Longhorn football boss Mack Brown said before the season that he wanted the Texas offensive line — which returned all five starters and the most career starts of any team in the country — to make the leap from good to great. And while they haven't made it there just yet, the line certainly looked great in Texas's last outing, a 36-20 win over Oklahoma.
Taking that and bottling it — take out Texas's final kneel-down and the Longhorns rushed for 256 yards on 59 carries while not allowing a single sack against a good defense — will be huge for the offense moving forward. It bears mentioning that the same offensive line that struggled at times with the speed, twists and stunts of defenses like Ole Miss and Iowa State easily handled a defense with as much, if not more, speed in the front seven.
Generally speaking, Texas has done a nice job in pass protection this year, with the Longhorns allowing nine sacks this season. Four of those sacks, for minus 26 yards, came in one game, against BYU, which was probably the best front seven that the Longhorns will face this year. In the other five games, Texas has been sacked a total of five times for minus 21 yards. That means that in those five games, Texas has only lost about four yards per game to sacks.
A big part of the season's success has been the Longhorns' increased depth. Injuries to Josh Cochran and Mason Walters not only haven't been catastrophic, but they've allowed future players like Kennedy Estelle (for Cochran) and Sedrick Flowers (for Walters) to shine in a big way. And while Desmond Harrison hasn't found his footing just yet, he's been able to get some time here or there, which should help him for next season.
But the biggest factor in the 'Horns favor has been the development of the left side into a dominant one. Trey Hopkins was a second-team All-Big 12'er a year ago, and this year, he looks like a first-team selection. And Donald Hawkins — though he gets too many penalties — has been a force, helping fans to forget that Harrison's season was essentially clipped by academic politics. Together, they form a tenacious duo in the running game, essentially caving in the right side of the Kansas State line that later held Baylor's Lache Seastrunk in check. And they're both blessed with excellent mobility, a big part of the reason Case McCoy's jersey has largely been kept clean.
Dominic Espinosa has been a revelation at center as well. Espinosa always did more things right than he got credit for — he's terrific at making reach blocks that Texas's zone-blocking scheme asks him to do, and his ability to get to the second level and get a hat on a player in space is also outstanding. But the knock on him was always physicality … the Longhorn running game could be significantly slowed by putting a nose tackle head-up on Espinosa and watching him whip the smaller center, driving him backward. For the most part, that hasn't happened this year, and Espinosa logged an excellent game against Oklahoma, despite the fact that the Sooners tried that approach.
Walters has fought through some nagging injuries at right guard that have troubled him a bit in space at times. He remains a beast when he locks onto his opponents with great pop and fantastic strength, though he can be exploited at times in space. This happened multiple times with Iowa State up front, though the Cyclones are lightning-quick at defensive tackle and had arguably the league's fastest middle linebacker in Jeremiah George.
When Walters couldn't go, or even when he just needed a break, Flowers was more than able to step in. Flowers is significantly more athletic, and while he lacks Walters's experience, he projects as a likely starting guard for next year, and one that the Longhorns should be very excited to have.
That leaves the spot at right tackle, where Cochran's shoulder injury cut short a potential promising year, at least to this point. Estelle has been strong in relief, and while he's basically learning on his feet, and while he's a more natural left tackle than right tackle, Estelle has shown some intriguing play as a run blocker. His cut of the backside defensive tackle opened Gray's TD run against Iowa State, and his great feet show up big-time when Texas zone runs to his side.
Texas loses three of those starters next year — Hawkins, Hopkins and Walters — but the return of a healthy Cochran and continued development of Estelle, Flowers and Harrison could loom large. Of course, that doesn't account for some of the talent Texas has coming up through the pipeline like Kent Perkins (who may start next year), Darius James and Rami Hammad. All could be factors next season, as could Curtis Riser.
But all of that's in the future. For now, Texas has to keep getting better up-front, and if the right side can start to catch up to what has become an outstanding left, the Longhorns should be able to run the ball on anybody, while protecting whoever the quarterback is.