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Texas still needs answers along the offensive line

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A talented, but top-heavy group needs to find who will be its key players at key spots.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Texas Jamie Harms-USA TODAY Sports

Arguably one of the biggest moves the Texas Longhorns made heading into the 2018 season was hiring co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Herb Hand. What cannot be argued is the impact Hand had on the team’s success almost immediately.

In 2017, Texas allowed 2.62 sacks and 6.92 tackles for loss per game, good enough for No. 103 and No. 110 in the nation respectively. Fast forward one year and Texas improved those numbers to two sacks per game and 5.36 tackles for loss, slotting in at No. 53 and No. 36 in those same categories.

Keep in mind that the Longhorns lost several key contributors to injuries in 2017, including eventual NFL Draft pick Connor Williams, but the numbers still tell an important story.

Heading into 2019, Hand’s newest challenge is replacing two cornerstones of his unit, 45-game starter Patrick Vahe and graduate transfer Calvin Anderson, who held down the left side in 2018. Thankfully for Hand, those two replacements seem to be plug-and-play contributors.

One of the best surprises from the 2018 season was the emergence of then redshirt freshman Samuel Cosmi, who appeared in all 14 games and started 13 at right tackle. Cosmi was an immediate impact player along the front, earning himself freshman All-American honors for his efforts.

Listed at 6-foot-6, 295-pounds, the sophomore moves like a much lighter man and has the ability to win matchups against the talented edge rushers that the Big 12 often boasts.

It was a no-brainer heading into spring camp that Cosmi would fill the slot left by Calvin Anderson, especially given his combination of size and quickness, as well as proven in-game production. Cosmi looked solid in the scrimmage on the left side, but pile ups in the middle of the unit caused issues when he was required to pull across the set. However, that may say more of about the exceptional play of defensive tackle Keondre Coburn for the White team.

Moving inside, one of the biggest pickups of the 2019 recruiting cycle for Hand’s unit is graduate transfer guard Parker Braun, who could be an immediate upgrade at the spot. The two-time All-ACC guard is the odds-on favorite to win the left guard spot when he arrives on campus for fall practice. At Georgia Tech, Braun played at a lighter weight than any player on the Texas offensive line a season ago, coming in at 272 pounds. That is likely a product of the types of linemen that flourish in the triple-option offense, which hopefully he would add mass without losing the quickness that characterizes his style of play.

With that being said, Braun is a bully along the offensive front and seems to excel when he has an ability to block at the second level, taking linebackers one-on-one. He also uses his body incredibly well, positioning himself between the defender and the ballcarrier, creating cleaner running lanes.

Braun slots well into what Texas wants to do schematically up front with the spread power attack, as the Georgia Tech blocking schemes required him to execute on pulls and trap blocks regularly. The biggest question mark about Braun heading into 2019 will be his ability as a consistent pass blocker, not because of skill, but because of volume.

Over the last two seasons, which were All-Conference seasons for Braun, the Yellowjackets had just 245 pass attempts, a number Texas eclipsed in the 2018 regular season.

At the other two open positions created by the graduation of Elijah Rodriguez from his right guard spot and the move of Cosmi across the formation. Throughout the spring and even during the Orange-White game, juniors Derek Kerstetter and Denzel Okafor switched back and forth between right guard and right tackle. Those rotations could continue into the season or until Hand feels like he’s found the best fit for each of them.

Kerstetter started the final 10 games of his freshman season at right tackle, then filled in for an injured Zach Shackelford last season as Rodriguez moved inside to center. So he already has starting experience at both of those positions. Before benefitting from a redshirt season in 2018, Okafor played inside and outside, too, so he’s also a player with proven versatility.

With those spots filled, the next question becomes who are the next men up for Texas. Following the Orange-White game, Texas head coach Tom Herman said the coaching staff still has concerns on the depth front.

“Those guys are all going to be really good players here, we all see the potential, but we have to accelerate their ability to slow the game down and think very quickly on their feet,” Herman said. “We’ve made progress, but we’ve got to speed this up because chances are we’re going to need those guys.”

Two key pieces of that puzzle for the coaching staff are redshirt freshman Junior Angilau and junior Tope Imade, both of whom competed for starting reps in spring practice. Angilau got the start in the Orange-White Game and when it is all said and done will be a key piece of the Longhorn rotation in 2019.

Angilau came to the Forty Acres as a highly-touted offensive tackle, the No. 10 player at his position and the No. 125 player in the country as a senior, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Thanks to the high-caliber play of the 2018 unit, Angilau and the other three offensive linemen in his class had the opportunity to redshirt last season.

If a “lean” 6-foot-6, 300-pound frame exists, Angilau fits the bill and moves incredibly well along the offensive front, which bodes well for the team’s ability to execute on its blocking schemes with him in the game. The footwork may be a result of his athletic background, as he primarily played soccer until playing his first year of organized football in high school.

For Imade, injuries along the offensive front and attrition did him no favors, as moved from offense to defense and then back to offense in his four seasons on campus. Because of the continued moving, Imade has yet to see the field in burnt orange, but should see that change in 2019. During spring camp he ultimately lost the No. 1 spot to the aforementioned Angilau, but with the offensive line unit working through several rotations, expect to see Imade get his shot in the fall.

Who does Texas have beyond that?

That’s what has Herman and his staff so anxious. Reese Moore and Christian Jones are members of the 2018 offensive line recruiting class that all members redshirted, giving the young players an opportunity to mature physically, as well as learn the system. Unfortunately for Texas, if injuries pile up untested players will be called upon to serve the need.