Texas returns all five starters from an offensive line that had its moments in 2012, overpowering lesser competition and struggling at times against equal competition. But two of those starters — Trey Hopkins and Josh Cochran — were injured and have missed the spring. Hopkins was the Longhorns' best lineman a year ago, and his spot would appear to be safe. But Cochran might be another story, with incoming tackle Desmond Harrison figuring to plug into the starting lineup somewhere when he arrives this summer. Sedrick Flowers has worked with the first team in Hopkins's absence, while emerging tackle Kennedy Estelle has been in Cochran's spot on the right. Both have shown their moments, though neither is likely to start this season.
By far the most intriguing development this spring has been the play of Dominic Espinosa. Long considered the weak link of the offensive line, Espinosa has put together a strong spring, buoyed by the fact that he has finally been able to go through a full offseason of weights training. In the past, Espinosa was blown too easily off the ball by bigger nose tackles, something Texas coach Mack Brown said could be attributed to the fact that the oft-injured center had to hold out of weights training to heal up a variety of training. But now, Espinosa is showing more pop at the point of attack, as well as more confidence.
And that means that the line isn't likely to undergo any big changes. While many before looked at a potential Hopkins-to-center move, Hopkins will now likely keep his spot opposite experienced right guard Mason Walters. Walters has been a decent-to-good lineman the past few years, and now, Brown said, the goal is for him to turn the corner into greatness. If he can do that, the Longhorns will have one of the most loaded interior line groups in the league.
Things aren't quite as locked-in at tackle, where two of Donald Hawkins, Cochran and Harrison figure to win the starting job. If Harrison can perform as advertised, he might slide right in at left tackle, leaving Hawkins and Cochran to fight it out on the right side.
Whichever way that turns out, offensive line coach Stacy Searels hasn't typically been shy about using rotating pieces to keep linemen fresh and keep the opposing defensive line on its heels.
MOVING ON UP — Estelle
This could change as soon as this summer, when an outstanding offensive line class that includes college-ready bodies Darius James, Kent Perkins and Rami Hammad, arrives on campus. And Estelle could even be pushed by classmate Camrhon Hughes, whose body looks outstanding after sitting out last year with an injury. But for now, Estelle has shown plenty of flashes while working with the ones, including the athleticism to think that he could be a factor in the next few years at the position.
KEEP AN EYE ON — Flowers
Again, this could change this summer. But Flowers has a ton of ability that he's just now starting to harness at the guard spot. And while that won't lead to a starting job this year, with two guard spots opening up a year from now, Flowers has the size and athleticism to be a plus player at the position. As always, the key for Flowers is consistency. He can look like an All-Pro on some plays, then look like a second-teamer on others.
Also keep an eye on Curtis Riser. Riser lacks Flowers's physical gifts, but with Texas moving to more of a spread attack, there's something to be said for Riser's steadiness and ability to handle pass-rushers in space. He just needs to continue to get stronger, and then he'll have to hold off a bevy of talented younger players.
Spring injuries often come equipped with a silver lining. No, nobody likes for injuries to occur. But if they won't last until the season starts, it gives younger players a chance to get more repetitions, especially on the first team, where their intensity has to ratchet up a notch or two. That could be especially important for somebody like Flowers, who has the makings of a very good player if he puts it all together. And while Estelle probably won't battle for a starting job this season, he could be ready in a year or two.
Texas returns every starter from a year ago, and four of the five returnees are multi-year starters. That's the kind of experience that can often take a line from good-to-great, and that's before accounting for the influx of talent coming from younger players and the transfer of Harrison.
The Longhorns have long been trying to build up that second team offensive line to where there isn't a sizable drop-off, and it's fair to say that in just a few years' time, Searels has massively upgraded the talent through the offensive line pipeline. Texas's third-team group is probably stronger than its second-team line a couple years ago, and that kind of depth, and the ability to absorb injuries, could pay huge dividends this season and beyond.