Blalock, Sendlein, Studdard anchor Horns' line

AUSTIN, Texas -- With all the collective angst about replacing Vince Young, Texas coach Mack Brown has one comforting bit of solace as he prepares his Longhorns to defend their national championship.

Either Colt McCoy or Jevan Snead should have an easier time than most developing quarterbacks this season. Whoever emerges as Texas' starter could have the ultimate security blanket of playing behind the Longhorns' offensive line.

Three starters return from last year's starting group that Brown called the best offensive line he had ever coached. That group helped the Longhorns rank second nationally in rushing, producing 5.9 yards per carry, and allowed only 13 sacks.

It has also provided both young quarterbacks a huge sense of relief as they prepare to challenge for the starting job.

"It gives you a lot of confidence knowing those guys are out there," Snead said. "Any time you are surrounded by that great of a supporting cast, you don't worry."

McCoy, who watched the line last season from the Texas bench during his redshirt season, almost sounded like pledge Kent "Flounder" Dorfman from "Animal House" when asked about the chance to play with the Longhorns' current line.

"This is great," McCoy said, smiling broadly after being asked the question. "I have all the time in the world back there. It was unbelievable watching those guys. I couldn't ask for anything more."

Even the loss of All-American tackle Jonathan Scott and guard Will Allen, two three-year starters who combined for 76 starts, hasn't punctured the confidence that this Texas O-line could become the equal of last year's unit.

"We had 11-win seasons without Vince, so this program has not always been about Vince," Brown said. "We've told our guys, 'Vince was great. But programs aren't built on only one player.' You've got to have a great offensive line. We do think with him leaving, it will motivate our players to play better."

Returning starters Kasey Studdard, Lyle Sendlein and Justin Blalock all received all-conference mention last season. And all are energized about the challenge of matching last season's deeds -- with or without Young at the controls.

"We're excited about proving that Vince wasn't our whole team," Studdard said. "We want to show that we can do it, too. Nothing against Vince, but a lot of people are doubting that we can do anything as an offense. And I want to show them we're a good team without him."

The genesis for this group's attitude came shortly after Studdard and Blalock arrived in Texas' 2002 recruiting class.

Before then, Texas' offense had a soft reputation that stemmed from its inability to dominate in the trenches -- particularly in its biggest games against teams like Oklahoma and in bowl games.

"We talked about it when we arrived," Studdard said. "But I played with these guys in the Army All-American game and knew from there that's how our class would be. And once we started playing more, we knew we would be a physical team and play hard-nosed football."

Blalock, a potential Outland Trophy candidate who nearly declared for the NFL draft after last season, keys the line. He eventually made his decision to return -- which he announced at the Longhorns' national title celebration -- because he felt Texas had a chance to contend for another title.

Blalock, a dominant tackle, has experimented during preseason camp with playing at guard to replace Allen on the right side. It is his first substantial work at the position since he was a member of the scout team as a freshman.

"I really don't care where I play," Blalock said. "At the end, it's just the best combination of five guys you can get on the field. It doesn't bother me to play guard or tackle. I feel confident that wherever I play, we'll play at a high level. And as long as that's going on, it doesn't really matter to me where I play."

The surprise of training camp has been 6-foot-8, 290-pound redshirt freshman Adam Ulatoski, who has emerged as a leading candidate to start at right tackle. His quick assimilation would allow Blalock to switch to right guard to replace Allen.

Ulatoski has proved himself to his teammates in at least one factor. He's measured up in eating contests with the other linemen while living with Studdard and tight end Neale Tweedie over the summer.

"We give him a little bit of flak because of the way he eats," Sendlein said. "I think he coats mayonnaise and ranch dressing on everything he puts in his mouth. He'll throw it on anything he can -- even pizza -- just so he can out-fat you."

If Blalock remains at tackle, Cedric Dockery will get more playing time at guard. Dockery's brother, Derrick, is a former Texas All-American and is a current member of the Washington Redskins.

Both Sendlein and Studdard have long family histories with the Longhorns, too. Studdard's father, David, played offensive tackle for Texas during 1975-77 before a 10-year career in the NFL. And Sendlein's dad, Robin, was a Longhorn during 1977-80 before an eight-year NFL career.

Tony Hills, who once was the nation's top tight end prospect, has assumed the starting job at left tackle after boosting his weight by 40 pounds since high school.

"Tony gave up the dream a long time ago," Blalock said, chuckling. "He really fought it. But we told him there's a lot more money to be made at offensive tackle and he's coming along."

Blalock becomes the third notable Texas offensive lineman who played a senior season after wavering about the draft. Both Leonard Davis and Mike Williams used all of their college eligibility before becoming top-four picks in the NFL draft the following season.

Coming back has its challenges for Blalock, who will be counted on to help provide guidance for the new starters.

"It's probably the hardest thing in football to get five people play in a unit like that," he said. "You can have superstar talent players, but unless they are playing as a unit, it's all for naught. It didn't come for us last year until early in the season. I'm hopeful it will be the same way this year."

But the continuity from the three returning starters in the middle of the line can't hurt.

"Me and Kasey and Justin have played together for almost four years, and you can't really put a value on having that," Sendlein said. "We know almost everything about each other, when to help each other out. It really benefits us out there."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.