April 19, 2011

Make-or-break position: The Texas offensive line

We take a look at each position and how it performed during the spring. Today, we look at the offensive line.

THE SKINNY: We all know this could be the most cussed, discussed, scrutinized and agonized about position on the Texas Longhorns heading into the 2011 season. In 2010, it seemed like there was no room to run in the red zone or in short-yardage situations. There seemed to be false starts when drives were on the line. It's never as bad as it seems, but last year seemed to be really bad.

So it's time to move on and size up just what was accomplished (or not accomplished) in the spring as the offensive line goes under new leadership from position coach Stacy Searels, who held the same job at Georgia the past four seasons.

First of all, Searels is impressive. He tells great stories about blocking for Bo Jackson at Auburn, about playing Texas (and losing) in the 1980s and being impressed with the Longhorns, from their size and strength to the Eyes of Texas being sung after the game. He grew up in Georgia devoted to the Falcons and was a huge fan of Tommy Nobis, a first-round draft pick of the Falcons in 1966.

Searels got Nobis' autograph as a kid and wore No. 60 throughout his career because of Nobis. So he got a little thrill when Mack Brown showed him around the Texas football complex and Searels saw the photos of Nobis.
But enough of the back stories. What does Searels have to work with at Texas? By the way, Searels says he first looks for effort in a player, then attitude (he wants a nasty SOBs who think they are the baddest men on the field) and finally he wants tough, physical players who finish blocks.

Here's what we've gathered about spring practice as it pertains to the offensive line:

TREY HOPKINS, 6-4, 290, SO. -
Based on several conversations with people in and around the program, there are some now who wonder how Hopkins wasn't playing right tackle all of last year. The guy probably had the best spring of anyone on the line. He's a perfectionist who has earned the respect of his teammates. Any nitpicks with Hopkins last year were because he simply lacked experience and technique. But Hopkins is special. He's an upgrade at tackle, based on what we're hearing. He'll probably start at left tackle.

PADEN KELLEY, 6-7, 305, SO. - Kelley is coming on. He's got to play with better pad level. But he's talented, tough and wants to get better. He played pretty well in his limited action last season. This year, he knows he's the guy. He'll probably start at right tackle. He was suspended for a game last season and is regaining his coach's trust. But he can play.

DAVID SNOW, 6-4, 295, SR. - Snow has really tried to take over a leadership role. This kid is so freakin' strong, he should be a mauler. I've talked to former NFL linemen who love the measurables of Snow. It's now or never for this standout from Gilmer because he's got guys behind him who are capable of playing center like Garrett Porter and Dominic Espinosa.

MASON WALTERS, 6-6, 305, SO. - Walters came back from foot surgery last season and was part of the dreaded right side of the offensive line. But look for a much better performance from Walters in 2011. He's healthy and has been vocal and playing at a high level.

Hopkins, Kelley, Snow and Walters had the best camps of the linemen. The others graded behind those four. Here are the others ...

GARRETT PORTER, 6-6, 305, SO. - Porter has played well at center and worked a bunch there with the second team offense in spring drills because Dominic Espinosa was not able to take part in drills while injured (right shoulder). So look for Porter to get more work at guard as Espinosa returns from injury. Both Porter and Espinosa are capable of playing both positions.

TRAY ALLEN, 6-4, 310, SR.- This is a feel-good story in that Allen is battling back from a foot injury last year in his sixth season at Texas. But according to some observers, Allen isn't all the way back yet. He played a lot of left tackle in the spring game and was just OK. There are doubters as to Allen's ability to hold down the left tackle or left guard spot in a starting role.

THOMAS ASHCRAFT, 6-5, 310, SO. - Ashcraft is a big body. He has a lot of power in his trunk, but he may not have the endurance to stay out on the field in a starting role for 60 to 80 snaps. Time will tell. He should be a good role player. But if Allen and Ashcraft don't pick it up, there might be room for one of the freshmen arriving in June to move into the starting lineup at guard, such as Sedrick Flowers.

FINAL ANALYSIS: Trey Hopkins had the best spring of any of the linemen. Followed by Kelley, Snow and Walters. Porter is showing promise. After that, there is a dropoff, which tells you just how thin Texas is on the offensive line.

Dominic Espinosa, Kyle Kriegel and Luke Poehlmann missed contact drills in the spring while recovering from injuries. Mark Buchanan was out of position while trying to help fill in holes, and he struggled.

If Hopkins, Kelley, Snow and Walters can stay healthy and someone can step up and provide quality play at left guard, then this line could be better than people think.

The chemistry is good. The players relate well to Searels and feel like he communicates well with them. He engaged them in competitions all through the spring, including racing them from drill to drill to increase tempo.

The bottom line is the Texas offensive line needs a lot of things to go right in 2011 because the margin for error is so small. There is room for the five talented freshmen arriving in June (Josh Cochran, Taylor Doyle, Sedrick Flowers, Garrett Greenlea and Marcus Hutchins) to come in and shake things up with solid play.

My hunch is that Flowers will make a push at guard that could result in him getting on the field as a freshman.

The bottom line is Texas needs to upgrade the talent on the offensive line. And maybe the talent is already on campus and just needs to be coached up. A Longhorn O-lineman hasn't been drafted since Tony Hills was taken in the fourth round in 2008 by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hills was the sixth offensive lineman drafted over an eight-year span.

This year could mark the third straight year Texas doesn't have an offensive lineman drafted (unless Kyle Hix or Michael Huey get taken late).

If everyone stays healthy, Texas has a chance to improve on the line in 2011. Searels thinks it can be a good year. That's the first step - believing.<

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