However, despite the wholesale turnover from the previous season, the group emerged as integral to Ohio State’s national championship run and now earns praise from Herman as the best group he’s coached.
Heading into Herman’s first season in Austin, four of his starters are drawing comparisons to those standout Buckeyes.
“Excitingly I think our strength on both sides of the ball is the line, offensive and defensive lines,” Herman said on Monday. “I think we still need to find a consistent, productive right tackle. Those other four guys may be the national championship year at Ohio State that I was a part of, that might be the only other offensive line that could compare with these guys. So I'm excited to see them play.”
The right tackle position isn’t a new concern for Herman — his desire for consistency there is a sentiment he expressed at the start of preseason camp, so it’s not particularly encouraging that he’s still worried about it.
Senior right tackle Tristan Nickelson is the starter there, but sophomore Denzel Okafor has been receiving some first-team reps in recent weeks and will likely split time with the older player. By the time the conference season arrives, it would be ideal if Okafor is playing well enough to take over as the starter.
Overall, however, the line now has 65 total starts and each starter has previous experience in that role, led by All-American left tackle Connor Williams, perhaps the best player in the country at his position.
In 2014, Herman had a similar anchor on the left side in Taylor Decker, who was drafted No. 16 overall by the Detroit Lions in 2016.
Next to Williams at left guard is a resurgent Patrick Vahe — the junior was the offensive standout in the first scrimmage after struggling last season and getting benched.
At center, sophomore Zach Shackelford is healthy again after ankle surgery during the spring and should benefit from an offseason in the weight room and better health after playing through multiple high ankle sprains for the entirety of his freshman season. The hope is that Shackelford can become an above-average player this season.
Junior Jake McMillon is the starter at right guard and may be one of the team’s toughest and most underrated players, though Herman certainly doesn’t underrate the Abilene product.
“Well he's not underrated by me — I really like being around him,” Herman said. “He is versatile, very much so, in terms of his ability to play center and guard; really smart guy, powerful, so he's able to hold his own inside there with the Poona Fords of the world and I don't know that underrated is the right word, but certainly very versatile.”
Against Maryland, Herman just wants the offensive line to protect sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele, but as the season moves along, the hope is for the offensive line to emerge as one of the best in the Big 12.