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Kyle Flood hoping for steady improvement from Texas OL

The Longhorns return four starters, including the versatile Derek Kerstetter, but need to reduce sacks and tackles for loss while winning more battles in short-yardage situations.

Texas Spring Game Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

For the fifth time in seven years, the Texas Longhorns have a new offensive line coach with the arrival of offensive coordinator and position coach Kyle Flood from the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Flood takes over an offensive line with four returning starters and a promising redshirt freshman center in Majors, but the group does have some significant question marks.

Texas tied for 86th nationally in sacks allowed last season, in part because the offense struggled on passing downs, ranking No. 80 in standard down sack rate. And the Longhorns were in passing downs because the team tied for 75th in tackles for loss allowed, leading to a No. 70 ranking in stuff rate. The power success rate, the percentage of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go that achieved a first down or touchdown, ranked No. 104 nationally. In 25 rushing attempts on 3rd and 1-3 or fourth down, Texas picked up the first down on 12 occasions, including 2-for-6 on fourth down.

However, Flood does have several areas to build upon — Texas was solid in line yards, including on standard and passing downs, opportunity rate, and held up well in pass protection on standard downs.

So the three biggest areas for improvement are limiting negative plays, pass protecting better on passing downs when Texas does get behind the chains, and winning those late-down situations in short yardage. Finishing better might help, too, as the Longhorns had more rushing attempts (110) in the fourth quarter last season than in any other quarter, but only managed one rushing touchdown.

Under Flood, the Longhorns largely bulked up along the line and are now honing new techniques in a demanding system that features inside zone, outside zone, gap schemes, and pull schemes to allow the offense enough flexibility to adjust to what opposing teams defend poorly.

At the same time, head coach Steve Sarkisian’s offense does provide some level of protection for the line with a healthy dose of run-pass options and play-action passes that look like runs — the drop-back passing game is the final layer of his offense, so there aren’t a lot of situations featuring the need for pure pass sets.

There are some positive signs with the season opener now 10 days away. After struggling in the first scrimmage, the offense has improved enough to win the second scrimmage and establish some rhythm.

Steve Sarkisian calls it “humming,” said Majors — the offensive linemen have their eyes right, receivers are running their routes correctly, the quarterbacks are getting the ball out on time and in rhythm. Especially with the offensive line, one missed block or small mistake can be the difference between a big play and a play that puts the offense behind the chains.

By taking accountability and using the frustration from the first scrimmage as motivation to improve, hugely important details like getting the combo blocks right between the interior offensive linemen started working better.

“The double teams I had with Junior [Angilau] and Denzel [Okafor] seemed like they were fitting the right way that they needed to. So, when stuff like that starts to happen and it feels good, that’s when you know that this thing is clicking and this is going in the right direction,” Majors told Orangebloods on the Majors Report.

Majors also mentioned two specific plays that helped highlight how the offense performed better in the second scrimmage than the first scrimmage.

The first was a screen pass to junior wide receiver Joshua Moore, cited by head coach Steve Sarkisian as the scrimmage’s standout player. Behind a strong block from left tackle Christian Jones, Moore broke into the open field for a gain of 60 yards.

Majors cited another play that followed Flood’s dictum for offensive linemen to always push the pile, the type of culture-defining effort that helped Texas physically dominate Oklahoma in the 2018 win. Junior tight end Jared Wiley caught a pass in the red zone and was initially stymied near the goal line before Majors and a cohort of lineman arrived to push Wiley across.

“That’s when I was like, we’re starting to buy in, this is awesome, because I remember as I’m falling into the end zone with Jared, I was like, ‘This is a good feeling,’” Majors said.

If the curse of going against a group that should emerge as one of the nation’s best defensive lines was evident during the first scrimmage won by the defense, the upside is how much that defensive line forces the offense to improve every day in practice.

“I’ve seen my game elevate from the first day of spring ball all the way to now and I look back at film and I’m like, “Dang, I’ve come a long way,” so it’s good to go against these guys,” Majors said.

Super senior guard Denzel Okafor compared Majors to former four-year starter Zach Shackelford because of his ability to quickly step into the key role of running the offensive line, adding that he picks up stunts well, a necessary skill if Texas has any hopes of overcoming the line games favored by Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

Majors excels at moving laterally on outside zone, but now that he’s gained 12 pounds following another offseason in the Texas strength and conditioning program, he should be better creating displacement on combo blocks and anchoring against bigger nose tackles. Going against 346-pound Keondre Coburn regularly in practice has certainly helped in that regard.

Next to Majors at guard, Junior Angilau enters the season with 22 starts over the last two years and expectations to take the next step in his development after gaining 25 pounds since the 2020 season. Considered one of the strongest players on the team, the extra mass should also benefit the Salt Lake City product as a downhill blocker. Angilau has spent time working at center as Flood works to develop depth at the position, sometimes having five players work on snapping the football during practice.

At the other guard spot, Okafor returns for a sixth season on the Forty Acres as he adjusts to his third head coach and fourth offensive line coach. A full-time starter for the first time in his career in 2020, Okafor performed better at guard than he did during a rough four-game stint as a starter at right tackle in 2017, but there are still questions about whether he can contribute above a replacement level.

Outside, Jones has worked exclusively at left tackle after playing right tackle in 2020, a campaign that featured some understandable growing pains for Jones, especially in pass protection. A soccer player early in his high school career, Jones only started playing football as a junior, moving to the offensive line as a senior in an option offense at Cy Woods. Thanks to his inexperience and high school offense, he said last week that he didn’t know how to pass set when he first arrived at Texas — when he redshirted as a freshman, he struggled so much that he hated pass-protection drills.

College players typically see a big jump from their sophomore to their junior seasons, and while that happened to some extent with Jones as he became a starter for the first time, his own developmental trajectory is likely to result in a bigger jump this season.

And there’s reason to believe that’s happened — Coburn called Jones the best offensive lineman he’s seen on the team at Big 12 Media Days and said he’s improved “100 percent.”

At least, that’s the hope for Flood, who is pushing Jones hard to improve the consistency with his technique and introduced a vertical instead of angled pass set that Jones said has helped his pass-protection ability.

How does vertical pass setting help? It simplifies footwork, allows more time to identify stunts and blitzes, and minimizes effective pass-rush moves.

The most versatile player, if not the best, is right tackle Derek Kerstetter, who returned for a fifth season after suffering a gruesome ankle injury against Kansas State. Not only is Kerstetter now fully healthy, he hasn’t let the injury impact him mentally.

“I’ve seen no hesitation out of this guy,” Sarkisian said in early August. “He’s going for it, and he’s cutting it loose. He’s a great leader. He’s a physical player, he’s smart. I’m really glad to have him. I’ll be honest with you, I’m really, really glad to have him back this year.”

Flood believes that Kerstetter is capable of playing every position on the offensive line, so if someone like Majors gets has to leave during a game or miss a game and the sixth-best lineman doesn’t play that position, Kerstetter could slide into it instead of forcing the seventh-best or eighth-best lineman on the field.

After the second scrimmage, Sarkisian said he feels good about the emerging depth. Redshirt freshman tackle Andrej Karic is coming on and is known for his physicality, freshman Hayden Conner is one of the surprises of preseason camp, emerging as a swing player capable of playing guard or tight tackle, and massive super senior Tope Imade has a new lease on his football career helping in the downhill running game with Flood’s preference for massive linemen.

The next player up after those three still isn’t clear as sophomore Isaiah Hookfin, sophomore Tyler Johnson, and redshirt freshman Logan Parr compete to be the ninth offensive lineman.

In terms of progress, Flood was happy last week with how the line has responded.

“I’m really happy with how they’ve taken to the coaching, I’m very pleased. They really have tried to do what I’m asking them to do,” he said.

Flood refused to compare his current group to the 2020 Alabama offensive line, named the best in the country as it won the Joe Moore award. Texas players have been watching film on that line to improve their technique, but with less experience and less overall talent, approximating what the Crimson Tide accomplished last season is a virtual impossibility.

Flood will settle on steadily getting better.

“I will tell you that any of the really good offensive lines that I’ve had an opportunity to coach — and I’ve been fortunate to have a couple — we always get better as the year goes on. They continue to get better. So I expect this group to do the same thing.”