There is no positional group more misunderstood - and with a wider range of fan opinion - than the 2012 Longhorn offensive line. At both the player and unit level. Poor recruiting, needs identification, teaching, and player development forced promising players into action years earlier than would be appropriate in a healthy program, and Longhorn fans generally tend to hold strange, calcified notions about development timelines for linemen - nor are we brimming reservoirs of patience. Dissonance ensues.
Throw in the fact that most people don't really watch line play to begin with (aside from a highlight showing someone getting beat) and the upshot is a few people repeating the same half dozen truisms that aren't really that true, or, if they are, are usually of the "no shit" variety that ignore a larger context. Let's dig into the trenches of the interior OL and see what assumptions hold up.
via a0.twimg.com h/t Trey Hopkins
Trey Hopkins. 6-4, 301. The Galena Park North Shore product had to self-recruit to Texas and it's a good thing he did, as he ended up starting four games as a true freshman OG. He started 13 games last year at right tackle out of pure necessity and though he wasn't a natural fit as a pass protector, he exhibited good base ability as a run blocker. Now back at OG, Hopkins is a junior, but like many of our OL starters, his experience (17 starts) belies the fact that he's still not developmentally peaked. Hopkins is the best natural athlete on the OL. Intelligent, acquires defenders well in space when he pulls and leads, and is very solid heads up inside, both in pass protection and the run game. He's not a masher, but he gets off the ball quickly, fights hard, and can match the athleticism across from him.
Trey's value add is the ability to play as a third tackle (he can also play center, if pressed, but that's academic), though we're clearly a better team with Hawkins and Cochran outside and Hopkins inside. Though he lacks reps at his current position, I believe that Hopkins will be our best, most consistent force on the OL.
Mason Walters. 6-5, 320. We tried our best not to redshirt the freshman Walters in 2009, but a foot injury forced us into accidental wisdom. The 4th year junior is the most senior member of the starting OL by starts (25 career) and by seasoning. That our "old veteran" still has two years of eligibility remaining should be a reality check for where this OL truly is on Ye Olde Grande Charte of Developments and Measure. Walters is gigantic, carries good weight, and has an aggressive attitude. Naturally, any Longhorn OL with a level of aggression north of a golden retriever is immediately compared to Kasey Studdard, even if they don't have much else in common.
Walters is a good example of the divergence between belief and on-field observation. #72's biggest issue is getting leverage on opposing DTs that possess a lower natural pad level. He's also susceptible to a quick first step against upper echelon interior DL. If you're scratching your head because interior penetration is the most common critique of Dominic Espinosa - that's redshirt freshman Dominic Espinosa - and you've heard it intoned dutifully 100X for every mention of Walters, then welcome to my private, repetitive hell.
While I don't expect Walters to change his center of gravity, experience, age, and wisdom mean a lot in OL play. All players have holes. Experienced ones adopt compensatory strategies. Mason will, too. His physical strength and mass mean he's hellacious when allowed to double team or down block. He's also surprisingly agile on the move once he squares his shoulders. Walters still has plenty of growing to do - just like the rest of our starters.
Dominic Espinosa. 6-4, 298. In 2011, the redshirt freshman became a strange exercise in group psychology as a segment of the Longhorn fan base assigned him as the repository of all OL woe. While I wrote about Espinosa's problems against a quality nose tackle heads up as early as the BYU game, the meme became so pervasive (on an OL full of flaws getting no help from the skill positions or audibles) and oft-bleated that I realized we'd entered some sort of context-free Twilight Zone. Please allow me to offer some...
Please compile a list of redshirt freshman centers famous for mauling their way through college football. I'll wait while you Google because you don't know any off of the top of your head. And I don't either, because that's the fucking point. Now if any of them became 10 year NFL starters, college All-Americans, or won the Outland at some point in their careers, throw them out. All one of them.
So we have a 2nd year freshman, who after missing the entire Spring with a shoulder injury, plays the one position that puts an OL at the greatest disadvantage physically from the guy across from him, while being asked to call out the line adjustments, and is then asked to move a 6-1, 305 pound, 23 year old Polynesian who can squat his village, keying hard on run because our offense passes like Mr Magoo on the highway. Recipe for success, IMHO.
Dominic Espinosa is smart, shows good feet when asked to zone (and even pull in certain instances), and he plays with low pads. He was also asked to play two years before he was ready. As he makes up ground with respect to age, physical development, and experience, he can be a good player for us. Yes, really.
A mix of veterans and promising youngsters makes the interior OL one of the few areas on offense, aside from RB, where we can actually sustain some adversity (knock on wood) and hang in there. The way I see it, we have two flawed but experienced types who can give a reasonable accounting of themselves, a pair of young high potentials, and an interesting long term project.
Thomas Ashcraft. 6-5, 315. The guard is a load heads up, carries most of his weight in his posterior and upper thighs, and lacks the lateral movement needed on zone runs. Avoid him in a broom closet. Why are you in a broom closet?
Garrett Porter. 6-6, 315. Yet another tall interior OL with a high base, Porter is an experienced 4th year player who can fill in reasonably at center or guard. He has a good pass set.
Sedrick Flowers. 6-3, 315. A pure talent that managed an injury redshirt (thank God) after playing as a true freshman. Flowers is a pure guard with a perfect frame, low pads, and a nasty disposition. His base attributes are so promising that if he's willing to put in the work and learn his craft, it's hard not to predict big things for him.
Curtis Riser. 6-4, 305. Like Flowers, another step towards a new breed at guard with good natural athleticism, leverage, and a true interior OL profile. I'd like to redshirt him.
Marcus Hutchins. 6-5, 280. The undersized freshman project wisely redshirted last year and is building towards a three or four year developmental horizon as he seeks to gain good weight on an athletic frame. Longhorn fans naturally discount him because he hasn't show much in all of his months on campus.
This interior line will be considerably better than last year's unit, but we're nowhere near what we can be. I expect them to feast on weaker interior DLs, but the proof will be in the pudding in 2-3 key match-ups. How will they perform against good fronts? Can they impose their will on inferior fronts, even when those teams bring numbers or squeeze down their DEs? I'm eager to find out.
I've said my piece. What's yours?