Called the quarterback of the offensive line, Texas Longhorns senior center Dominic Espinosa was more than just the guy who made all the line calls for the Horns over the last several seasons -- he was also the most experienced lineman on the team.
But Texas lost Espinosa to a fractured ankle on Saturday when he was rolled up on and he'll be out for an undetermined amount of time, leaving offensive line coach Joe Wickline without his senior leader. The Cedar Park product will undergo surgery on Wednesday.
The game against North Texas was the 40th career start for Espinosa, who has held down the middle of the Texas line since his redshirt freshman season in 2011. And though he was inconsistent at times, his role in 2014 was supposed to be a significant one.
Without Espinosa, the Horns will field a starting lineup along the offensive line that features five new players from the group that took the field last fall for the second game against BYU.
And it will also be one of the most inexperienced groups in the country. When Phil Steele released his annual list of the most experienced offensive lines around the nation this summer, the Horns were tied for No. 87 in the country with only 49 starts, most of them belonging to Espinosa.
Now, Texas will enter Saturday's game with a group that has started 13 total games at Texas. Junior tackle Kennedy Estelle has now started nine games since the shoulder injury to Josh Cochran that cost him his final season of eligibility, while sophomore right guard Kent Perkins and junior left guard Sedrick Flowers have both started two games now. Redshirt freshman center Jake Raulerson and senior tackle Desmond Harrison will both be making their first starts.
Combined, the group would now rank No. 127 in the country in experience, in front of only Tennessee, which boasted six starts heading into the season.
The eyes of Texas will be on Raulerson in particular. Listed at 280 pounds, Raulerson is still lacking the ideal mass that has hurt him in the past holding up against bigger players, an issue that has also plagued Espinosa throughout his career.
Alex Dunlap of Orangebloods took a look at the 21 snaps that Raulerson played against North Texas and graded them out.
In the attached post, Dunlap noted that Raulerson's performance overall was mostly adequate and mostly in line with what Espinosa has done in the past -- recall that the start of the season last year for Espinosa was rough as he and Mason Walters combined for a number of miscues in the running game and the passing game.
At the least, Raulerson has to clean up his exchanges with sophomore Tyrone Swoopes, which should be easier since Swoopes will likely spend more time in the shotgun or the Pistol than Ash did in the opener. And he'll also have to avoid the major mistakes like allowing hits on the quarterback and a stuffed running play.
Fortunately for Raulerson, he won't have to go against BYU nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna, who destroyed Espinosa at times last year in Provo. With Manumaleuna lost to graduation, the starter will likely be Travis Tuiloma, a 6'2, 320-pounder who has 40 pounds on Raulerson and made two tackles in the opener against UConn. Senior Marques Johnson, who goes 6'2 and 308 pounds, is back from suspension and will also likely see some playing time.
Outside at tackle, it's unclear whether Harrison will on the left side, where he played during the spring, or at right tackle, where he transitioned in the fall. After a number of issues in pass protection that included a lack of awareness of blitzes during the Orange-White game, it seems that a spot on the right side would best suit Harrison.
At linebacker, there's no more Kyle Van Noy for BYU, which should make both Harrison and Estelle happy, but monster junior Bronson Kaufusi has transitioned from defensive end to Van Noy's old outside linebacker position this season and could give either or both some trouble.
At 6'7 and 263 pounds, Kaufusi is a jumbo player even for a 4-3 defensive end, much less a 3-4 linebacker, but he's also a freakish athlete who can cover a remarkable amount of ground and he proved that he's well suited to the position after recording two sacks and two quarterback hurries against the Cavaliers.
The good news for Texas is that if Harrison can't get the job done, junior Marcus Hutchins had a solid game in his first significant action as a Longhorn playing left tackle last week, so he actually appears to be a legitimate option moving forward and could challenge Harrison for playing time.
Both Estelle and Perkins also turned in strong performances against North Texas and neither made significant mistakes, but Flowers and junior back-up guard Taylor Doyle will have to clean up some issues in pass protection to avoid giving BYU defensive ends Remington Peck and Logan Taele.
North Texas featured an inexperienced and undersized defensive line, so adequate efforts against the Mean Green may not translate especially well to the type of performances that would allow the Horns to beat the Cougars on Saturday, but it wasn't the worst-case scenario with the exception of losing Epinosa.
Wickline has his work cut out for him building this offensive line basically from scratch, but he had to do the same thing at Oklahoma State in 2010 and eventually had success in replacing four starters.
So it might not all come together by the BYU game this weekend, but rest assured that the inexperienced group will get better every week.