Tristan Nickelson? Denzel Okafor?
With Brandon Hodges departing as a graduate transfer this summer, the Texas Longhorns were supposed to look at Nickelson, a senior, and Okafor, a sophomore, at the right tackle position.
Instead, head coach Tom Herman indicated following Friday’s practice, the fifth of fall camp and the first for the team in pads, that junior Elijah Rodriguez is currently leading the competition at right tackle.
So far, that’s the only big surprise in a group that features All-American left tackle Connor Williams, resurgent junior Patrick Vahe at left guard, incumbent sophomore Zach Shackelford at center, and rising junior Jake McMillon at right guard.
A product of Houston Cy Creek, Rodriguez was a late addition to the 2014 class by position coach Joe Wickline after he flipped from Colorado. Since redshirting during the 2014 season, the 6’6, 295-pounder has emerged as an all-purpose swing man for the Longhorns.
In 2016, he started three games at multiple positions, including left tackle against UTEP when Williams sat with an injury. Then, when Shackelford and McMillon suffered injuries late in the season, Rodriguez started against West Virginia and Kansas.
Headed into this season, he was expected to compete for the starting right guard position with Shackelford recovering from offseason ankle surgery, but it appears that he’s now found a new home on the outside.
At least temporarily.
In some ways, the news isn’t particularly surprising — Herman indicated at the start of preseason camp that he was concerned with the consistency of Nickelson and Okafor, as both have deficiencies at this time.
For Nickelson, the problem is that while he tends to get himself in the right position, he struggles executing at the point of attack because of his height, which significantly impacts his leverage.
For Okafor, who played sparingly as a freshamn, the issue is more with experience — he has all the physical qualities position coach Derek Warehime wants in a right tackle, including length, strength, and athleticism, but he hasn’t put everything together with his understanding of scheme and technique.
Right now, it appears that Rodriguez presents the most consistent option. And while he doesn’t possess the upside of Okafor, he’s less likely to make assignment mistakes and less likely than Nickelson to get beat because of a high center of gravity.
Herman also indicated that since he’s looking to establish depth and get the five best offensive linemen on the field, Okafor and Nickelson have been cross-training at the left tackle position.
Along with redshirt freshman guard Patrick Hudson, who is expected to work mostly at right guard this season, Herman said that he feels comfortable with Nickelson and Okafor joining Hudson as the current eight-man rotation along the offensive line.
And so the rest of preseason camp will be spent figuring out the most ideal combination of five offensive linemen to take the field with the first team against the Terrapins on September 2.