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Texas OL growing under Herb Hand in his second year

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The pass protection held up especially well against the talented Tigers defense as the Longhorns upgrade at the guard positions.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — Six offensive line coaches in eight offenses between 2010 and 2018. No offensive linemen selected in the NFL Draft between 2008 and 2017.

Now, in the second season under position coach Herb Hand, the Texas Longhorns offensive line may be set to move firmly out of the wilderness after a solid debut under Hand last season and an excellent performance against the LSU Tigers defense on Saturday.

“I thought our offensive line was outstanding,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said on Wednesday.

Not only is it a rare thing to hear a Longhorns coach say after facing a defense full of future NFL talent, it was the second positive that came to Beck’s mind from the game after how hard the entire offense played.

Across the board, the Horns are better than in year’s past, starting outside at the tackle positions. Asked whether sophomore Sam Cosmi at left tackle and junior Derek Kerstetter at right tackle are the best duo that Beck has had in his three years at Texas, Beck immediately responded in the affirmative.

The Texas offensive coordinator gave Hand a lot of credit for that development.

“I think that he’s done a great job with those guys,” Beck said. “Sam played left tackle a lot of his career. As far as Derek, I think two years ago, he was our starting right tackle. It’s not like he hasn’t played the position at the collegiate level.”

Cosmi spent the summer working on mirroring the pass sets that he’s now taking on the left side of the line after quickly solidifying his hold on the right tackle job early last season. Another offseason in Yancy McKnight’s strength and conditioning program helped Cosmi mitigate some of the mass issues that he suffered from last season as a redshirt freshman — Cosmi is still a year away in strength from looking like a protoypical NFL left tackle, but he’s getting close.

In the first two games, he’s been a key blocker on running back screen passes, showing the ability to acquire and finish defenders in the open field. Against LSU, Texas lead off the game with a play behind Cosmi’s block in space for a 19-yard gain. After the season opener, Cosmi said that he relishes the look on the faces of defensive backs when he’s bearing down on them.

“Our mindset is just get on our hats,” Cosmi said of those plays. “Especially for offensive linemen, we can’t cut any more going down field, so just 10 and 2 with the guy and be able to square up with him. But yeah, that play was very exciting to me. I enjoy when I see a corner with his eyes wide open and being able to drive him about 10 yards downfield.”

He’s not just good at executing those screen passes, they’re one of his favorite plays.

In pass protection, Cosmi is continuing his high level of play from last season, with LSU standout K’Lavon Chaisson a particular challenge last week, as Chaisson has enough talent to eventually become a top-10 draft pick. On Saturday, though, Cosmi got the better of the matchup in a statement performance — Chaisson’s lone sack came on a twist away from Cosmi in an obvious passing situation for Texas.

It’s still early in Cosmi’s career, but he is going to be eligible for the NFL Draft after this season and NFL evaluators already believe that he has more upside than Connor Williams and consider him a better prospect, according to a report.

Kerstetter held his own when matched up with Chaisson even though he wasn’t listed as the starter at right tackle until graduate transfer Parker Braun moved into the starting lineup against Louisiana Tech, pushing redshirt freshman Junior Angilau to right guard and junior Denzel Okafor out of the top five linemen.

Beck believes that it’s the guards inside who aren’t getting enough attention.

“I think a lot of people are missing our guards,” Beck said. “Those guys are good now. I mean, physical, they can move. They love contact, and they love just hitting people. Obviously, we’re super strong at the center with Shack [Zach Shackelford]. So, I really like that group.”

The success against LSU came despite the lack of in-game pass protection reps for graduate transfer Parker Braun and redshirt freshman Junior Angilau, the two starting guards — both players ran triple option offenses in high school and Braun stayed in that system under Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech.

Both more than held their own blocking the mammoth interior defenders for the Tigers, including Rashard Lawrence, who passed up a chance at the NFL to return to school.

“You never know what you can do until you start to do it, right?” Beck said. “I mean, it’s just assumed that because they don’t pass the ball, that they don’t know how to pass block. That’s not true. They’re really good athletes and can move — that allows and contributes to the fact that they are good pass blockers. Both of them are. And the want to, right? These guys want to get better, want to learn, and they’re good football players. I think all of that combined has helped.”

As simple as Beck tried to make it sound, Hand spoke before the season during the assistant availability about how Braun had the “wipe the slate clean” when he arrived in regards to pass protection. Hand specifically noted the contrast between Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson, who played in a scheme that had some similarities to what Texas runs, compared to the Georgia Tech offense that is wildly different.

“His demeanor, his practice habits, his mentality, all that is what you want — physical, great finisher, and he’s very enthusiastic to learn, so it’s all really going well,” Hand said.

So far, it’s gone well on the field, too.

The most notable development is that Texas struggled to get even average or mediocre play at the guard positions over the last several, with the lack of development from four-year starter Patrick Vahe particularly disappointing over the last several seasons. Vahe went undrafted and was cut by the Baltimore Ravens before the season.

In fact, Braun’s father, Mike, a longtime high school football coach, noticed the need for Texas at guard in the Sugar Bowl:

Next to him, Elijah Rodriguez was a steady and versatile presence in 2018, he was just a desperation take in the 2014 recruiting class with limited upside. Rodriguez got a rookie minicamp tryout with the New Orleans Saints, but didn’t get past that stage.

The potential is there for Texas to receive improved play this season from both guard positions despite the lack of experience for Braun with the Longhorns and Angilau in college football in general.

“We always knew we were a physical bunch and we did a decent job of coming off the ball and stuff like that,” senior center Zach Shackleford said on Tuesday. “There’s some stuff we have to clean up, protection-wise, and stuff like that, but I was proud of the way that we played and how hard we played.”

Now the key is to continue developing a rapport with the players on either side of him, not always an easy process for offensive linemen.

“It’s coming along nicely,” Shackelford said of his chemistry with the two guards. “I love both of those guys. I would do anything for them and I enjoy playing next to them. I told them that Saturday night, that I just enjoy their physicality and they’re very coachable, so they’re always willing to learn.”

There are several concerns with the offensive line, however. One is depth, as Hand put the number of players he trusts to put on the field at “sevenish” before the season, though he’s also the type of coach who likes to ride his starters for heavy snaps.

In fact, there were four Texas offensive linemen last season who played more than 1,000 snaps. This year, that type of extensive playing time for that many players might be difficult or impossible just because injuries are a natural part of football for the big uglies in the trenches. Last season, the Horns had the type of favorable injury luck that balanced out the horrifically unfavorable injury luck in 2017.

At some point, that’s going to balance out once again. The only question is when.