For the first time since the 2015 season, the Texas Longhorns won’t have longtime starter Zach Shackelford holding down the middle of the offensive line.
In most years, losing a four-year starter at the position is cause for significant concern — not only does the center have to deliver accurate snaps and keep nose tackles out of the backfield, there are the backbone of the offensive line, with most centers tasked with setting the line protections and identifying blitzers before the snap.
For the Horns, however, offensive line coach Herb Hand is in a unique position because after repping senior Derek Kerstetter at center in the past, he can plug in a four-year starter to replace his departed four-year starter.
An Army All-American out of San Antonio Reagan, Kerstetter committed to Oklahoma State during the summer of 2016 and remained firm with the Cowboys until head coach Tom Herman arrived in Austin. Desperate to find offensive linemen for the 2017 recruiting class — Charlie Strong didn’t leave him a single pledge at the position when he was fired — Herman needed to make strong evaluations and find players who were willing to join the class before National Signing Day. Building on pre-existing relationships was an important part of the process, in no small part because those players were already vetted.
Enter Kerstetter, a player that Herman and then-offensive line coach Derek Warehime recruited while at Houston, but didn’t have the juice to land over the Big 12 program. However, when Texas offered in mid-December, Kersetter only needed 10 days to flip from Oklahoma State, making his decision the day after Christmas.
A mid three-star prospect ranked as the No. 30 offensive guard nationally, Kerstetter wasn’t exactly a huge recruiting coup at the time — he wasn’t highly ranked and he didn’t have the type of gaudy offer list that defines some slept-on prospects in the national rankings.
Kerstetter made an immediate impact in Herman’s first season, though, as Texas dealt with injuries and a lack of depth along the offensive line. By the time the Longhorns started conference play against the Cyclones, Kersetter earned his first start for Texas at right tackle as a true freshman. During his second start, the offense didn’t allow a sack while producing over 500 yards against Kansas State. The San Antonio native went on the start the final 10 games of the season at right tackle.
The ascension of classmate Sam Cosmi at right tackle and the addition of Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson at left tackle reduced the need for Kerstetter to start as a sophomore in 2018, but he was still a key piece in the rotation, appearing in all 14 games and starting five while gaining experience at right guard.
Quietly, Kersetter had a breakout season in 2019, largely playing right tackle after Junior Angilau earned the starting job at right guard as a redshirt freshman. Kersetter earned third-team Pro Football Focus honors, but graded out as the team’s top returning offensive lineman and the No. 2 returning pass blocking offensive lineman among all Power Five players.
To earn that honor, Kerstetter had to narrowly beat out Oregon’s Penei Sewell, widely considered the nation’s top offensive line prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft and a candidate to come off the board first.
So, what is it that makes Kerstetter so special?
Testing by the Longhorns reveals that he’s one of the best athletes along the offensive line, even compared to Cosmi. Herman said that Kerstetter has a vertical leap in the low 30s and is generally neck and neck with Cosmi when the coaches look at the 10-yard splits in the 40-yard dash, key measurements of athleticism for scouts.
“Derek is is a much better athlete in my opinion than people give him credit for, but we see it every day,” Herman said. “Now, his versatility and leadership and toughness... we’re gonna miss it when he’s gone for sure.”
Kersetter is now a team leader, with senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger calling Kersetter “a great friend” and a “selfless guy and great teammate.” Herman echoed those sentiments, noting that the Corporate Communication major will have a long and successful career after football.
More importantly, Ehlinger said that Kersetter has transitioned well to his new role.
“He’s made it a mission to pick up all the little intricate details that it takes to play center and he’s done a great job with that,” Ehlinger said.