The Freshman Center

Zach Shackelford. (courtesy of Shackelford)
Zach Shackelford. (courtesy of Shackelford)

By: Chris Hall

If you don’t know who Zach Shackelford is yet, you will soon.

He’s already on campus and practicing with the team, so I’m going to throw out his 3-star recruit status. Zach’s not a recruit anymore. Things like national position rankings no longer matter in his world. He’s officially become a college football player six to eight months before other high school signees.

Enrolling early is crucial for any athlete that wants to play as a true freshman. Going through offseason, spring ball, and summer workouts gives them much more of a legitimate shot to compete. Oddly, the majority of offensive linemen wouldn’t have a shot to play early regardless.

But Shackelford, and Texas’ current offensive line situation, are unique.

Inside Texas subscribers will know more about Zach than most Longhorn fans. He was coached by Bob Shipley at Belton High School — the father of Longhorn greats Jordan and Jaxon Shipley. That experience alone must have given Shackelford a leg up on what it takes to succeed in college football.

He was also a long-time commit to Kansas State because of his admiration for Bill Snyder. And who wouldn’t be enamored? I was when he recruited me out of high school. Coach Snyder has built his legacy on finding and developing athletes like Zach. They’re usually lesser-known, little-praised, tough kids that truly love football.

Snyder always molds his teams into a methodical, disciplined, spread-offense-eating machine. Shackelford would fit the bill in Manhattan perfectly (and that’s exactly the kind of player the Longhorns continually need a healthy dose of). In short: Zach adds value.

What I wasn’t prepared to hear, though, is that Shackelford is already playing with the 1’s. In fact, he ran out as the 1st team center on the very first day of spring ball.

Think about this: Zach should be gearing up for his high school prom. He should be suffering from a serious dose of “senioritis” (a condition that causes one to hate high school). Instead, he rolls up to the 40 Acres and is given the starting job before he even puts on pads.

I was skeptical, I admit.

Although many true freshmen have earned starting jobs in college football, I couldn’t remember one being slated as a starter on the very first day of practice — especially not as on offensive linemen. (To be fair, it should be noted here that this is March and not September. Nobody has a starting job officially until Notre Dame comes to town.)

But after seeing Zach play in person, I’m no longer skeptical. This is a unique player, coming into a unique situation in the offensive line meeting room.

Remember, in the last three years Texas has lost seven offensive linemen: Curtis Riser, Darius James, Rammi Hammad, Desmond Harrison, Camrhon Hughes, Kennedy Estelle, and Jake Raulerson. These seven didn’t play out their eligibility; they transferred (or left the program) for a myriad of different reasons. That means there’s a gaping hole in offensive line depth that must be filled by young players.

Another important point here: the Longhorns have now had three offensive line coaches in three years. That’s a lot of change to navigate for everyone involved. It means every player must prove themselves to their new coach, again, for the third time. Any position or status that’s been earned must be earned all over again. This is the situation Shackelford now finds himself in.

In Mattox’s current arrangement of the first five, I think Zach is Texas’ best option at center.

Matt Mattox. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Matt Mattox. (Will Gallagher/IT)

He Looks the Part

I’m not much for looks, mainly because looks have nothing to do with production on the field. It’s very possible to “look like Tarzan and play like Jane.” Locker rooms on every level (except the NFL, I assume) are full of them. There are no famous examples because people that “play like Jane” never get famous.

That being said, Shackelford already looks the part of starting college center. He’s lean and muscular, but with enough overall mass that he won’t be easily thrown around. One of Texas’ staff members commented to me: “You sure didn’t look like that when you were a freshmen, Chris.” He’s right. I didn’t. I wouldn’t be shocked if Zach was impressive (for his age) in the weight room as well.

He Held His Own

The basic goal for any starting true freshmen is “don’t be a liability.” Nobody expects an 18-year old to dominate the world of college football. That’s why it’s so pleasantly surprising if a freshmen plays at a high level.

Watching Zach in practice, I was impressed to see he held his own against first-team defenders. He got handedly beat a few times, like most of the offensive linemen — but that’s to expected because he should still be at Belton High. The fact that he could engage, not get obliterated, even win a round at this point is unexpected.

He’s Not Scared

When you watch Zach’s high school film, the first thing that jumps off the screen is his tenacity. He plays with aggression, fire, and consistently buries defensive ends and linebackers (a.k.a. “pancakes”). I was delighted to see that aspect of his game translate on the 40 Acres so quickly.

Not that I didn’t expect him to be aggressive on the collegiate level — I was pleased to see he wasn’t playing tentative. No one would blame him if he was slightly overwhelmed by his first day in pads at Texas. Shackelford may have felt that way on the inside, but his play didn’t show it when someone (who shall remain nameless) wanted to fight after the play was over.

I loved seeing the 18-year old Shackelford not back down, willing to mix it up, and come right back after this guy the next play.

Don’t expect Zach to be King Kong next year. Realistically, it would be great if his position was not a liability in conference play (and that’s a steep goal). But the future is bright for this young man. I’m excited about what might come of this offensive line 2017 and beyond. (Note to other incoming freshmen offensive linemen: come ready to compete.)