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Offensive line shuffle inserting RT Darius James benefits Horns vs. Bears

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It looks like Darius James may become a fixture on the line after his first career start.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Just as much as having an inexperienced quarterback, the lack of experience along the Texas Longhorns offensive line has been the biggest limiting factor for an attack that ranks No. 88 nationally in rising S&P.

After losing senior center Dominic Espinosa to injury against North Texas and junior offensive tackle Kennedy Estelle to suspension and then dismissal, Texas entered the game against BYU with only a handful of starts along the entire line, a recipe for disaster against the aged Mormons.

But the line received a boost against Baylor last weekend with the insertion of redshirt freshman Darius James at right tackle, a move that allowed sophomore Kent Perkins to move back inside to his more natural position of guard.

Play caller Shawn Watson said Tuesday that he was happy with the effort from the line.

"They played better," he said. "They did a nice job, especially early in the game. They came back in the second half and did a nice job, too. They did a fairly decent job at keeping Ty clean. I think we had one sack, and they did a nice job overall -- they and the [running] backs at keeping him clean."

It takes so much time for offensive linemen to develop and for lines to gel together not only because of the massive physical requirements of playing together in the trenches, but also because of the level of communication that it takes to know which players have to block which opponents and for how long. It's an area where Watson has seen growth.

"The offensive line played much better because they're beginning to communicate better," he said. "They're beginning to understand their assignments and the adjustments that they have to make -- many of them on the move, which is all part of the process. They're learning to play the game with their eyes, most importantly. It sounds simple, but it's the key ingredient for an offensive line to learn to play with their eyes and let their eyes take them to their work."

Overall, the line was able to clear the way for a season-high 190 yards on 40 carries, besting the effort in the opener by 27 yards on the same number of carries. The 4.75 yards per attempt were also a season high.

The runs to the right side behind the big combination of Perkins (330 pounds) and James (304 pounds) was especially exceptional, as 84 of the 190 rushing yards came behind those two players, while 88 came up the middle.

A center in high school when he was a consensus five-star prospect out of Harker Heights, James wasn't expected to be able to play tackle when he enrolled. Just before halftime of the first game as a senior, the nation's top offensive guard in the 247Sports Composite rankings went down for the rest of the year with an ankle injury. After that, he put on some weight and at one point weighed in at 340 pounds, at least.

But in the Under Armour All-American game, he was able to earn the start at left tackle and performed well there in an environment where the defensive lines often tee off against offensive lines that have little cohesion. Remember former Texas quarterback Connor Brewer running for his life when he played in that game?

So the effort in Orlando provided some hope that James would be a tackle in college and he's worked hard to lose the weight necessary to improve his mobility to the point where it's now possible, as he's lost over 30 pounds over the last two or so years.

His pass protection is still a work in progress since he was beat twice against Baylor, but he did have several excellent run blocks and was able to create some displacement of the Bears defensive line. And changing the line of scrimmage in a positive direction is an area where the line has really struggled this season, especially on Power and inside zone, two plays that should be the staple for any physical running team.

The hope is that Wickline can refine the technique of James with his kick step and eventually help James become a plus player in that regard.

Perkins, meanwhile, struggled notably against UCLA in pass protection, giving up several clear shots at the quarterback in a game that served notice that his best position is inside at guard, despite all the hope out of high school that he would be able to play tackle. Part of the issue is probably his mass -- when he started once at tackle in 2013, he was listed at 310 pounds, but has since added 20 pounds to reach his current weight.

Against Baylor, he had four good run blocks and was beat only once in the running game, with no mistakes in pass protection.

An underrated aspect of the offensive line play has also been the development of junior left tackle Marcus Hutchins, who emerged out of nowhere to earn the starting job and has managed to play at an adequate level. An undersized tackle out of DeSoto, Hutchins saw his stock drop during the recruiting process as he struggled to gain weight. After making the move to defensive tackle in fall camp last season buried him on the depth chart, a spot from which it looked like he would never emerge.

Yet emerge he did after moving back across the ball during the preseason this fall, even though he had only played in one game each of the previous two seasons.

Against Baylor, he missed two run blocks and was beat inside once on a pass block, but he was also going against stud defensive end Shawn Oakman, the 6'9, 280-pounder who entered the game with four sacks and five tackle for loss on the season. Hutchins mostly contained him, however, giving up one sack and two tackles for loss -- not an elite effort, to be sure, but much better than the worst-case scenario entering the game given Oakman's talent level.

Without Hutchins, Texas would be in serious trouble at left tackle with Estelle gone and senior Desmond Harrison still suspended.

Are there any other moves that the Horns could make along the line, though?

Offensive coordinator Joe Wickline is known for shuffling around his offensive linemen to cross train players at different positions in an attempt to find the best five overall linemen and there could be some more changes to the group if he decides that redshirt freshman center Jake Raulerson isn't the best answer in the middle.

The effort level is always there for Raulerson, but the mass still isn't and as hard as he works, he can't always keep himself from getting pushed several yards into the backfield. Junior offensive guard Taylor Doyle hasn't been good when pulling this season, part of the reason that he's no longer in the starting lineup, but he may be better than Raulerson at anchoring and could potentially get a shot inside at center as Wickline looks at other options.

The former Oklahoma State offensive line coach has clearly been frustrated recently, as he's left the field without singing the Eyes of Texas for the last two games. HIs actions have raised questions about what exactly he's upset about, but Watson said it wasn't any issues with the play calling, as both men are "on the same page."

More likely is that Wickline is simply mad that his unit hasn't been performing better, even though the Baylor game represented significant improvement.

But with Perkins and James having the ability to form a strong right side of the line for the next two and a half years, there's some increasing hope that the unit could actually become something of a strength sooner rather than later.

Perhaps even with a repeat of the last season's dominant performance by the offensive line against the 3-4 Oklahoma defense this weekend.