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New Texas C Taylor Doyle finally emerging as contributor

When the state champion offensive lineman came out of Lake Travis, it looked like he was facing a long road towards playing time.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Just more than four years ago, the expectations for Texas Longhorns offensive line commit Taylor Doyle were at a low ebb, with little hope of him eventually contributing.

For three years, there was little to dissuade that notion.

Finally, after the arrival of the new coaching staff, Doyle broke through this fall with his first career start in the opener and moved to center against Oklahoma to secure what could be the final starting five for offensive line coach Joe Wickline this season, replacing redshirt freshman Jake Raulerson in the middle of the line.

The start was a long time in coming.

When PB and I went out to watch Johnathan Gray and Aledo battle Doyle's Lake Travis squad on a soggy field just outside of Austin in September of 2010, PB came away with an unfavorable impression of the then-offensive tackle commit:

Doyle is an inexplicable take. Had exactly one pancake in the entire half. Whiffed multiple times. Got beat repeatedly by a stubby end who won't play college ball. Blocked with the tenacity of a kid who doesn't love football -- i.e. disposition of Ulatoski, but without the physical skills.  Just... wow.  I wasn't expecting much, but this was pathetic.

In defense of Doyle, he had suffered a broken leg during the state championship game the previous season and probably wasn't fully healthy. Of course, part of the criticism for taking him centered around how soon the offer came after the injury, when it still wasn't clear that he was going to fully make it back.

In the second half of that game, however, the Texas commit made a more favorable impression by asserting himself on the game at times, a relatively minimal expectation for a 6'5, 270-pounder going against much smaller players.

At the least, Doyle didn't look like a future offensive tackle in college, despite receiving that label from Rivals along with a near four-star ranking (5.7).

The final assessment after that game against Aledo? That it would be a long road for Doyle to contribute at Texas.

And so it has been.

Doyle redshirted his first season and didn't crack the depth chart in 2012 with Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters entrenched at guard. As a redshirt sophomore in 2013, he only appeared in two games -- the blowout of Kansas and on special teams against West Virginia.

Three years in, he was headed nowhere quickly, a poster boy for what was wrong with Texas recruiting along the offensive line. The problem with that perception? The fact that Doyle still had two years left to prove everyone wrong.

The new regime came in and all of a sudden, with two starters gone from the position, Doyle was in position to make a move. And so he did, starting in the spring game after getting a fresh start with Wickline.

"This coaching staff came in and gave everyone an opportunity to play, and I was excited to be able to contribute to the team," Doyle said on Monday during his first media availability at Texas. "We didn't know what to expect at first, but Coach Strong has come in and been a great leader, as has the entire coaching staff. They put us in a position to win games, which is all we can ask for."

Still, Doyle looked like a placeholder until one of the young guards could emerge to take the job or the tackle depth would allow Kent Perkins to play there, the intention of the coaching staff before Perkins went down early in the spring with a knee injury.

Darius James, Rami Hammad, and Curtis Riser were all much more highly-regarded players expected to make a move past Doyle with a quickness.

But Hammad transferred to Baylor before the season and Riser has failed to even crack the depth chart, moving into the rotational abyss that Doyle once occupied.

And the suspensions to prospective starting tackles Kennedy Estelle and Desmond Harrison also had a ripple effect extended by the ultimately permanent nature of Estelle's dismissal, forcing James outside to tackle by the Baylor game.

Not to mention the injury to senior starter Dominic Espinosa and the growing pains of Raulerson, the move to center came about as a result of the constant tinkering that offensive line coach Joe Wickline always employs to find the five best linemen on the team.

Remember redshirt freshman center Jake Raulerson playing at right tackle early in fall camp?

"Wickline is a huge proponent of moving guys around and having them playing each position," said Doyle. "You never really know where you're going to fit in until you're going into the game with him."

In a move that has created yet another domino effect for the rest of the Texas line, the insertion of right tackle Darius James allowed a series of changes that resulted in season-high production on the ground against a good Baylor rush defense and a solid effort against Oklahoma.

James playing right tackle allowed Perkins to finally make his planned move inside to his more natural guard position, freeing up Doyle to slide into the center position ahead of Raulerson, who is still suffering from the vagaries of physics in giving up 20 or more pounds to most opposing nose tackles.

Doyle had spent "a few weeks" at the position on the typical Wickline rotation through, but when the Texas coach went to him to ask the 6'4, 298-pounder to make the switch, he was ready for it.

"It's been a great opportunity to get on the field, and I've learned how to snap the ball," Doyle said. "I feel very comfortable and confident there, and I'm excited about the opportunity."

Doyle struggled with pulling on Power plays at guard, but he seems more effective anchoring and battling against players like Oklahoma nose tackle Jordan Phillips and moving horizontally on outside zone and pin and pull.

Against Oklahoma, he was beat on only one run block against perhaps the best nose tackle in the Big 12 and held up in pass protection. There still wasn't a lot of displacement for the middle of the line on inside zone, but that wasn't really expected with Phillips occupying that space.

More concerning is Doyle's ability to both get snaps off quickly and get them off on target. Many of them were low on the day, forcing sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to bend to receive them. And, of course, one hit Swoopes in the face mask to mark the third fumble on the goal line in three games. The improvement on this particular fumble? The Horns were able to recover, unlike the two previous incidents.

The coaches said that Doyle was a little slow on some of his deliveries and he took responsibility for the high, hard snap to Swoopes. The reasoning for Doyle playing remains, however -- the snaps are something easy to fix, while the consistent ability of opponents to collapse the pocket on Raulerson is not.

Doyle succeeded in the hard part of his job on Saturday and that was hardly a given with his trajectory at Texas and his opponent.

His head coach, for instance, wasn't necessarily sure that Doyle could get it done against Phillips when he walked out onto the Cotton Bowl field for warmups.

"I walked out there and looked at Oklahoma in the beginning pregame and I was like, 'It's going to be a long day for us if we can't block the big man in the middle there,'" Strong said. "But I thought we did a really good job of how well our guys were able to handle it."

Since that job primarily fell to Doyle, that praise was technically in the direction of the junior center. On Tuesday evening, play caller Shawn Watson was much more specifically effusive.

"He did a really nice job," said Watson. "He was a hard spot for us that we needed, especially against the nose guard we were playing. I thought he battled and held his own and did a really nice job for us. When you're asking a guy to go in, the center is like quarterback, it's a hard transition because now you're captain for the entire offense - the entire offensive line's blocking patterns. He did a really nice job at identifying, communicating, getting it echoed out. He's a really conscientious guy, too. He's a smart, bright guy, and he takes a lot of ownership in that. He did a really nice job. It was a really hard spot for us, and he battled."

The environment of the Cotton Bowl was also one that seemed like it might be too much for both quarterback and center heading into the game.

"Well, it's definitely a very exciting game to have my first start in," Doyle admitted. "The atmosphere in Dallas can't be beaten. There are nerves before you go out on the field, and after you get that first snap under your belt, it's all about playing as a unit. And the transition wasn't too bad because I had two great guards next to me in Sedrick Flowers and [Kent] Perkins. They really helped ease me into the transition."

The communication wasn't always easy at times with the crowd noise. But then, reaching this point at Texas wasn't easy for Doyle. Coming out of high school, it wasn't the popular perspective either.

Now, all these years later, Doyle has proven himself as one of the five best linemen on the team and if the offense is going to continue to improve, he's going to need to be a part of that.

And so without further ado, here's introducing Taylor Doyle, important piece of the Texas offensive line.