The task for new Texas Longhorns co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Herb Hand through the spring? Molding his position group into a coherent, more consistent whole following an injury-plagued season that saw the ‘Horns give up 34 sacks and average only 3.58 yards per carry.
To get the results that he wants, Hand has become one of the most vocal assistants on the practice field.
“You can hear him on the other side of the field,” senior guard Patrick Vahe said on Thursday.
Even during basic drills against air, Hand constantly corrects his players, from their stance to where they have their eyes, to effort level.
For the older players like Vahe and junior Zach Shackelford, who have combined to start 48 games through five seasons at Texas, it’s about pushing them over the plateau from serviceable to All-Conference contenders. Vahe in particular has been a source of frustration in that regard, while Shackelford has struggled with injuries over both of his seasons on the Forty Acres.
So far, so good, according to head coach Tom Herman.
“Both those guys have improved,” Herman said on Tuesday. “I’d be shortchanging Shack. Pat especially stands out. Coach Hand has cleaned his technique up quite a bit. He’s playing with more consistently good technique.”
For players with less experience who are fighting for a spot in the rotation, like junior offensive tackle Denzel Okafor, the emphasis is building on the occasional flashes. Currently playing left tackle as graduate transfer Calvin Anderson is finishing up his studies, Okafor is in the midst of a critical spring for his development.
Herman described Okafor as “better” this spring and pointed to a play from inside drill during Saturday’s practice that Hand highlighted in film study with what was apparently colorful language. The PG-rated message that Herman relayed was that Okafor had just set the standard for what he can accomplish.
“You really put yourself in a tough spot there, Denzel, because now you’ve proven to all of your teammates what you’re capable of,” Hand said. “Now we’re all going to expect that every play.”
After struggling mightily in pass protection last season, the question is whether Okafor can tap enough of his potential to become a legitimate option at right or left tackle. When Connor Williams and Elijah Rodriguez went down last season, Okafor wasn’t ready to to play at a replacement level.
Texas may well need him to this season.
On the other side, sophomore right tackle Derek Kerstetter has benefitted tremendously from simply being a year older and going through his first winter conditioning with the Longhorns after arriving last summer.
“He looks like a guy that’s played 10 college football games out there,” Herman said last week. “He’s obviously bigger, stronger, more flexible. When he walked out there last year, everything was big and bright and probably a bit overwhelming. Now, it’s a bit old hat. He looks like a veteran out there. I think he’s 302 pounds now. He’s really strong, and he’s not quite as strong as some of the other young offensive linemen, but he’s getting there. He can move and he’s extremely smart.”
For Kerstetter this spring, the key is to avoid the types of penalties and failures in blitz pickup that kept him from performing at a high level as a true freshman thrown into the starting lineup at the beginning of Big 12 play.
The only early enrollee among the offensive linemen isn’t currently in the mix — junior college transfer Mikey Grandy, another potential swing player like Rodriguez, is currently out due to a concussion. So his development has suffered a significant setback this spring that will cost him an as yet undetermined number of reps.
One of the players stepping into the void is redshirt sophomore Tope Imade, who has transitioned between the offensive and defensive lines throughout his first two seasons on campus. Normally, making multiple moves like that over such a short period of time can sink a player’s career, but one of Imade’s predecessors, Jake McMillon, did the same thing and eventually became a starter. Herman hasn’t mentioned Imade specifically yet this spring, but the picture above does show him working with the starters at right guard.
Playing against an extremely talented defensive line certainly helps, too, as well as the fact that coordinator Todd Orlando has slowed down his installation at Herman’s request in order to allow the offense time to acclimate.
Hopefully Hand’s arrival, the competition level, and that adjustment will make a difference.