A Texas Longhorns offensive line that has been a bastion of personnel stability, if not performance stability, could face a significant challenge on Saturday in Manhattan against the Kansas State Wildcats — the potential need to replace two longtime starters.
On Sunday, redshirt junior Sam Cosmi ended his Longhorns career with the announcement that he’ll forgo the remainder of the season and declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. On Monday, Texas head coach Tom Herman revealed that senior center Derek Kerstetter suffered a high ankle sprain against Iowa State. He’s been in a boot the last several days and is listed as questionable for the Kansas State game.
Both are key cogs in the Texas offensive line. Cosmi has a chance to become the highest-drafted offensive lineman from the Longhorns program in the last 19 years and started the last 34 games. Kerstetter has started since early in his freshman season and has played multiple position along the offensive line.
The challenge for position coach Herb Hand is to prepare a unit that doesn’t have much experience. Like most offensive line coaches, Hand opts not to substitute out his starters in normal game flow and excellent injury luck this season means that none of the inexperienced backups have played in 2020 outside of the season-opening blowout against UTEP. In fact, the backups simply haven’t played much at all in their Texas careers.
In addition, season-ending shoulder surgery for redshirt freshman Isaiah Hookfin will deprive Texas of its breakout young player from preseason camp — Hookfin was competing for a starting job before suffering that shoulder injury. After trying to play through it and delay surgery, it became apparent in practice that the shoulder was not functional.
Since Hand likes to cross train his offensive linemen and put the best five players on the field, the starting lineup against Kansas State will depend on Kerstetter’s availability. During Sunday’s light practice, redshirt sophomore Christian Jones switched to left tackle, redshirt sophomore Reese Moore stepped in at right tackle, and freshman Jake Majors handled the snapping duties at center.
The next players up in the rotation include freshman Andrej Karic, who is listed as the backup left tackle on the depth chart, and redshirt freshman Tyler Johnson, who had a disappointing preseason camp but recently emerged on the depth chart as he started taking more second-team reps in practice at right guard.
What the initial starting lineup during Sunday’s 45-minute practice indicated is that Moore is ahead of Karic on Hand’s offensive line matrix. On the surface, that’s not surprising since Moore is now in his third season and Karic arrived on the Forty Acres during the summer, but Moore has battled through two arthroscopic knee surgeries that have limited his development.
The young player who has passed up a more experienced offensive lineman is Majors, who is listed as a co-backup with redshirt sophomore Rafiti Ghirmai at center. After playing tackle in high school, Majors made a quick transition to center as he drew favorable buzz during preseason camp and backed up his ranking as the No. 5 center nationally in the 247Sports Composite rankings.
With the Longhorns losing Cosmi after this season, along with two other starters in Kerstetter and right guard Denzel Okafor, assuming neither player takes advantage of the opportunity to return for another year, Texas will face a significant challenge on the offensive line next year with so little experience returning.
All that inexperience means that although starting Moore and perhaps Majors against Kansas State could set Texas back offensively, the remainder of the season will provide an important opportunity to evaluate whether Jones can play left tackle, whether Moore is an track to emerge as a starting-caliber player next season, and may even provide some perspective on where Majors is at in his developmental trajectory if Kersetter can’t play.
Given the major question marks in projecting next season’s offensive line, that’s not a bad thing with hopes of playing for a Big 12 title now eliminated.