The Texas Longhorns offensive line rotation was nothing short of a revolving door under Matt Mattox in 2016. Essentially equal parts upside and inconsistency across the group, left tackle Connor Williams thrived once again and enters 2017 as arguably the top NFL tackle prospect in the nation, while true freshman center Zach Shackelford looked the part of a multi-year starter.
Collectively, though, the ‘Horns ranked outside of the top 100 nationally after giving way to 32 sacks last season, the by-product of Texas trotting out 10 different starting units along the offensive line in just 12 games.
Considering such inconsistencies along with the offseason departures of Brandon Hodges and Kent Perkins, who started nine and 10 games in 2016, respectively, it’s no surprise that big-bodied battles are brewing in the trenches. Although he declined to discuss specific battles, Longhorns offensive coordinator Tim Beck credited offensive line coach Derek Warehime for the substantial progress his unit has made this offseason.
“I’m not going to call in on specific battles, certainly, but that group in my opinion probably has come the farthest since I've been here,” Beck said at the THSCA convention in Houston. “I think that Coach Warehime has really done an outstanding job with those guys. I mean, their bond, the togetherness, the toughness, the things that we've talked about and preached about. Derek has been phenomenal with them and got those guy playing now, they believe. So it will be, it will be interesting to see who those five guys are going to be out there.”
If there’s one position that’s solidified, it’s Shane Buechele’s blindside with Williams at left tackle. By the end of his junior season, Williams may very well be the nation’s top offensive linemen, but everything to his right is a bit more uncertain.
Patrick Vahe is the presumed starter at left guard, but he struggled with inconsistency in 2016. He’s since earned praise from the new staff throughout the offseason, but if Vahe’s first season under Warehime doesn’t serve as a bounce-back campaign, Elijah Rodriguez and Alex Anderson are viable options for reps, but Vahe should remain the starter entering the season.
At Big 12 Media Days, Williams praised Vahe’s growth as a leader after the junior admitted during the spring that he had been on the “wrong path” when he was benched during the 2016 season.
The center position might be the most intriguing battle along the line, which may directly impact who starts at right guard in the wake of Kent Perkins’ graduation.
Sophomore Zach Shackelford enters the season on the Rimington Trophy Watch List, which honors the nation’s top center. As a true freshman, Shackelford started all nine games he was available for, but spent time sidelined due to injury. The same ankle that caused him to miss time in 2016 has remained a persistent problem and prompted surgery this offseason, which has opened the door for Jake McMillon to emerge as a legitimate starting option.
As one of the two is ultimately cemented as the starting center, the other likely assumes the starting role at right guard, although Anderson and Patrick Hudson are in the mix for that role, as well.
However, the general consensus is that Hudson could still be a year away after a redshirt season — the nation’s No. 2 offensive guard is massively powerful, but still refining his footwork and technique.
Completing the offensive line is what’s shaping up to be a two-man battle for the rights to the right tackle role between senior Tristan Nickelson and sophomore Denzel Okafor. The latter has been making a push throughout the offseason, but the 6’10 Nickelson does hold the edge in experience and that may be the difference, at least early on in the season.
While Nickelson is something of a known quantity as a serviceable player without much upside, Okafor is often compared to former Texas standout Trey Hopkins because of his cerebral nature and ability to play right tackle despite lacking ideal height for the position.
Collectively, the offensive line won’t feature as much as experience as it did in 2016 with at least two starting roles being replaced, but it’s virtually impossible for the ‘Horns to take a step back in the consistency department. So along with that good news, the better news is that Beck noted the offensive line unit as the group that’s come the farthest since the staff’s arrival in Austin.
That’s certainly the hope for Buechele, Beck, Warehime and Herman after the ‘Horns were tied for 101st nationally in sacks allowed in 2016 — given the importance of keeping Buechele healthy, the line’s top task will be reducing the number of hits he takes.