New depth means new hope for Texas offensive line

AUSTIN, Texas -- Former Texas offensive line coach Stacy Searels had a popular habit when he wasn’t happy with what he was seeing in practice. He threw his hat. His successor, Joe Wickline, doesn’t wear hats. He just gets mad.

That’s probably for the best, really. Wickline would have quickly run out of clean caps last year.

The offensive line he inherited more than a year ago became one of Texas’ greatest weaknesses, an ever-changing lineup thinned by dismissals and injuries that struggled to offer consistent protection and run-blocking.

This was line play so poor, it would make even Teddy Bridgewater look bad. So in an offseason when the Longhorns are espousing “no excuses” as their new motto, the plan for Texas’ returning linemen seems simple: Get better or get out of the way.

“We're improving every day,” offensive guard Sedrick Flowers said. “I can definitely say it's improved over what it was before. We have new guys that came in, and they're definitely looking to play. They're coming and competing. Coach Wick, he said it from the get-go: ‘It's not my job to keep you at a position. It's your job to earn that spot.’”

The new guys – two junior college transfers and two freshmen – enrolled in January and have an opportunity to make this group look very different. Tackles Connor Williams, Tristan Nickelson and Garrett Thomas and guard Brandon Hodges were exactly what Wickline wanted: tough, physical big men who came prepared to help the Longhorns immediately.

Flowers, a 13-game starter at left guard last season, can appreciate how the new blood has revived competition for starting jobs. Throughout the 2014 season, he said, Wickline promised help was on the way.

“He was like, ‘I'm bringing in some guys, and y'all are not doing your job, so I'll give the job to them.’ Numbers can only bring out the best in everybody else because your spot is not guaranteed,” Flowers said. “When you bring in other guys and they're doing better than you, then you're moved behind. That's just how it works. You get the job done or you get fired.”

It’s hard to pin all that blame on these players, though. It’s not their fault that Texas’ two most promising tackles, Desmond Harrison and Kennedy Estelle, couldn’t stay out of trouble and were dismissed early last season. Or that senior center Dominic Espinosa went down in the season opener against North Texas and was lost for the season.

From purely a numbers standpoint, Texas finished last season in rough shape. From 2011 to 2013, Longhorns signed a total of 14 offensive linemen. Only seven are still on the team. Wickline signed six on signing day this year, including incoming freshmen Patrick Vahe and Ronnie Major.

Charlie Strong has no issue with playing as many newcomers as necessary. The best guys must start, period.

“You can't be afraid to play them. Because you look at it, you just have to go play the best players and not be afraid of it,” Strong said. “And they just come in and compete. You look at Garrett Thomas and Connor Williams, two freshmen that have come in that work really hard, and it's amazing just to watch them work because they don't even say anything. They go about their business and do what you ask them to do.”

The biggest upside of the renewed competition? Flowers can see depth developing almost instantly. Regardless of experience, Texas badly needed more bodies.

“It's like night and day. We had a good, like, six last year,” Flowers said. “We'd go through practice with people dying, and then somebody would get hurt during the game and it was like, ‘Who’s going in?’ We almost have, like, three lines, and having that is a big blessing.”

From where he stands, Flowers thinks Texas’ line is looking “10 times better” than it did last fall. He’s even starting to hear the occasional compliment from Wickline, such as: “You’re doing good, but y’all still suck.”

A new-look line and a fresh start after all of last season’s frustration has to make for one happy Wickline, right?

“Wickline’s never happy,” Flowers joked. “He’s just not as mad.”