A team is only as good as its front line, a wave of experienced starters ready to supply leadership in the offseason and in the locker room, while providing the difference between winning and losing close games. But a program is only as strong as the next men up, the players who will be called upon after those front-line the year that those experienced players leave.
One-by-one, we're looking at each position on the Texas team, looking only at the sophomores, freshmen and committed recruits for the future. Up now, the tight ends.
One of the high points of the coaching changes that Texas coach Mack Brown spearheaded after the 2010 season was the addition of offensive line coach Stacy Searels. Take a look at the sophomores-and-under that Searels didn't recruit — Sedrick Flowers may yet be a hit, but Taylor Doyle, Garrett Greenlea and Marcus Hutchins all have the look of career backups (to be fair, now-junior Josh Cochran was also in that 2011 class). Then, look at Searels's first full class: JUCO transfer Donald Hawkins (starter), Kennedy Estelle (started this spring when Cochran was out) and the future seems bright for guys like Camrhon Hughes as he returns from injury and top backup Curtis Riser. Add in a stellar 2013 class, and Searels has definitely earned his pay so far.
Flowers is the lone holdover who is a sophomore or younger who appears set to have a major impact. A former Army All-American, Flowers wowed with his agility and athleticism in high school, even doing the splits at Army practices. But Flowers, who is now well over 300 pounds, struggled to find consistency the past few seasons. He did a much better job this spring, and though he missed the spring game with a minor injury, the staff was quick to single him out as a young player who took a major step forward. Flowers might be first in line for a starting job after Mason Walters and Trey Hopkins graduate.
Estelle was another injury fill-in starter this spring and he performed well in Cochran's absence. He's a great athlete who could potentially work at left tackle in a couple seasons. And Riser, the state's top-rated guard in the class with Estelle, showed the ability to pass-protect in individual drills. Riser isn't a physically dominant presence, but he's technically sound and could push for a spot at guard next to Flowers.
Hughes may have the most potential out of that group because of his sheer size and nastiness. Hughes is up to 320 pounds and looks fantastic getting off the bus, but he hasn't really had a chance to show what he can do as a Longhorn after suffering an ACL tear last year.
But will Hughes ever get that chance? In order to play, he'll likely have to beat out at least one of Estelle and recent signee Kent Perkins, with Perkins being the most outstanding offensive tackle signing the Longhorns have had in the last several seasons. Perkins is an ideal tackle, powerful, athletic and nasty. In a talented young crop of linemen, he probably projects as the top overall talent.
His biggest competition for that spot might be Darius James. James was the best overall center prospect in the last few years, a 6-foot-5, 320-pounder with outstanding mobility and power. But James may never play that spot at Texas because he could also project as an elite-level guard, and pushing him there would give Texas the chance to play him as early as next year. The Longhorns grabbed another dancing-bear type guard in powerful Rami Hammad in this past class, and the thought of pairing the duo, especially in running situations, has to be appealing.
Still, don't worry about the Longhorns at center. James could swing back if needed, and Jake Raulerson enrolled early this spring to give center a shot. He's a versatile athlete who can move, but Raulerson needs to bulk up to have a spot on the OL. He was probably 260 pounds this past spring. And Texas's only offensive line commitment for 2014 is another center in Jasper's Terrell Cuney. Like Raulerson, Cuney is a bit undersized right now, but Cuney is lightning off the ball and does a great job of getting to and making the difficult angle blocks that centers often have to make.
Texas has another interior line recruit in 2015 with the commitment of Aaron Garza of Sherman (6-3 307). Early on, Garza projects as one of the top guards in that in-state crop, so his commitment was a positive sign moving forward for the Longhorns.
If there's a downside here, it's that the Longhorns could simply use a few more bodies.
Grade — B+
Like with quarterback, there's a lot to be excited about here. But while several of the above linemen have shown positive signs in spring football, none of them have proven their worth on Saturdays. That's not a knock — offensive linemen typically don't see the field until later in their careers, especially if there are decent players in front of them. But it's worth noting that several of the sophomores and freshmen above could appear on this season's two-deep, showing that they're positioning themselves to become major players in the program down the line. This is a much more talented and physical group than the Longhorns had before Searels's arrival, and he deserves an awful lot of credit for that.