By: Chris Hall
The Orange-White game is, oh, so close.
I relish the opportunity to watch actual football even if the outcome of the “game” means absolutely nothing. I’m going to try and watch all of college football’s televised spring games over the summer months and evaluate the offensive lines. Yes, this would actually be fun for me and because of the wonders of technology (i.e. YouTube) this kind of thing is feasible.
As I often do here at Inside Texas, I’d like to turn our collective attention to the “hog mollies” up front. Year one will be big for new offensive line coach Matt Mattox; he has a young unit full of budding talent with at least one seasoned veteran in senior Kent Perkins. Who can forget last year’s two freshmen All-Americans, Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe? These three provide a strong foundation for what the offense wants to do as a whole in 2016 — but remember, on the offensive line you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
This post will be a brief overview of each player in the projected starting five, and where their potential development (i.e. “ceiling”) could be by the end of next fall.
Connor Williams (LT)
Connor is the type of player who could develop into a 1st round draft pick by the time he’s done at Texas. His body type, his technique, his play on the field — he has the potential to be a Jake Long in the future. In saying that, I don’t want to set the expectations for him so high. Williams is not a failure if he doesn’t get drafted #1 overall in 2019. All I’m saying is, the sky is the limit for what he might become.
In 2016, Connor needs to further solidify himself as the anchor of Texas’ offensive line. Keeping the blindside of Swoopes/Heard/Buechele safe is an important task. I expect Connor to lead with excellent play on the field, particularly, and build upon last year’s stellar freshman campaign. He may experience a sophomore slump at some point — these things happen. But if all goes well, I don’t see why he couldn’t finish second team All-Big 12.
Some of you will scoff at me: “Why not 1st team?”
There’s no reason he can’t, other than it’s really hard. In 2015, not a single underclassmen earned first or second team All-Big 12 on the offensive line. Anything all-conference as a sophomore would be quite the accomplishment for Williams (or any player for that matter).
Brandon Hodges (LG)
At 6-foot-4, 300 plus pounds, Hodges looks every part of a starting guard in the Big 12. That being said, he’s playing like a first-time starter right now because that’s what he is — a first-time starter. That’s normal.
Texas quickly needs Hodges to become wise beyond his years, though, because of a true freshmen playing beside him at center named Zach Shackelford. This is kind of like when the oldest child doesn’t get to be a “child” very long because they’re responsible for taking care of their younger sibling. It would be nice if Brandon got to settle in and learn from veterans playing on either side of him. Instead, Hodges will have to adjust on the run and own the roles of student and teacher simultaneously.
If Hodges is formidable enough at left guard not to be a liability, enough so that center is the only position fans worry about on 3rd and long, that should be considered a win.
Knowing that Texas’ most experienced interior lineman will be Patrick Vahe, with all of 12 starts, defensive coordinators will be diabolically creative in passing situations — expect twists, slants, and inside blitzes. If Hodges seems lost amid the chaos Texas will try spinning Kent Perkins inside (as the Longhorns were forced to do at times last year). Hodges doesn’t have to be great, he just needs to be confident in knowing what he’s responsible for and executing.
Zach Shackelford (C) – read here.
Patrick Vahe (RG)
Vahe was an ESPN freshman All-American, and confusingly, earned the lowest grade of any freshmen guard in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus. How those two respected publications can have diametrically opposed evaluations of a player’s season is baffling. In any case, starting on a Big 12 offensive line as a true frosh is impressive in and of itself. Vahe was also Texas’ best guard last year (at least while Perkins was playing outside at tackle) despite the low grade from PFF.
Everyone loves Vahe’s passion and competitiveness; his hair and celebratory Haka endear him all the more to the Longhorn fanbase.
But, Vahe still has a lot of room to develop as an offensive lineman. He particularly needs to become a “technician” to grow as a football player in 2016; this is where his game currently suffers. He has the look, the size, the intensity — but he needs to “hone his craft” as an offensive lineman to become the total package. If Vahe can improve a few things (hand placement, footwork, punch in pass protection, football IQ) he could become a road grader behind which Texas’ power running game lives and thrives.
Also, I have a hunch he may become a vocal leader for the offense in the next two years. That would be good a thing.
Kent Perkins (RT)
This Texas unit’s true veteran; sadly, the only signee remaining from the Longhorns banner OL recruiting class of 2013.
“Perk” is a utility player that can play inside at guard and outside at tackle, a more difficult task than you may think. Being adept at multiple positions will only make him more attractive to the NFL this time next year. Although he seems more a natural fit at the guard position (and Texas will utilize him there some next season) Perk is Texas’ best option at tackle after Connor Williams. So, he’s a valuable man.
Perk needs to become a visible leader of Texas’ offense. He’s a rarity on the offensive side of the ball in recent years for the Longhorns: a seasoned, multi-year returning starter who has valuable experience to offer younger players. Leaders have to consistently play well (over years of time) to earn the respect of the team, and Perk has. He could end up being a hidden driving force of success for the offense in new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s first year.
I want to see Perkins go beyond getting better as an individual player; I want to see him become a piston the engine of this Texas offense depends on to fire and go. He could be the right player, at the right time, saying the right things, and making the right plays. It may be wishful thinking; but if all of that happens, I don’t see why he couldn’t finish his senior year with All-Big 12 honors.
Tristan Nickelson (3rd Tackle)
I wanted to finish this post with Nickelson, who is not currently slated in the starting five but could be by the fall. Tristan is the third tackle, meaning, if something were to happen to Connor Williams or Kent Perkins, Tristan would be step in.
I’m intrigued to see whether Tristan will play his way into the starting lineup or not. If coach Mattox ever felt more confident in Tristan than Brandon Hodges, Hodges would step out, Vahe would move over to LG, Perkins would move down to RG, and Tristan would step in. Whether that happens all depends on how both Tristan and Hodges play.
One plus: Shackelford would have more support with senior Perkins at his right side. Also, Nickelson would have the benefit of working with veteran Perkins on his left side. For that reason I like the potential of this arrangement. Who the best five are and how they’ll be arranged is a puzzle coach Mattox has to solve by the Notre Dame game. September 4th is many months away, as is conference play, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the offensive line shuffled in the mean time.
For Tristan, his goal should be to play well enough to break into the starting lineup. If Mattox can trust Tristan to not be a liability (and judging from last year, I think that’s possible) Longhorn fans could see his 6-foot-8 frame protecting the edge. The Spring game will tell us more.