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Tim Beck sees a more physical Texas OL this season

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Preseason camp hyperbole was quickly proven false last season. Will 2018 be different?

NCAA Football: Texas at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever improvements the Texas Longhorns may see at the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end positions, none of it will matter if the offensive line can’t take a significant step forward from an injury-plagued 2017 season that also featured consistent mistakes across the board.

So, just like discussions about how much the program has improved overall in the offseason, there’s a healthy amount of skepticism surrounding the offensive line.

After all, just before the start of last season, head coach Tom Herman compared four of his starter — excepting the right tackle position — to the offensive line that helped Ohio State win the national championship in 2014.

On Monday, Herman made another strong declaration.

“I think our starting five are playing at a level that we haven’t seen around here in a while,” he said.

Forgive the skeptics for their desire to wait and see in that regard.

On Wednesday, offensive coordinator Tim Beck provided a more substantial evaluation of where the offensive line is with the season opener now looming less than 24 hours away.

“It’s been good,” Beck said. “I’m pleased. That group is playing a lot more physical than it did. Again, I attribute it to Yancy [McKnight]. I think what he’s done in the weight room has instilled a lot of confidence. A lot of strength in our guys, which creates great durability for them, so they can play at a higher level longer, and you don’t get injured. We’ve been very fortunate.”

Last season, Texas had already lost Elijah Rodriguez for the regular season by midway through preseason camp. The prospective starter underwent surgery for a high ankle sprain and returned for the Texas Bowl against Missouri, but struggled at left tackle.

All-American left tackle Connor Williams went down in the USC game with a knee injury, center Zach Shackelford later suffered a concussion, right guard Jake McMillon suffered a hand injury, and left guard Patrick Vahe missed several games due to a knee injury.

The churn was constant and forced former non-contributors like Terrell Cuney into action.

Williams declared early for the NFL Draft and McMilllon also elected to give up his final season of eligibility, but the addition of graduate transfer Calvin Anderson and the return of three starters and Rodriguez makes for a mature group.

“Then the experience that they have of just knowing. Zach [Shackelford] is next to Patrick [Vahe] again. Elijah [Rodriguez] is back in the lineup, who we missed the whole season last year until the Missouri game. You’ve got some guys that played, like [Derek] Kerstetter, and [Denzel] Okafor. Obviously, Calvin [Anderson] came in and he’s a veteran. He’s the old man of the group as a graduate guy coming in. It’s provided depth, leadership. That group is completely different than that group was a year ago.”

From left to right, here’s the number of starts the Horns will have in the lineup this season — LT Anderson (36), LG Vahe (31), C Shackelford (17), RG Rodriguez (4), RT Kersteter (10)/Cosmi (0).

Beck said that he expected Kerstetter and Cosmi, the redshirt freshman, to split time against Maryland on Saturday. Given that Kerstetter was one of the team’s best linemen as a true freshman last season and only improved his strength and technique during the offseason, it’s a positive sign that Cosmi has emerged as a contender for the starting lineup.

However, the area for concern, at least for Herman, is with the depth behind those starters.

“We’ve got to continue to get better with the few key guys that are broken shoelace or a helmet popped off or a sprained ankle away from going in,” Herman said.

The good news is that there is some versatility among the top seven players, as new offensive line coach Herb Hand has cross-trained Kerstetter at center and guard since arriving, Rodriguez can play any position (though either tackle spot is not ideal), and Okafor can also serve as a swing player across four positions.

Behind them, the ability for Hand to get solid contributions is more questionable, as Patrick Hudson is still less than a year removed from his ACL injury and Tope Imade has yet to play a game for the Longhorns.

Aside from any bold statements made by the coaches, it’s a positive sign that the offense played well in the second half of the first preseason scrimmage and won the second indicates improvement by an offensive line that had to compete against a defensive line that is talented, experienced, and deep.

So perhaps this will be the best offensive line for Texas since 2013.