If the Texas Longhorns are to continue trending upward in 2018, it will likely be in large part due to more consistent play along the offensive line. The Horns are incorporating Herb Hand as the program’s fourth offensive line coach in as many seasons and are still starved for some semblance of stability up front after Texas employed eight different starting offensive line units in 2017 alone.
In all likelihood, the left side of the line is in place. Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson is set to slide in to take over the role Connor Williams — and many others — filled last season at left tackle. Senior Patrick Vahe should stand alongside him at left guard after earning his share of praise for the progress he’s made this offseason. Expected to man the middle once again is junior Zach Shackelford, who’s made 17 starts at center in two seasons and continued to headline the position throughout the spring.
Who lines up to Shackelford’s right at guard remains to be seen, though.
If the glass is half full, Hand has nearly an entire handful of options to fill that void in redshirt senior Elijah Rodriguez, redshirt sophomores Patrick Hudson and Tope Imade, and true freshman Junior Angilau. However, only two of the four realistic options have ever stepped foot the field for a college football game — Rodriguez and Hudson — and they’ve combined for only four starts in 22 career appearances.
Injuries and attrition can be credited for the lack of depth and developed talent at the position.
Rather than returning for a final season on the Forty Acres, Jake McMillon elected to pursue a graduate transfer opportunity after starting 11 games at right guard last season. Terrell Cuney traveled the same route after starting in McMillon’s place against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
As a result, Rodriguez, who missed the entire 2017 regular season with an ankle injury, spent the offseason preparing for what may very well be his first ever start at right guard. Hudson is firmly in the mix for the same opportunity, although he missed the majority of the 2017 season and spring football as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered against San Jose State in Week 2. Imade, on the other hand, arrived on the Forty Acres as an offensive lineman but was switched to the defensive line prior to fall camp last season before ultimately moving back midseason and never seeing the field. And, of course, despite ranking as the most likely true freshman offensive lineman to contribute, Angilau is still a true freshman.
Junior college transfer Mikey Grandy was expected to push for playing time as an experienced presence in the Texas two-deep, but the concussion symptoms that limited him throughout much of the spring have since forced the Grandy to medically retire from football.
In short, Hand has just one month to prepare a player who has never started a game at right guard to do exactly that on the road on Sept. 1 against Maryland.
Although the final say will come following fall camp, Rodriguez appears to be in the driver’s seat for the starting nod entering August. The 6’5, 305-pounder manned the position for the vast majority of the spring and was consistently noted and praised for the progression he’s shown while transitioning to right guard. That, along with the fact that he’s far and away the most experienced of the bunch with four starts in 20 appearances, seemingly makes Rodriguez the shoe-in starter, but that’s what fall camp is for.
To that end, Rodriguez potentially securing his place along the offensive line in the coming weeks may very well have more to do with how well Hudson fares than anything else. Since arriving on the Forty Acres in 2016 as second-best offensive guard prospect in his entire class, upside has been a word frequently associated with Hudson. As noted, injuries have hindered Hudson’s development and thus, prevented that potential from becoming productivity to this point, but the raw talent is undeniably there.
After finally enjoying four months of health, expect Hudson to push for his place in the two-deep. If he’s unable to leapfrog Rodriguez, which shouldn’t be expected as he struggled a bit upon returning to the field in April, Hudson is a prime candidate to fill the swing guard role and fill in at either position in the event of an injury or poor performance.
The same can be said of Imade, who’s entering his third season in Austin.
Although Imade is yet to make his Longhorns debut, he’s enjoyed far more practice reps at the position than Hudson. Throughout the spring, Imade served as the second-team right guard behind Rodriguez and there’s little reason to believe he’ll take control of the position between now and Sept. 1.
A strong camp could see Imade fill the swing guard role, though a healthy Hudson would seemingly have the advantage there. Angilau, on the other hand, isn’t expected to push Rodriguez, or even Hudson, for the starting role at right guard, but praise has been pointed in his direction as being physically and mentally advanced beyond his age. If the injury bug feasts on the Longhorns offensive line in 2018 as it did last season, Angilau could emerge as a dark-horse candidate to see the field as a true freshman.
If a healthy offensive line plays out as projected, the most likely scenario is Rodriguez manning the right guard position with Anderson, Vahe, and Shackelford to his left, and Derek Kerstetter to his right. Hudson, if healthy, could have a say in the matter, but the development and experience gap between the two is vast enough that Hudson will likely have to fend off Imade for his place in the two-deep.
Considering the lack of proven and developed depth at right guard, it may not be the most ideal situation for a Texas team aiming to take yet another step forward in 2018, but it’s what Hand has to work with, and he’ll have to make it work if the Horns are to take that step.
The good news is that Rodriguez is now entering his fifth year in the program and is much better suited to playing inside than he is suited to play left tackle, where he struggled in the Texas Bowl. And Hudson is finally healthy once again.