Instead, his injury left the ‘Horns relying on a former wide receiver, a graduate transfer who arrived during preseason camp, and a freshman who was largely a wide receiver in high school.
September 2 — Shane Buechele suffers a bruised throwing shoulder
After an offseason spent questioning whether the sophomore could stay healthy for an entire season, it only took one game for Buechele to suffer another injury. He ultimately missed two games and showed questionable arm strength when he returned against Iowa State.
Impact: Buechele’s injury forced true freshman Sam Ehlinger into action early, with Ehlinger playing his second game on the road against No. 4-ranked USC. Injuries at the position were one of the worst-case scenarios before the season and it didn’t take long for that to come to pass.
September 9 — Patrick Hudson suffers a knee injury
Late in the blowout against San Jose State, redshirt freshman right guard Patrick Hudson went down with a non-contact knee injury after a promising performance. An MRI later revealed that he had torn his ACL.
Impact: The nation’s No. 2 offensive guard in the 2016 class was set to become a key back up for Texas in his second season on the Forty Acres and his injury left the ‘Horns thin at the guard position.
September 9 — Garrett Gray suffers a knee injury
The former wide receiver became the starting tight end after Beck’s injury and performed poorly against Maryland before suffering a knee injury against San Jose State. He hasn’t played since.
Impact: Gray likely wouldn’t have been a competent player had he remained healthy, but his injury did force freshman Cade Brewer into action long before the coaching staff would have liked. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was left scrambling to find a way to effectively utilize Brewer.
September 16 — Connor Williams suffers knee injuries
In the season’s third game, the ‘Horns lost the one player the offense absolutely could not afford to lose — All-American left tackle Connor Williams. In the first half against the Trojans, Williams suffered a torn meniscus and sprained two of his knee ligaments. He hasn’t played since.
Impact: Not only is Williams a generational talent at the most important position on the offensive line, but the team also lacked an effective replacement with the injury to Rodriguez. As a result, Nickelson briefly took over the position, but it quickly became apparent that his lack of mobility in pass protection could single-handedly sink the offense.
September 28 — Buechele suffers an ankle injury
After returning to the starting lineup for only one game, Buechele quickly suffered another issue, as the school announced the following day that he had sprained his ankle against Iowa State.
Impact: Once again, Ehlinger was forced into the starting role.
October 14 — Jake McMillon misses game with a hand injury
An injury in practice kept McMillon, the starting right guard, out of the Oklahoma game and limited his participation in the Oklahoma State game.
Impact: With Hudson out, redshirt junior Terrell Cuney showed why he failed to receive playing time in the past — he’s undersized and susceptible to the bull rush.
October 14 — Kyle Porter suffers an ankle injury
Sophomore running back Kyle Porter carried the ball three times for seven yards against the Sooners before leaving the game with a sprained ankle. After missing the Oklahoma State game, Porter hasn’t received a carry since.
Impact: Given Porter’s lack of effectiveness as a runner, his injury wasn’t particularly significant, though he did provide value as a blocker when he was healthy.
October 21 — Ehlinger suffers a concussion
The freshman threw a brutal game-ending interception in overtime before the school revealed the next day that Ehlinger was suffering from concussion symptoms. He then sat out the Baylor game and didn’t play against TCU due to an inner ear issue that may be related to his head injury.
Impact: Just when it looked like Ehlinger was taking control of the position and the team, Texas was forced into another change at quarterback, complicating the play-calling situation for Beck.
October 21 — Zach Shackelford suffers a concussion
Just as McMillon was returning to health, starting center Zach Shackelford, a sophomore, also suffered a concussion during the game against Oklahoma State. Like Ehlinger, he didn’t play against Baylor or TCU.
Impact: Cuney was once again pushed into the startling lineup due to the injury and largely played poorly, especially against the Horned Frogs.
October 21 — Reggie Hemphill-Mapps suffers a knee injury
One of the team’s most explosive playmakers on offense missed the second half of the game against the Cowboys after sustaining a knee injury.
Impact: Hemphill-Mapps played in the next two games, but totaled only one catch for five games in those contests. As the player most capable of turning short catches into long gains, the diminished impact of the redshirt freshman has hurt the Longhorns offense.
October 28 — Toneil Carter suffers a concussion
Just as freshman running back Toneil Carter was seemingly breaking out with a 15-carry, 70-yard performance against Baylor that also included a touchdown, the speedster suffered a concussion. Carter missed the game against TCU.
Impact: The rush defense of the Horned Frogs probably wasn’t going to give up much yardage against any Longhorns running back given the state of the Texas offensive line. However, losing the pass-catching ability and explosiveness of Carter when he was finally getting an extended opportunity was certainly unfortunate.
November 4 — Denzel Okafor misses start due to injury
Nickelson started the game with the first-team offense as a result of Okafor suffering an undisclosed injury in practice, head coach Tom Herman said on Monday.
Impact: Okafor has struggled throughout much of the season after being forced into the starting role at left tackle, but he earned the role for a reason — Nickelson is a liability even at right tackle and an even bigger liability at left tackle. The ‘Horns ultimately gave up seven sacks in the game, a season high for the Horned Frogs.
Understanding how much all the injuries along the offensive line hurt the 2017 team requires some further context.
Last season, Williams and left guard Patrick Vahe combined to produce much of the yardage for Doak Walker Award winner D’Onta Foreman. And the offensive line as a whole struggled to protect Buechele, allowing 32 sacks on the season and ranking No. 108 nationally in passing down sack rate.
In other words, this was a line that needed to show some improvement without Foreman and without former starter Kent Perkins and part-time starter Brandon Hodges, who became a graduate transfer. There were no guarantees that it would have become an above-average unit even at full strength.
At the least, however, Texas could have counted on being able to pick up some yards running left and successfully protecting the blind side of the quarterback.
Ultimately, the loss of Hodges, and the subsequent fall transfer of former Under Armour All-American tackle Jean Delance severely limited depth across the entire unit — any long-term injuries to starters or back ups along the offensive line or at tight end were going to be a problem.
By the third game of the season, the ‘Horns had lost the team’s three best blockers, the back-up tight end, and the back-up guard, all to long-term injuries.
No other position group in football has to play with the same level of coordination as the offensive line, where any break down can sink the entire play. An offense that gets behind the chains and struggles to pass protect stands little chance of succeeding. Meanwhile, strength and experience are paramount in pass protection and run blocking. Texas has lacked continuity, strength, and experience for almost the entire season.
Even the more experienced players, like Vahe and Shackelford, were’t able to redshirt. McMillon redshirted, but arrived as a defensive end, moved to guard, moved back to defense, then moved back to offense again.
Meanwhile, the quarterback position has been a revolving door — neither player has started more than three games in a row the entire season, resulting in a lack of continuity at that position that has made game planning and play calling more difficult. It has also left a leadership void on the offense.
At positions that have had relative health, like running back and wide receiver, the older players have struggled to produce meaningful contributions — the two freshmen running backs are clearly the most talented players at their position and the three leading receivers are all second-year players.
And yet, the leading receiver was demoted to a back-up role three games ago. One of the two seniors at the position has hardly played most of the season because of his poor practice habits.
So Texas fans can complain about the lack of week-to-week improvements and scrutinize the issues with individual play calls, but the bottom line is that injuries play a huge role in a brutal game like football. And the ‘Horns have suffered a rash of them without the depth to insert experienced back ups as replacements.
Despite that, Texas is somehow several plays away from being a two-loss football team. In those three games, mistakes by Ehlinger and the defense were as responsible for the losses as any mistakes by Beck.
Put any of those three games in the win column and all of a sudden the entire season feels much different.
Instead, the players — and coaches — are dealing with extremely difficult situations every week.
“They look out and one minute this guy is playing and the next this guy is playing,” Beck said on Wednesday. “The next minute this guy is playing, the next minute Shane is at quarterback and the next minute Sam is at quarterback. They kind of see the revolving door. It's hard to have any consistency when that is happening. I think that was the first game that we started the same offensive line two games in a row.”
As a result, Beck admitted several weeks ago that he was pressing as a play caller. The players are pressing, wanting to succeed. But as head coach Tom Herman has pointed out all season, the key to success is playing confidently, without hesitation, and with trust in the training provided by the coaches. Due to the circumstances, none of that has really been possible for the offense.
“They are so eager to try and do well,” Beck said. “Sometimes they are trying so hard, they are trying too hard. So we're trying to not press, but we are pressing, we know that. It's hard not to.”
Beck closed the press conference by noting that “most people” see the injury issues and the constant changes in personnel and understand why the team is struggling. But based on how fans perceive Beck’s job performance this season, it’s clear that many don’t understand.
And so instead of understanding why the offense consistently fails to show improvement from week to week, a difficult task due to the changing levels of competition and the challenges of a difficult schedule, fans are instead reflexively blaming Beck.
In doing so, those fans demonstrate an abject lack of understanding about why the offense is where it is.