AUSTIN, Texas -- You’re not supposed to mess with a good thing, right?
Texas’ offensive line is as experienced as any in the country this fall. All five starters return and have a combined 124 career starts under their oversized belts.
So why is each of them at risk of losing their jobs? Because, in 2013, Texas thinks it has a chance to have not just a good offensive line, but a great one.
“If one of these guys coming in is better than the starters, we will replace them, without question,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “And they know that. We’ve told them that.”
Seniors Mason Walters (38 career starts), Trey Hopkins (29) and Donald Hawkins (11) and juniors Dominic Espinosa (26) and Josh Cochran (20) enter fall camp as the incumbents and received nearly all of the first-team reps in the Longhorns’ first two days of practice this week.
But for the first time in his tenure at Texas, third-year offensive line coach Stacy Searels has options. He’s wanted 10 offensive linemen he can lean on, 10 he can trust. Thanks to two years of strong recruiting, the cupboard is now well-stocked.
The star of that two-year talent infusion could very well be a lineman who arrived in Austin only three weeks ago: Desmond Harrison.
He’s never put on pads for the Longhorns, and the sum total of his experience in the program is one fall practice. But the 6-foot-8, 310-pound offensive tackle is already the talk of fall camp after wowing his new teammates.
“He is huge. He’s a massive human being,” Hopkins said. “Probably the only person I’ve seen stand next to Mason and make him kind of look short.”
If the touted transfer from Contra Costa (Calif.) College is everything he’s hyped up to be, Harrison could become the starting left tackle by the end of the month. If that’s the case, the rest of the line would be in for a reshuffling.
Hawkins, a junior college transfer last year, could move from left tackle to guard, prompting Hopkins to take over the center duties. Or he could bump off Cochran for the right tackle job. Or he could get benched.
“Your position could change, and you could be second- or third-string really quick,” Walters said. “The guys we have here now really want to play. We have a lot of bodies and talent right now. I love it. We want to be as good as possible, and you have to have somebody pushing you.”
Harrison isn’t the only threat. Brown and Searels have high hopes for four true freshmen who have a serious shot a cracking the two-deep.
“This recruiting class for offensive linemen could be one of the best offensive line classes ever before they finish at Texas,” Brown said. “I can’t wait to see them when we put the pads on. I’m really excited about them. We haven’t been able to find these guys and get these guys on campus like this. It’s going to be fun to watch them. Don’t know how soon that will be, but our future is very bright there.”
Kent Perkins is already working as the second-string right tackle. Guards Darius James and Rami Hammad and center Jake Raulerson lined up with the third-team offense Tuesday. Several could be worthy of serious playing time this fall.
If they are good enough, that puts Searels in somewhat of a difficult position. How does he explain to three seniors and two juniors that the freshmen must play?
Walters and the rest of the veteran linemen have been through a lot together. When Searels arrived in the spring of 2011, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound guard was one of only seven scholarship linemen in the program. He’s started 38 straight games because Texas really had no choice. He and Hopkins have lined up together for 25 of Texas’ last 26 games.
“[Hopkins has] grunted at me before and I knew exactly what he was saying,” Walters said. “That’s just with all of us. You can tap somebody on the shoulder at a certain time and we all know what to look for on certain plays.”
They share that bond with Cochran and Espinosa, both of whom started as true freshmen. Through the good times and the bad these past two years, they survived together. There has to be some intangible value to that.
But the veterans know this is a meritocracy. Searels had six offensive linemen he trusted in crunch time last season. He needs more than that. The added depth comes at a critical time, when an up-tempo scheme will require more rotating to keep the line fresh and effective.
No matter what, Searels needs 10 good men. And that’s only going to make his five starters work even harder.
“Our togetherness is big, and I think that helps with the guys who have been around for a while,” Walters said. “But at the same time, Coach Searels has definitely made it clear he’ll play the five best.”