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How Denzel Okafor’s potential departure could impact the Texas depth chart

The Horns are on the verge of losing one of the few experienced linemen on the roster.

Christian Jones

On Wednesday, news broke that Texas Longhorns redshirt senior Denzel Okafor has entered the NCAA transfer portal with the intentions of becoming a graduate transfer.

Regardless of whether that decision was spurred by academic considerations like difficulty getting into a graduate program at Texas or whether it was about the possibility of playing time, there’s no question that Okafor’s potential departure is significant news for Herb Hand’s offensive line.

Texas returns three full-time starters from last season’s group, but Okafor had appeared in 40 games with five career starts, making him one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the program. In fact, while Okafor hasn’t started as many games as senior Derek Kerstetter, he has appeared in more games overall.

Was Okafor set to be a high-level contributor for Texas in 2020? Probably not. Okafor struggled as a starter when forced into action at left tackle in 2017, then took a belated redshirt in 2018 in an attempt to develop under Hand, but was unable to win a starting job in 2019 over redshirt freshman Junior Angilau or graduate transfer Parker Braun, neither of whom had much experience in pass protection after playing in triple-option offenses.

Still, Okafor was projected as a starter this year at right tackle, so losing him would be a significant development, especially given the lack of experience among the remaining offensive lineman. Okafor doesn’t have as much upside for his final season as younger players currently on the Longhorns roster have for their entire careers, but his floor for this year is arguably higher than those players.

One potential replacement for Okafor at right tackle is redshirt sophomore Christian Jones.

After redshirting in 2018, Jones appeared in every game last year, but mostly worked as a member of the field goal unit. In terms of the overall arc of his football career, this is only his fifth year — Jones didn’t join the Cypress Woods team until his junior season because he was a soccer player before that. As a junior, Jones played defensive end before moving to the offensive line as a senior.

The late recruiting rise for Jones was largely a result of the first-ever early signing period that produced an unprecedented run on under-recruited prospects in the final weeks — SMU landed a commitment from him early and Iowa State offered him in the summer of 2017, as well, but interest didn’t start to pick up until December. Texas offered in late January and landed a commitment from him two days before National Signing Day in February.

More significantly as it pertains to Jones and his development, he played in a triple-option offense in high school that afforded him few opportunities in pass protection. If he plays in 2020, he’ll be in a similar situation as Junior Angilau was last year — having to deal with pass rushers in games for the virtually first time, with the added challenge of facing them coming off the edge.

With the 15 spring practices culminating in the Orange-White game unlikely to happen, Jones is set to miss out on key opportunities for development. If there isn’t a chance to evaluate his improvement in a practice setting or the spring-ending scrimmage, it’s difficult to say where Jones is in his developmental curve.

However, the fact that Jones struggled with to deal an edge rusher on his only pass set of the Alamo Bowl wasn’t a positive development — the guess here is that he’s still a year away.

Redshirt sophomore Reese Moore is projected as the backup left tackle, but he missed the 2019 regular season with a knee injury that set back his development, so he’s probably not even ready to contribute on the other side. Moore might be better in pass protection than Jones, but he doesn’t have the same natural power that coaches prefer on the right side.

A better option than Moore might be redshirt freshman Tyler Johnson, the highest-rated offensive lineman the Horns have signed out of high school since Patrick Hudson in 2016. Johnson has the athleticism and strength to play every position on the line and came out of high school much more developed technically than Jones. Texas may need him to play in 2020, whether it’s outside at right tackle or inside at guard.

The other option for Hand is to play Kerstetter at tackle or guard instead of moving him to center as planned. However, that’s only possible if redshirt sophomore Rafiti Ghirmai is ready to step in at center. He’ll have to snap the ball much more consistently than he did in the Orange-White game, but Ghirmai has now had a year to improve in that area.

There’s also an outside chance that Jake Majors could step into that role after enrolling early in shades of Zach Shackelford. In head coach Tom Herman’s fourth year, though, playing a true freshman at center should be an impossibility, so that would be a tremendously disappointing development from every perspective except the trajectory of Majors’ career at Texas.

In assessing the potential replacements for Okafor, it becomes clear just how important he was to provide an extra year of development for the younger players. Perhaps Okafor’s looming departure is a result of at least one of those players appearing ahead of schedule behind the scenes. If that’s the case, the coaches feel that way because of what they’ve seen behind the scenes — there’s no reason to have that much confidence based on anything that has happened publicly.

The bottom line now is that if there was a potential need for another graduate transfer along the offensive line, that need seems much more significant in light of Okafor entering the transfer portal. And there is one currently on Hand’s radar — Akron’s Brandon Council, who already took an official visit to Baylor and planned to visit Auburn before the coronavirus pandemic canceled those plans. Council started games at every position for the Zips last, so he could provide a tremendous amount of positional flexibility.