Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator Tim Beck believes that the offensive line is the single position group that has improved the most on the entire team, but there are still two key position battles and several important storylines to follow as preseason camp progresses.
At right tackle, the departure of part-time starter Brandon Hodges has left senior Tristan Nickelson and sophomore Denzel Okafor battling for the starting job at the position.
On Tuesday, head coach Tom Herman acknowledged that both currently have deficiencies, a statement that reveals the position as the most likely to loom as the weak link for the offensive line this season.
Nickelson, a former two-star recruit who went to prep school and junior college before he began attracting attention from Power Five schools, is 6’10 and 315 pounds, which often causes him to struggle coordinating the movements of his massive body.
“Tristan's is physically limited at times, because of how long a levered guy that he is; he gets his body out of position at times, but he's always in the right spot, he's always on the right person, it's just executing at the point of attack,” Herman said. “I think he's gotten better and will continue to get better at that.”
The player with the significant physical upside at the position is Okafor, but he lacks ideal height and only played a small number of snaps last season, primarily on special teams and in the 18-Wheeler package.
“Denzel (Okafor) is a very fluid, long athlete who has some strength and power,” Herman said. “Much like Pat (Hudson), it's the speed of the game and going to the right place, at the right time, with the right technique and putting it all together.”
Whichever player can limit their deficiencies and become more consistent will win the starting job.
The right guard position also features one of the few real position battles across the Texas depth chart — with sophomore Zach Shackelford still recovering from offseason ankle surgery, the former starter at center could get onto the field by winning the position battle at right guard. There’s a path to early playing time there, in contrast to the other guard position.
So while it appears that junior Jake McMillon is now the starter at center and will likely remain at that role, junior Elijah Rodriguez is currently trying to hold off younger players.
Rodriguez has played across the line for the ‘Horns and is probably best cast as the utility lineman capable of filling in anywhere but center in case of injury.
As a result, it’s worth watching another young player at the position — redshirt freshman Patrick Hudson, who was one of the strongest players on the team when he arrived last summer, but suffered a foot injury that help ensure that he didn’t see the field in 2016.
“Patrick Hudson is a guy that I love being around — great kid, hard worker,” Herman said. “He's a freshman and the speed of the game is still pretty fast for him, but you want to talk about a guy that looks like what their supposed to look like and has all the physical tools, that's it. He has drive; he just has to put all of the pieces together in full speed action.”
Will it all come together for Okafor or Hudson this fall?
In all likelihood, both are a year away from becoming impactful and consistent linemen, but even playing at a replacement level would be an important development for position coach Derek Warehime as he works to establish quality depth.
At the left guard position, Herman acknowledged that it will be difficult for any of the guards to displace junior Patrick Vahe, who is one of the juniors the Texas head coach will lean on for substantive improvement.
To put it simply, it’s time for Vahe show more consistency after a disappointing sophomore season that included his benching.
Herman characterized Vahe’s summer as “great,” as the big lineman worked to decrease his body fat and increase his strength.
“Really, I was just trying to burn a lot of fat and gain a lot of muscle, and then at the same time work on my cardio,” Vahe said. “So with this strength staff, they helped me out a lot with that, dropped a lot of weight and I was able to see that I had a lot more stamina when it came to working out. It helped me out for being in condition for football.”
By the start of fall camp, Vahe had lost 13 pounds of fat and gained eight pounds of muscle.
Vahe was also working with junior left tackle Connor Williams to develop the more vocal leadership styles demanded by their transition into the most experienced players on the offensive line.
“I'm trying to be more vocal so me and Connor are out there trying to make sure that we get everybody on board and make sure that everybody's on the same page as everybody else, not trying to drag anyone behind,” Vahe said.
With Vahe’s maturation getting him back on track and the bookends of steadily nasty Connor Williams at left tackle and the surprisingly good McMillon at center, that trio should give the ‘Horns an advantage against most opponents.
Now the right side needs to develop the consistency to limit the type of drive-killing mistakes that happened all often last season at those right guard and right tackle.