Following a season in which the Texas Longhorns struggled to run the football, finishing No. 86 nationally in rushing S&P+ and No. 90 nationally in adjusted line yards, head coach Tom Herman moved Derek Warehime to coaching tight ends and hired well-regarded offensive line coach Herb Hand from the Auburn Tigers to fix the issues at the position.
“We hired Herb Hand to coach the offensive line really, really well, to provide quality ideas that can enhance our offense, to provide great experience and knowledge of the game and game planning during the season, and to recruit his butt off,” Herman said this spring.
Through four weeks, Hand’s line isn’t exactly blowing defenses off the ball and creating massive holes for an improved running back corps, but there are positive signs — Texas has had moments of physical domination in each of the last three games, which Hand credits to the work of strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight.
“We’ve played really hard,” Hand said on Wednesday. “We haven’t played 100-percent completely clean, obviously, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do from the execution, fundamentals, and technique standpoints.”
The proof is in the grades, as Hand said that an 85-percent grade is what the program considers a championship level and only three lineman have reached that threshold recently.
Where the Longhorns have improved is pass protection thanks to two new starting tackles. Both struggled against the Horned Frogs last weekend and didn’t practice on Sunday because of minor injuries, but graduate transfer Calvin Anderson and redshirt freshman Sam Cosmi have provided a significantly increased level of stability.
After spending three seasons as a starter at Rice, Anderson came to Texas because of his belief in Hand and his teaching ability. Even though a slow start in preseason camp raised some concerns about how well Anderson was adapting to the increased level of play, Hand said that Anderson might be the smartest player he’s ever coached and doesn’t have to be told something twice. The graduate transfer has adjusted quickly, too.
The question is whether Anderson can create more movement in the running game, a demand that Hand has made of his left tackle. Staying healthy and maintaining consistency with technique will also be important, as Anderson didn’t quite look like himself last Saturday, leading to some loose sets in pass protection that Hand wants him to clean up.
The result was giving up a sacks and a handful of hits on sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Still, the difference between the play of Anderson and the left tackles last season following the injury to All-American Connor Williams has been significant. Another consideration? Anderson won’t have to face any truly elite pass rushers for the rest of the conference season.
On the other side, Cosmi made up for some mistakes with a higher level of consistency than Anderson against the Horned Frogs, continuing an impressive debut campaign. According to Hand, Cosmi has a handful of attributes that have helped him so far — explosiveness, athleticism, and toughness. As a former developmental prospect from the 2016 recruiting class who was ranked as the No. 104 offensive tackle nationally, Cosmi still needs to add some strength, he just makes up for it in the meantime by straining.
Overall, Hand said the group is still scratching the surface of its potential as it waits for the return of junior center Zach Shackelford, who is expected to play this weekend after missing the last three games due to a foot sprain. Herman called Shackelford a leader of the group on Monday, a belief that Hand echoed on Wednesday.
Hand’s emphasis on cross training players at multiple positions paid off after Shackelford went down, as senior Elijah Rodriguez was able to slide into that position while sophomore Derek Kerstetter filled in at right guard after playing right tackle last season. Both players earned championship-level grades in recent games, Hand believed, though he wasn’t positive.
Kerstetter in particular has done a good job of limiting mistakes inside, even as he’s struggled a bit to create displacement — he still doesn’t quite have enough mass or strength to consistently move defenders off the line of scrimmage. Still, Kerstetter works well with Cosmi on combo blocks and exchanging twisting defenders, so the Longhorns may have a multi-year combination on that side that could emerge as a true strength with continued maturity and continued gains in the weight room.
As a group, however, the offensive line isn’t executing well enough on a consistent basis to create big plays in the running game — Texas only has two runs of 20 or more yards this season and one run of 30 or more yards. In the moments freshman running back Keaontay Ingram has been healthy, he’s been so electric because of his ability to pick up more yards than the offensive line created.
Hand cited missed opportunities on reads and missed opportunities on finishing blocks as two of the biggest reasons for the lack of explosive plays.
“We’re doing a good job of getting hats on hats, which is kind of the first step in the process — make sure you’re getting your hats on the right hats,” Hand said. “We have to do a better job of straining and finishing and I think if we do that, we’ve got some really talented backs that can help us in that regard.”
Hand cited a run by graduate transfer Tre Watson late in the USC game that could have gone for big yards if the offensive line had strained a little bit harder to open up some room for Watson.
Consistent technique is also a problem at times, as Hand mentioned early in the media availability.
When Burnt Orange Nation asked about issues late in the first half and early second half against TCU, Hand said that technique was the issue. When working to the second level, linemen were crossing their feet, something that should never happen. So that was a point of emphasis during practice this week.
Despite the need for improvements in some important areas, Hand still has plenty of belief in his group. There’s significant upside left to tap into with the offensive line, he believes, and they work hard in practice to respond to how Hand challenges them to get better.
On Saturday, the line will have to chance to go against a defensive front that lost three key contributors from last season and struggles to create negative plays. Even with those losses, Hand has plenty of respect for Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder and anticipates a heavy challenge for his group.
“They are tough, physical,” Hand said. “This is going to be a meat-on-meat, bone-on-bone game. I’ve got great respect for their program, for the way they’re built, the players they have. They are where they’re supposed to be. They’re in their gaps, they cancel out their gaps, they play their tails off.
“It’s going to be a fist-fight game. It’s going to be a physical game, and that’s what you get with that group. They’re a reflection of their head coach, who is a Hall of Famer. The guy is unbelievable. I’m looking forward to going up there and playing. Nothing about winning is easy. Everything is hard. When you play a tough, physical group like this, it’s going to be a brawl.”