Last Saturday evening, during the valiant but ultimately unsuccessful contest against the USC Trojans, the one player the Texas Longhorns could not afford to lose went down — All-American left tackle Connor Williams.
“Desperation level is at an all-time high,” head coach Tom Herman admitted on Monday.
The worst-case scenario come to pass, as Williams merely sprained his MCL and PCL instead of tearing either or both, but he did suffer a meniscus tear that required surgery and will sideline him for an undetermined period of time.
Without Williams to run behind, Texas gave junior Chris Warren III only four carries and amassed a mere 68 rushing yards for the game. Without Williams to protect the quarterback, the opportunistic Trojans defense also sacked Sam Ehlinger five times and hurried him twice more, with the freshman’s legs bailing him out of bad situations more than once.
The loss of Williams followed the preseason camp high ankle sprain and resulting surgery that will continue to sideline junior Elijah Rodriguez at least through the early part of conference play. The former swing man would be the replacement at left tackle for Williams if he were healthy, as he was last season against UTEP when Williams sat out.
Against San Jose State, promising redshirt freshman guard Patrick Hudson suffered a torn ACL that will set back his development. On the verge of becoming a capable back up, Hudson will now undergo a lengthy rehabilitation process that could negatively impact his conditioning level and overall athleticism.
“We have five guys right now, five that we feel good about putting in the game,” Herman said. “So we've got ten days to get that number up to hopefully at least seven.”
The Longhorns head coach expects junior Terrell Cuney to return from an ankle injury that has sidelined him recently after also suffering a concussion in preseason camp.
Listed at 6’1, Cuney is undersized and has only appeared in three games during four-year Texas career. Getting capable play from the Jasper product is hardly a given. The same goes for junior Alex Anderson, who has also contributed sparingly after arriving in the same recruiting class as Cuney.
With the ‘Horns currently averaging over 80 plays per game, Herman may have to turn to younger players for help on the outside for limited snaps, like JP Urquidez. The redshirt freshman beat out former Under Armour All-American Jean Delance as the back up for Williams during fall camp. Delance subsequently transferred and ended up at Florida, but would now be competing for playing time had he opted to stay in Austin.
Same for graduate transfer Brandon Hodges, who left the program during the spring. Buck Major took a medical hardship after suffering a nasty hand injury last season.
Excluding former walk-on center Garrett Graf, who is now listed as the back-up center until Cuney returns, the only other healthy scholarship offensive linemen are freshmen Derek Kerstetter and Samuel Cosmi, the latter of whom is regarded as a long-term project.
Kerstetter, a US Army All-American, was slated for a redshirt season and work on the interior when he arrived, but is now the back up to sophomore Denzel Okafor at right tackle. Herman isn’t worried about burning Kerstetter’s redshirt and believes that the San Antonio product has been a pleasant surprise so far.
“What we've seen in him is a really, really tough guy that is probably a little bit more athletic than I thought when we signed him,” Herman said. “He's a guy that for a true freshman he really understands football. So we need him to hurry up and develop.”
Even the healthy players have experienced some unexpected issues — sophomore center Zach Shackelford and Ehlinger had issues snapping the football, with one bouncing off the knee of Ehlinger.
Past decisions and misses on the recruiting trail haven’t helped either. Rodriguez was a late addition when Joe Wickline flipped him from Colorado upon his arrival and losing consensus five-star prospect Walker Little to Stanford in the 2017 recruiting cycle now looms even more large. The 2016 class only added Urquidez after the Baylor scandal, as Texas had little in-state success — six players opted for other programs, with four now at Texas A&M.
From injuries to departures, the ‘Horns have had some poor luck in a position group where lower-body injuries are common and quality tackles are hard to find.
The bye week is providing some time for the healthy starters to rest up and the back ups to receive more reps, but it’s not enough time for the key pieces to return.
For Herman’s team, which just took the fourth-ranked squad in the country to double overtime on the road in front of a national television audience, it’s all exceedingly unfortunate, especially when combined with the injuries to tight ends Andrew Beck and Garrett Gray.
With the top teams in the Big 12 playing well so far, the issues along the offensive line for Texas could make for some difficulties navigating the conference schedule.
Time for Derek Warehime to work some magic — maybe Herman’s found some of that fairy dust for him.
In reality, it’s all hands on deck and the Iowa State game will be a key barometer before Texas faces the most difficult portion of its schedule.