With two regular season games remaining, the Texas Longhorns program has demonstrated an early command of and plan for taking advantage of the new redshirt rules that allow players to participate in four games without losing eligibility.
On Monday, head coach Tom Herman noted that senior wide receiver John Burt and senior defensive lineman Jamari Chisholm will both return next season. However, those aren’t the only non-freshmen set to benefit from a season of development, as four other players are currently on track to redshirt this season — junior quarterback Shane Buechele, junior running back Kyle Porter, sophomore running back Toneil Carter, and junior offensive lineman Denzel Okafor.
Of those four players, the redshirt season for Okafor will be the most significant for the Longhorns in 2019.
The 6’5, 305-pounder expended a season of eligibility in 2016 in order to contribute in 10 games on special teams and in the 18-Wheeler package. Not exactly the ideal way to develop an offensive linemen.
Last season, Okafor was forced into the starting lineup as a result of the injury to Elijah Rodriguez in preseason camp and the injury to Connor Williams in the USC game. Okafor ended up starting four games and playing in 12 games overall, but he was also set back by an injury that he suffered against Baylor that caused him to miss the TCU game.
Without the developmental time ideally afforded to offensive linemen, Okafor struggled in pass protection at left tackle and at right tackle, in part because he doesn’t have ideal height for either position — he’s closer to 6’3 than he is to his listed 6’5. He also lacks the natural feet possessed by the rare players who can contribute early as effective pass protectors on the edge.
However, since redshirt freshman Sam Cosmi will likely slide over to the left tackle position next season and sophomore Derek Kerstetter has starting experience at right tackle, Texas probably won’t have to play Okafor at tackle in 2019. Instead, he’ll be able to slot in to his more natural position at guard and compete to replace left guard Patrick Vahe or right guard Elijah Rodriguez, both of whom are seniors.
A lack of injuries and a shortened rotation have allowed co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Herb Hand to redshirt Okafor, as Kerstetter has been the only substitute along the offensive line this season. And unlike last season, which featured a myriad of injuries to the starting offensive line — every starter missed time — the only injury this season was a foot sprain suffered by junior center Zach Shackelford, who missed three games and only played 15 snaps against Kansas State.
At quarterback, the rise of sophomore Sam Ehlinger has relegated Buechele to the backup role, with the coaches opting against using any of those four games to give Buechele snaps late against USC or TCU. When Ehlinger left the Baylor game with a Grade 1 AC sprain of his right shoulder, Buechele was prepared enough and competent enough to lead Texas to a victory.
The redshirt season contemplated by Porter when he opted not to travel with the team for the fifth game of the season against Kansas State will soon become a reality — the Katy product still hasn’t played since the TCU game, when he had one kick return and a tackle on special teams. With graduate transfer Tre Watson exhausting his final year of eligibility this season, Porter will have a chance to compete for a top-three spot in the rotation next season.
The same is true for Carter, who showed promising flashes as a freshman, including a touchdown catch against Iowa State and touchdown runs against Baylor and Kansas, but also struggled with ball security and maturity issues. When Carter was suspended for the Texas Bowl due to a violation of team rules, he lost ground to Daniel Young, also a sophomore this season, and was unable to recover with the additions of Watson and freshman Keaontay Ingram.
Even in a worst-case scenario, though, Texas will have three non-freshmen returning next season after redshirting, with Okafor positioned to play an important role as a likely starter at guard in 2019.