By: Chris Hall
It was fall camp 2007 when my football life changed forever. The team had finished summer workouts and we were on a small, needed break. I was getting one last run when Coach McWhorter asked me to his office.
I had no idea what he was going to say. At the time I was battling for a starting spot at guard. I thought: “Whatever he has to say, he couldn’t have found me at a better time. I’m running sprints, by myself, while everyone else is on vacation — yes!” Surely that scored me points on the imaginary scoreboard in Mac McWhorter’s mind, I thought.
The news was bad news: he asked me to voluntarily play 2nd string. No, that’s not how coaches decide depth charts. But it sometimes happens for the betterment of the team. Let me explain.
We were going into camp with only one center on scholarship — Dallas Griffin. His very capable backup was suffering from lingering injury issues. Coach asked me to step back from guard, and a potential starting position, to spend fall camp learning center. The fact is, the team needed it. If Dallas got hurt, we’d be in desperate straits.
ICYMI: Dallas did get hurt, unfortunately. Good thing I had played center for all of three months prior.
The differences between guard and center are tremendous, some physical, but it’s mostly mental. The center “quarterbacks” the offensive line and gets everyone on the same page. He recognizes defenses, “IDs” linebackers, and makes blocking calls pre and mid-play. If he’s lucky, he’ll have a brain-o somewhere on the line who can correct him if he makes a mistake (ex. Adam Ulatoski).
In order to do all that, a center has to understand his offense on a high level. It’s more than memorizing plays. He needs to know what the offense is trying to accomplish as a whole. Effectively, he must know every lineman’s responsibility, on every play versus every defensive front. Even if he can’t play every position physically, he should be able to “play” every position conceptually.
All that meant I needed to study. I studied our offense like I studied for class. I learned more in two weeks at center than I had absorbed in two years at guard. The problem wasn’t McWhorter’s teaching, the problem was my prior laziness. As a young guard, I didn’t have to know who the center should ID — that was the center’s job and he always did it. I didn’t have to know when to work up on inside zone — the tackle would yell “OVER OVER OVER!” as he shoved me from behind. I could simply listen to the center and tackle, and block the big ugly in front of me if I got confused.
All that changed when I moved to center. Taylor Doyle has made that change, as well.
Doyle was stuck in the vague cycle of clean-up duty and scout team most his career. It’s a cycle that can be difficult to break out of, but when opportunity knocked Doyle answered. In the 4th year of his career he became a consistent contributor to the team.
Prior to his seven starts at center, Doyle was both a tackle and guard. The reason he moved to center: injuries. After Dom Espinosa was lost for the season, Doyle was the only lineman on the roster with center experience. He played it his junior year in high school.
Doyle enters this season on the Rimington Watch List, an award given to the nation’s best center. This is quite the cinderella story for a guy once buried on the depth chart. Much of his reputation comes from his first start at center; against the Oklahoma Sooners. Doyle was replacing a younger, smaller Jake Raulerson who had struggled with big boys inside. All day he faced an All-Big 12 nose Tackle — Jordan Phillips. That made the task all the more interesting. Doyle held up and played well, all things considered. Texas had a great day offensively though they didn’t win the game.
After watching film and evaluating Doyle this week, he’s definitely a natural guard. I’d love to see him play slightly lower, and sit in his hips more during pass protection. That might help him react with his feet rather than lunge with his head at times. He tends to ride “high in the saddle” which may be because he played in a two-point stance in high school. Sometimes massive guys get away with bad pad level, but Doyle can’t do that (especially on the inside).
The best thing Taylor does is lock on. Once he fits into a block, it’s generally over. He doesn’t let defenders ricochet off of him and stays with blocks through the whistle. He also seems to manage the game well, and Shawn Watson’s up-tempo offense will only help that. Doyle will have to make fewer calls and the defense won’t have time to shift pre-snap.
The biggest thing Taylor can improve is his athleticism. Quick feet are an offensive lineman’s best friend. Fast-twitch muscles will allow him to explode off the ball and move for position when he’s beat on an edge. That’s all to be done in the offseason, so proverbial hay is already in the barn. I’m sure Pat Moorer has done his part.
Necessity is the mother of invention; injuries make players learn new positions. All of Longhorn Nation was happy to see Doyle emerge last season in 2014. I’m excited to see how this young offensive line develops as a whole this year.