Earlier, we broke down the wide receivers, arguably the best group on the team for current and future potential. But if there's one position that gives the receivers a run for their money, it's on the offensive line.
Why is that? Because three consecutive recruiting classes landed the Longhorns the state's top guard (Sedrick Flowers), top guard and tackle (Curtis Riser, Kennedy Estelle) and top center-guard-tackle (Jake Raulerson, Darius James, Kent Perkins), along with a potential high-round NFL Draft pick in JUCO tackle Desmond Harrison. And that doesn't count the Longhorns again grabbing the state's top center in Jasper's Terrell Cuney for 2014, which we'll get to in a moment.
On the surface, Texas loses quite a bit from 2013 in left tackle Donald Hawkins, left guard Trey Hopkins and right guard Mason Walters, all three multi-year starters. Of those three, Walters will be the easiest to replace, with Flowers seeing time for the banged-up Walters this year, and generally rotating through and playing a number of snaps. He was especially strong in goal-line situations, and now he'll have a chance to step forward and make his mark as a former top prospect.
Flowers adds another player with starting experience to center Dominic Espinosa, heading into his fourth year as a starter, and right tackle Estelle, who will miss the Valero Alamo Bowl for academic reasons. And then there's Josh Cochran, who started a year ago and started this season as the guy at right tackle before injuring his shoulder and eventually bumping down to tight end. Cochran is expected to add weight to get back to tackle, though it remains to be seen how much the Longhorns will get from a player with a long-term issue like that.
But even with the return of Estelle, he may well get pushed by Perkins, arguably the highest-potential young lineman on the team. Estelle may have a bit more athleticism, but Perkins has much more power at the point of attack, making him an ideal right tackle candidate.
And Harrison, who was expected to play more this season, and potentially win Texas's starting left tackle job, may have the most overall potential. He should be the Day One starter at left tackle next year, with his big frame, long arms and nasty disposition making him a favorite. The general feeling was that Harrison might have pulled that off this season, if not for his academic issues with BYU, and later a nagging injury that kept him from getting the early reps, both in games and practices, that he needed. That won't be a problem next season.
That leaves an enticing battle for the open guard spot between the incredibly talented James, Riser and Rami Hammad, who the coaches really liked before he missed the latter part of the season with an injury. With a new staff, it's anybody's guess how that battle will play out, though it shouldn't be a surprise to see James get the nod there. Of course, that doesn't account for what happens if Estelle beats out Perkins … the new staff could elect to slide Perkins to a guard spot to get him on the field, then bump him back out to tackle after Harrison graduates.
Cuney is the lone offensive line commitment for 2014, and he's said that he might hedge on that commitment if offensive line coach Stacy Searels isn't retained. At this point, expect him to stick, as the possibility of redshirting a first year and then battling to be the starter in his second year, with Raulerson, is a pretty nice carrot to dangle.
And the Longhorns have done an incredible job with their early 2015 recruiting at the position. Maea Teuhema is the consensus No. 1 offensive lineman in the state, and could provide a mauling guard after Flowers checks out, or even a right tackle in the right setup. Patrick Vahe could play any of the three interior spots and is probably the state's No. 2 lineman. And Connor Lanfear may well be No. 3. Aaron Garza doesn't seem to have the upside that those three have, but he's a block of granite who won't be outworked.
In all, Texas has a nice mix of experience, upper-tier talent and youth to develop up and down the line. And that's something the new staff will be incredibly grateful for.