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Texas O-line injuries stunt growth

AUSTIN, Texas -- Despite Texas' new spread, up-tempo offense, coach Mack Brown has insisted at every turn that his team still wants to have a physical running attack.

This, of course, might lead one to believe Texas had previously been physical. The Longhorns have not. Not when it mattered. Texas rushed for less than four yards a carry in its four losses, and when it faced any team with equal or slightly lesser talent along the defensive line -- TCU, Oklahoma and Kansas State -- it did not manage to gain 100 yards.

"I didn't like the fact that we couldn't line up and run it when we wanted to in some games, and those were the four losses," Brown said. "Most of the year we were able to do that."

Texas isn't about being able to win games most of the year, though. Brown knows that better than anyone. He is, after all, the coach who set that standard.

The offensive line, despite having four players who have started 90 percent of the games in the last two years and another tackle who started 11 of 13 in 2012, has not lived up to that standard. So it would be logical to assume changes could be on the horizon. Or maybe not.

Texas, which wanted to mix and match as well as push and prod the offensive line this spring, has been stung with injuries that have forced any drastic changes to be put on hold.

First there was Trey Hopkins' leg injury in the Kansas State game. The two-year starter is watching spring practice but not participating. Then right tackle Josh Cochran, another two-year starter, fractured his lower leg last week. Camrhon Hughes, a player Texas had high hopes for last spring, is still out with a torn ACL he suffered while playing basketball last June. And Desmond Harrison, the junior college left tackle Texas is counting on to make an immediate impact, will not be on campus until the summer. So what Texas has to work with this spring is not exactly what it will want to put on the field in the fall.

Brown, because he is paid to do so and is ever the optimist, was able to put a positive spin on the offensive line situation.

"It's great that we are being forced in a way to play [Sedrick] Flowers and [Kennedy] Estelle now with the group that has already played," he said.

And that is great. Both need the work. Hopkins and Cochran are veterans and smart players, so it doesn't really hurt those players, as individuals, to be out. Curtis Riser is getting some much-needed work. Plus Texas is all about building a two deep, and this could help that.

The thing is, it helps in every spot except the one where Texas desperately needs two deep -- center.

Right now Texas has Dominic Espinosa, a much-maligned two-year starter, as the starter at center. Behind him is Garrett Porter, a senior who has bounced around the line, has never started a game and still doesn't appear to be a viable option. Then there is Jake Raulerson, a hard-charging freshman who has the want to but does not yet have the required experience or weight to play center.

Had Hopkins been healthy it is possible he could have at least been tested at center. He's cerebral, has a lower center of gravity and gets good leverage. At the least, Texas would have had a look at him before August.

Donald Hawkins, a tackle last season, would have worked at guard in Hopkins' place. Hawkins is expected to move to guard anyway to make room for Harrison. But since Cochran went down Hawkins has to stay at tackle because Texas is so thin at that position. Therefore Hawkins is spending most of the spring at a position he will not be playing in the fall.

Exacerbating the problem is that Texas has to be two deep by the fall in order to keep guys fresh for the up-tempo offense.

"If we are going to stay out there 85 to 90 plays, which I hope we do, you are going to need some backups in August and September," Brown said. "I want to have a bunch to just go out there and go without a big dropoff."

And even Brown knows, right now, there are issues with that.

"I think what we are going to find is our backup offensive line is not where it needs to be," he said.

What Texas is finding out right now is that it has five players -- Flowers, Estelle, Espinosa, Hawkins and Mason Walters -- healthy and practicing who will be on the two deep next year. (Riser might be a sixth). So that means in August, in the midst of fine-tuning preparations to do better than 9-4 and be physical yet up-tempo against teams that flat–out pushed Texas around last season, the Longhorns will be forced to be mixing and matching positions and players along the line.

"If you take a Harrison, maybe a freshman and maybe a Camrhon Hughes with the two that are hurt (Hopkins and Cochran) along with what we have starting right now, that is working in the right direction," Brown said. "Then you hope one of these others steps up and has something happen for them."

If that hope doesn't turn into a reality, Texas might not have many changes happening for it along the offensive line.