In the Trenches

The skill positions receive the attention and the glory, but as the axiom that's as old as the sport itself goes: The game of football is won in the trenches. Inside Texas takes a look at the Longhorns' offensive and defensive lines to see if Texas will be able to dominate the line of scrimmage in 2008.

Poor Chris Hall.

As lineman after lineman went down due to injury, the then-sophomore blocker ran back and forth between positions trying to fill in the gaps in a quickly thinning offensive line.

Yet, he never complained. Each time he talked about his rapidly changing role, Hall would always flash that trademark grin of his and talk about how much he loves his teammates or his coaches or the University.

"It's just a blast to play ball here at the University of Texas," Hall told IT last season. "I tell ya, one of the great advantages of getting to play some different positions is it gives you a bigger perspective of what the offensive line is doing."

But while Hall never gave any public complaints about his role on the team, his movement was indicative of the major problems on the Texas offensive line in 2007. Both of Texas' senior leaders, center Dallas Griffin and left tackle Tony Hills, were each lost for the season due to injury. Texas' massive right tackle, the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Adam Ulatoski, missed two games because of an elbow injury and was hampered for much of the season. Right guard Cedric Dockery had to be eased into the start of the season because of his recovery from an ACL tear.

The lines clash (Will Gallgaher/Inside Texas)
And as Hall was forced to vacate one spot for another, a true freshman would step up behind him. Kyle Hix, Michael Huey and Tray Allen all received significant playing time as true freshmen and center Buck Burnette, a redshirt freshman at the time, appeared in all 13 games.

Youth, depth issues and the lack of a consistent unit all contributed to Texas' problems on the offensive line, which in turn caused problems elsewhere. Quarterback Colt McCoy is best known for his accuracy, but as a sophomore he lobbed 18 interceptions to the opposition and many of them were the direct result of pressure. On top of that, it wasn't until late in the season that the running game managed to become a viable threat. Much of this was because of Jamaal Charles' improvement, but musical chairs offensive line wasn't helping much.

It collectively created a line that was exceptionally talented, but struggled to play as unit.

The defensive line, on the other hand, faired much better in 2007. Although it was not free from injury, the big one being defensive end Brian Orakpo, the line held solid throughout the year. The best indication of this was how well Texas held up against the run.

The Longhorns ended the 2007 season ranked No. 6 in the nation in run defense, giving up on 93.4 yards per game and holding opponents to an average of 2.86 yards per carry.

By that measure, Texas' defensive line could be considered a dominant unit last season...assuming that's the only measure. While opponents struggled to run the ball against the Horns, passing proved little problem and a lack of consistent pressure from the defensive line was part of the problem. Texas ranked 109th in the nation in pass defense (277.77 ypg) and sitting 54th in sacks (28.0) didn't help.

But Texas being strong against the run and weak against the pass fell in line with the Horns' available personnel. Defensive tackle was undoubtedly the strength. Frank Okam, Derek Lokey and Thomas Marshall were all seniors. Add to that a powerful Roy Miller and you've got one of the best run-stopping lines in the country.

On the flip-side, the injuries on the D-line that did occur were primarily at end -- such as Eddie Jones and the above-mention Orakpo -- and it was a much younger, more raw position.

Both the offensive and defensive lines were inconsistent but in different ways (inconsistent in their inconsistencies, as it were). The offensive line swung from good to bad as the quickly shuffling players tried to gel. The defensive line was steady in its ways all season, but that steady state was simply being bad in one area and phenomenal in another.

So, what will we see from each in 2008?

On the defensive line, what we may see is a complete reversal from last season in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

This year, defensive end could be the strongest position on the entire team. Every single end returns. There are now three seniors at defensive end and last year's newcomers to the line, Jones and Sam Acho, now have serious experience after showing great promise in 2007. Redshirt freshman Russell Carter will also get a chance in 2008 to make a name for himself.

But the biggest factor for the DEs may be the return of a healthy Orakpo. He only played in nine games last season, yet Orakpo still managed to lead the team in sacks with five and a half.

The situation is quite the opposite over at DT.

With the departure of Okam, Lokey and Marshall, defensive tackle is perhaps the thinnest position on the team. Miller is back, but the only other DT with any experience is junior Ben Alexander. Help may be on the way, however, from the defensive ends. Junior Lamarr Houston is now at defensive tackle full-time and Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has mentioned, on multiple occasions, the possibility of using even more ends, such as Aaron Lewis and Henry Melton, at defensive tackle.

The idea is to get the best 11 players on the field while simultaneously adding speed to the defense. By all indications, Texas' pass rush will be significantly improved, but maintaining a high level run defense will prove to be a challenge for the Texas Longhorns in 2008.

As for the offensive line, injuries are difficult to project, but the entire line will be greatly improved. It was tough to field a solid line with so many freshmen forced into action, but those freshmen, even when they struggled, showed great promise for this upcoming season.

The entire offensive line from Texas' Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State returns as a single squad and Hall is has settled in as the Horns' starting center instead of bouncing from place to place. The Texas offensive line will finally be given a chance to gel and move together, which is absolutely necessary for the zone-blocking scheme the Longhorns run.

The 2008 season is still a long ways off, but the promise that both sides of the line showed in spring gives hope to Texas fans that their Longhorns will be able to dominate where the game is the trenches.

Projected Starting Lineups on the Line

LT - Adam Ulatoski
LG - Charlie Tanner
C - Chris Hall
RG - Cedric Dockery
RT - Kyle Hix

(Quick) DE - Brian Orakpo
DT - Lamarr Houston
NT - Roy Miller
(Strong) DE - Aaron Lewis

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