Texas Longhorns: Darius James
Moving on: It’s entirely possible no BCS program had a more experienced duo of offensive guards in 2013 than Texas. Mason Walters started 51 of his 52 career games at right guard. Trey Hopkins started 42 career games, 28 of them at left guard and 14 at right tackle, and twice earned All-Big 12 honors.
Sophomore Curtis Riser earned limited playing time in 2014, as did junior Taylor Doyle. Touted recruits Darius James and Rami Hammad both redshirted as freshmen, and true freshman Alex Anderson enrolled early in January.
Moving forward: The Joe Wickline factor is strong with this group. Texas’ respected new offensive line coach says he’s simply looking to find the five best offensive linemen and piece together his lineup this spring, and he’ll bring fresh eyes and a new perspective when it comes to which of these guards can help this Texas line in 2014.
Flowers would seem to be the favorite to land a starting gig after playing in all 13 games last season. By the end of his sophomore year, Flowers was respected as a trusted backup by Walters and Hopkins, and both agreed he’d be worthy of taking their place this fall. But he’ll have to earn that spot, and the competition should be strong.
The rest of Texas’ guards have potential, but only two of them have even seen the field. Riser appeared in four games last season, and Doyle saw action in two contests.
The guys most fans will be watching this spring are James and Hammad. The former was one of the nation’s best offensive line recruits a year ago but took a redshirt because he was out of shape. That time off should help him better prepare for playing at this level. Hammad came close to earning a spot in the lineup in the middle of the 2013 season, but he went down with a season-ending injury and should be healthy this spring.
Anderson, a New Orleans native, arrived in Austin with a chip on his shoulder and should benefit from getting in early. He could be a sleeper challenger in this group.
Another possibility to keep in mind: Wickline likes to cross-train his offensive linemen at several positions, so he’ll likely try out several other Longhorns at the guard spots to see if he can find a fit. Don’t be surprised if someone like Kent Perkins, a sophomore, proves he can handle such a move and challenges for a spot this fall.
Prediction: I can tell you right now that Flowers and Hammad seem like the safest bets to win jobs, but a lot can change this spring. Wickline will try to instill a certain mentality with his offensive line this season: Your job is on the line every single week. Whoever the favorites are after spring, they’ll have to fight every day to keep their spots.
How's he going to put this group together? A look at the battle to replace four former starters:
Departed: Left guard Trey Hopkins (42 career starts), right guard Mason Walters (51) and left tackle Donald Hawkins (23) are graduating, and former starting right tackle Josh Cochran elected to end his playing career due to a recurring shoulder injury. The junior had started 23 of his 30 career games. Backup center Garrett Porter also graduates. Walters’ 51-game start streak tied for longest in the nation among lineman at the end of 2013.
Spring contenders: OT Kennedy Estelle, OT Desmond Harrison, OT Kent Perkins, OT Garrett Greenlea, OT Camrhon Hughes, OG Sedrick Flowers, OG Curtis Riser, OG Rami Hammad, OG Darius James, OG Taylor Doyle, OG Alex Anderson, C Dominic Espinosa, C Jake Raulerson
Summer contenders: C Terrell Cuney, OT Elijah Rodriguez
The skinny: Yep, that’s a crowded field. Lot of big bodies, not a lot of experience among them.
Espinosa is the elder statesman of the group, having started all 39 games of his career. He and Harrison are the only seniors of this group, and Harrison hasn’t played meaningful minutes yet.
We don’t know what many of these linemen are capable of entering spring ball because so few have seen the field, but the bar has been set high for the members of Texas’ 2013 signing class. Former Texas coach Mack Brown considered that group -- Harrison, Perkins, Hammad, James and Raulerson -- the best offensive line class he had ever signed.
Will new offensive line coach and OC Joe Wickline agree? He recruited several of his new pupils during his days at Oklahoma State, but he has no reason to stick to the plan laid out by the previous staff. If the younger linemen beat out the veterans, they’ll play.
The best of the bunch, at least based on 2013 performances, could be Estelle and Perkins. Estelle, a junior, started eight games in place of Cochran and had some promising moments. Perkins was too good to redshirt as a true freshman. Harrison is the wild card of the group and has been an enigma during his time in burnt orange.
As for the guards, Flowers had the full respect of Walters and Hopkins and is finally getting his chance. The highly-touted James redshirted as a freshman, as did Hammad. They’ll battle Riser this spring. Anderson, an early enrollee from New Orleans, could challenge them as well.
That’s how it looks on paper, but keep this in mind: Wickline isn’t afraid to move linemen around and cross-train them at other positions. That preparation paid off for several of his Cowboy linemen over the years. The way this group looks today could be very different come August.
Prediction: Expect movement and possibly a few surprises. It’s all up to Wickline and who makes an impression on him in spring ball. The safest bets to start are probably Espinosa, Estelle and Flowers. Don’t be surprised if James or Hammad win out for the other guard spot, and for Perkins to take a lead over Harrison exiting spring ball. These second-year linemen are legit.
Until then, we’re counting down everything you need to know entering next season and the next era of Texas football. This week, we’re breaking down the five position groups with the most room to improve in 2014. We’ve already broken down No. 5 (tight ends), No. 4 (defensive tackles) and No. 3 (safeties). Here’s No. 2 on the list.
The players: Dominic Espinosa, Kennedy Estelle, Sedrick Flowers, Kent Perkins, Curtis Riser, Desmond Harrison, Rami Hammad, Darius James, Jake Raulerson, Garrett Greenlea, Taylor Doyle, Camrhon Hughes, Alex Anderson, Terrell Cuney, Elijah Rodriguez
Last year: Texas entered last season feeling good not only about its starting five, but also its depth for the future. Four of Texas opening-day starters (Donald Hawkins, Trey Hopkins, Mason Walters, Josh Cochran) have moved on. This group was impressive and physical on its best days and maddeningly inconsistent on its worst.
Enter Joe Wickline, regarded as one of the nation’s finest offensive line coaches and the architect of some excellent lines at Oklahoma State. He’s in charge of calling the offense, and his linemen will have to establish an identity.
What’s missing: Experience. Espinosa has plenty of it, with 39 career starts. Estelle has eight starts. Perkins and Flowers have one each. And that’s it. Flowers is a guy the departed starters greatly respected, and his chance to earn a job is now. Harrison was supposed to develop into the starting left tackle but had too many setbacks last season.
The previous staff believed they’d signed their best line class ever in 2013 (James, Perkins, Harrison, Hammad, Raulerson), and it wouldn’t be shocking if several of those guys break into the lineup in 2014.
Moving forward: How will Wickline perceive what he’s inheriting? That’s always the big question when a new coach arrives. Oklahoma State offered scholarships to at least seven of these Texas linemen, so you’d think Wickline is familiar with many of these guys.
It’s also safe to say nobody is guaranteed a starting job along this line. Finding 10 trusted linemen from this group is just as important as a strong starting five. Bring on the competition, and let’s see how Wickline works his magic this spring.
Texas’ offensive line is as experienced as any in the country this fall. All five starters return and have a combined 124 career starts under their oversized belts.
So why is each of them at risk of losing their jobs? Because, in 2013, Texas thinks it has a chance to have not just a good offensive line, but a great one.
“If one of these guys coming in is better than the starters, we will replace them, without question,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “And they know that. We’ve told them that.”
But for the first time in his tenure at Texas, third-year offensive line coach Stacy Searels has options. He’s wanted 10 offensive linemen he can lean on, 10 he can trust. Thanks to two years of strong recruiting, the cupboard is now well-stocked.
The star of that two-year talent infusion could very well be a lineman who arrived in Austin only three weeks ago: Desmond Harrison.
He’s never put on pads for the Longhorns, and the sum total of his experience in the program is one fall practice. But the 6-foot-8, 310-pound offensive tackle is already the talk of fall camp after wowing his new teammates.
“He is huge. He’s a massive human being,” Hopkins said. “Probably the only person I’ve seen stand next to Mason and make him kind of look short.”
If the touted transfer from Contra Costa (Calif.) College is everything he’s hyped up to be, Harrison could become the starting left tackle by the end of the month. If that’s the case, the rest of the line would be in for a reshuffling.
Hawkins, a junior college transfer last year, could move from left tackle to guard, prompting Hopkins to take over the center duties. Or he could bump off Cochran for the right tackle job. Or he could get benched.
“Your position could change, and you could be second- or third-string really quick,” Walters said. “The guys we have here now really want to play. We have a lot of bodies and talent right now. I love it. We want to be as good as possible, and you have to have somebody pushing you.”
Harrison isn’t the only threat. Brown and Searels have high hopes for four true freshmen who have a serious shot a cracking the two-deep.
“This recruiting class for offensive linemen could be one of the best offensive line classes ever before they finish at Texas,” Brown said. “I can’t wait to see them when we put the pads on. I’m really excited about them. We haven’t been able to find these guys and get these guys on campus like this. It’s going to be fun to watch them. Don’t know how soon that will be, but our future is very bright there.”
Kent Perkins is already working as the second-string right tackle. Guards Darius James and Rami Hammad and center Jake Raulerson lined up with the third-team offense Tuesday. Several could be worthy of serious playing time this fall.
If they are good enough, that puts Searels in somewhat of a difficult position. How does he explain to three seniors and two juniors that the freshmen must play?
Walters and the rest of the veteran linemen have been through a lot together. When Searels arrived in the spring of 2011, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound guard was one of only seven scholarship linemen in the program. He’s started 38 straight games because Texas really had no choice. He and Hopkins have lined up together for 25 of Texas’ last 26 games.
“[Hopkins has] grunted at me before and I knew exactly what he was saying,” Walters said. “That’s just with all of us. You can tap somebody on the shoulder at a certain time and we all know what to look for on certain plays.”
They share that bond with Cochran and Espinosa, both of whom started as true freshmen. Through the good times and the bad these past two years, they survived together. There has to be some intangible value to that.
But the veterans know this is a meritocracy. Searels had six offensive linemen he trusted in crunch time last season. He needs more than that. The added depth comes at a critical time, when an up-tempo scheme will require more rotating to keep the line fresh and effective.
No matter what, Searels needs 10 good men. And that’s only going to make his five starters work even harder.
“Our togetherness is big, and I think that helps with the guys who have been around for a while,” Walters said. “But at the same time, Coach Searels has definitely made it clear he’ll play the five best.”
First Down: This is why David Ash is going to be good
2012 Alamo Bowl vs. Oregon State
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The nation’s No. 17 overall prospect from Killeen (Texas) Harker Heights is hungry to prove he deserved that acclaim after missing nearly his entire senior season with a broken left foot.
With his best friend Naashon Hughes by his side, James has his eyes on the prize: He wants to start from day one, and he wants to win a national title.
HornsNation: Your career as a Texas Longhorn is about to begin. How does that feel?
HN: You’ve been hearing for a long time that you’ll play right away when you get to Texas. Do you feel ready for that challenge?
James: I feel like I’m ready for anything. But there’s also the fact that you’re playing with seniors who are four or five years older than you. I’m just going to go in there scared and pissed off.
HN: You spent this spring having to get back in shape following your injury. How did that go?
James: The spring was hell. It was pretty crazy. It was a lot of vigorous work and running and tires and weights. I’ve been going to a trainer and he’s been helping me get my weight down. I went from 360 to now I’m like 329 pounds.
HN: How do you feel when you look back on missing so much of your senior season? Are there mixed emotions?
James: Oh yes, very mixed emotions. I feel like if I would’ve played this year, I would’ve been one of the best out there. But it’s in the past. You can’t change anything in the past. I’m just ready to go out there and try to be the best player in college.
The bond he has built with fellow 2013 signees and the Texas coaching staff cemented his feelings of wanting to become a Longhorn when he committed to them 16 months ago.
Perkins (6-foot-5, 310 pounds) is anxious to continue to build those relationships in Austin, where he’ll arrive and enroll in school on June 10. But more so than anything he wants to be entrenched in the game he’s grown so fond of… and is also so dominant in.
HornsNation: Where is your excitement level right now about getting down to Austin?
Kent Perkins: It’s skyrocketed. I am so excited to go down there. I am ready to compete. I am excited about everything. I’m excited about football, the next step in my life.
HN: Take me back to the day that you knew you wanted to become a Longhorn. What was it about Texas?
Perkins: Well I was down to A&M, Texas and OU. I visited all those schools and talked to every coach. I just felt I could see myself at Texas. I enjoy being around the guys, Mack Brown, Coach [Stacy] Searels. I love Coach Searels. I saw how he is in his meetings and how he talks to his players and how he coaches. I want to be a part of that.
HN: What is it about Coach Searels that you like so much and how important is it to have a good relationship with your position coach?
Perkins: It’s real important to me because he reminds me so much of my high school coach. He can joke around at times and then when it is time to get serious he can be serious. If you listen to every detail he says you are going to get better.
HN: You spent your high school career on the right side of the line. Where do you think you’ll end up at Texas?
Perkins: Right now I know, speaking with Coach Searels, that he is going to play his top five linemen. Basically if you are good you are going to play anywhere on the line. You have to be ready to come in and work. I’m really thinking the left side because I know [Donald] Hawkins is fixing to leave so I am thinking the left side.
HN: Is the footwork for a right tackle going to the left side that big of a deal or not?
Perkins: It’s a huge deal because you change your side, your hand placement, which foot you step with first, which foot you kick with. You kick with your left foot instead of your right. It’s a big change but I am a hard worker and I can get that down.
HN: There’s been a lot of hype around the class of offensive linemen coming in. Do you guys talk about that at all?
Perkins: I talk with Rami [Hammad] and he talks to Darius James and others. We all talk about having one of the best offensive lines in the country. We are going to work as hard as we can, put the work in the weight room and conditioning and get our jobs done right.
HN: Do you honestly believe that this group of offensive linemen coming in can be one of the best to ever come through Texas?
Perkins: I really, truly believe that. We have size, speed and smart guys. We can get down the plays and can be aggressive.
HN: What have you been doing to keep yourself in shape since signing day?
Perkins: I have a conditioning program that I’ve been keeping up with. I’m lifting and running in the morning and the afternoon. I’m trying to keep my grades up at the same time.
HN: What are you weight-wise and what does Searels want you to come in at?
Perkins: I’m at 310 pounds and he wants me at 300.
HN: What are you most excited about as you begin your career as a Longhorn?
Perkins: I’m excited about, dang, football. I love playing football. I’m excited about being around a group of older guys that will teach me the game. Being in front of thousands of people in a huge stadium. I’m excited about the next step.
HN: Was there ever a time after you committed to Texas that you thought about looking around anywhere else?
Perkins: Nope, I never thought about that. I think I made a really good choice. I look at academics first and I think I made a really good choice.
Football, after all, is a team sport. And Texas likes to take that concept to a new level. Take, for instance, any question about a quarterback from the two previous seasons. Almost every answer was started with "Both those guys," not putting one above the other or either above the team.
But Texas has turned the page and in a new era of accountability and, in an effort to applaud individual efforts, Texas coach Mack Brown dispensed with the regular lumping together of players when asked about who has stood out to him. Instead, the veteran coach had no problem pointing fingers at those individuals who have excelled, thereby also possibly pointing one at those who need to pick up the pace.
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First down: Few O-linemen in 2014 class
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Early on in his recruitment, Hughes decided to take Texas’ offer of a grayshirt to be near his brother, Camrhon Hughes, a redshirt freshman offensive tackle and best friend Darius James, a fellow 2013 commit.
Hughes’ patience paid off when he was awarded a full ride by Texas coach Mack Brown during breakfast at Brown’s house on the weekend of Dec. 7 while on an official visit.
With all of his worries subsided, Hughes turned his focus toward becoming the best player he could be in his last few months at Harker Heights. Now that time has come to an end, and he’s ready to start his career.
HornsNation: What most excites you about the journey you are about to embark on?
Naashon Hughes: Just getting started with football actually. Just getting back to working out and everything. I miss it a lot. A lot. It just feels like a longer break but really I’m just switching schools.
HN: What have you been doing to stay in shape since signing day?
Hughes: I’ve been working out with a trainer in Kileen at like 6 a.m. We do bench, single Bulgarian split squats, alligator walks, hang cleans, power cleans, everything cleans. We switch it up everyday.
HN: Is it tough to wake up that early and workout when you know it is summer time and your friends are out having fun?
Hughes: It started off hard but since I’ve been been doing it for so long it’s not that hard. But at the beginning it was pretty tough.
HN: Have you set any goals for your freshman season?
Hughes: I just want to work as hard as I can so I can try and play. I’m just trying to work hard and earn my spot.
HN: There was talk during your recruitment that you could play either outside linebacker or safety. Where do you think you’ll end up?
Hughes: Kind of in that outside linebacker position. I actually prefer that and safety about the same.
HN: What do you like about outside linebacker so much?
Hughes: You can get a little bit of the offensive linemen but you also get the running backs and receivers as well. Defensive linemen, the majority of the time, deal with linemen. Safeties mostly deal with receivers. But that "SAM" position gets a little bit of both.
HN: Have you put on any weight this summer?
Hughes: I have. I’m up 10 pounds to 223 and am 6-foot-4 ½.
HN: What has your brother told you about what to expect and how to handle yourself?
Hughes: He basically told me to work hard and earn my spot. He told me in whatever I do just work as hard as I can and my time would come.
HN: Now, Camrhon tore his ACL playing in a pickup basketball game around this time last year. How is he now?
Hughes: He is doing good. They cleared him to play and everything. Now he is just working out and getting his leg stronger so he can actually play at full speed.
HN: Will you play any basketball this summer?
Hughes: I’ll probably still play a little bit because I am the only one that has played in my family. But I think Camerhon is definitely done. I’ll play a little bit.
HN: You should probably tell everyone you are playing against to take it easy when guarding you, right?
Stacy Searels, who has long bemoaned the lack of talent, bodies and blocking ability of his charges along that line, has earned the praise of Texas coach Mack Brown, not only for Searels' patience but also his persistence in rebuilding that line.
Reloading might not be the right word to use there, as such a term leads one to believe the line was recently loaded. It has been several seasons since that argument could be made. Texas hasn’t produced an NFL lineman since 2008. Prior to that, Brown’s program had seven offensive linemen drafted over a nine-year span -- a healthy number and one that exceeds the production of Alabama and Oklahoma over the same time period.
So Searels has been more pouring a foundation than restocking the shelves. And now the time has come to find out if there are cracks or if Texas is ready to build on a solid base.
Heading into 2013, the offensive line has all five starters returning. Four of those players were also starters on the 2011 offensive line, while the fifth, Donald Hawkins, came in as a junior college transfer after that season. Those starters did have less-than-stellar performances throughout 2012, however, and, quite frankly, were shoved around by TCU, Oklahoma, Kansas State and a few other teams.
Texas, with its loaded backfield, averaged 3.4 rushing yards per attempt against the six ranked opponents it played in 2012. Against TCU, Oklahoma and Kansas State, the Longhorns failed to reach 100 yards rushing and averaged 3.0 rushing yards per attempt.
It's safe to assume those types of numbers have not exactly locked down a starting job for every player who started along that offensive line. To that end, Texas does have a potential new tackle waiting in the wings in the form of junior college transfer Desmond Harrison.
His arrival should signal some shifts along the line at every position, save for Josh Cochran at the opposite tackle spot.
"He [Cochran] is a tackle, so you'd leave him there," Brown said. "But the fact that Trey Hopkins has played everywhere, Donald Hawkins could play different places, guard or tackle, just gives you a lot more flexibility for depth. [Sedrick] Flowers would be a center or guard. You wouldn't move him outside. But you have flexibility and you have to look at that great freshman class coming in, too, to see if any of those guys are ready to play."
Texas signed five offensive linemen in its 2013 class and could play at least one of those. Darius James, who was ranked No. 17 in the ESPN 150, appears to be the odds-on favorite to be that player. He could fill in at the guard spot and also has some center in his background.
Since Texas wants to average about 84 plays per game, it is not unreasonable to believe that up to 10 linemen could see time in each game. To believe that Texas had that many linemen available in the past would have been a ludicrous assumption.
Even last season, Texas could barely go beyond six offensive linemen. But given the emergence of Kennedy Estelle (tackle) and Flowers (guard), plus the improved health of Camrhon Hughes (tackle), the arrival of Harrison and James makes a deeper rotation at least a plausible thought.
"I really think that we can have two-deep, and that will be the first time we have been two-deep around here in a long time," Brown said. "And I think we are -- I know we are headed in the right direction with our depth in the offensive line."
Darius James, Kent Perkins and Jake Raulerson were all ESPN 150 recruits and Rami Hammad had close to 50 offers. That doesn’t even include junior college offensive tackle Desmond Harrison, who many project will start at left tackle for Texas this season.
Those players coming in combined with the youth already in place on the roster, means that the Longhorns aren’t in dire need of offensive linemen again in 2014. At least not the degree they were needed this time a year ago.
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The magnitude of Sione and Maea Teuhema’s commitments to Texas on Thursday might not truly be felt for a while, considering Maea, the more highly-touted of the two, won’t graduate until 2015.
But make no mistake about how gigantic a victory this is for the Longhorns. If there were a fly on the wall inside Texas’ football offices when the coaches got word of the commitments, that fly assuredly saw plenty of chest bumping and high-fives.
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That has led to 34 true freshmen -- the most in FBS -- hitting the field in the past two seasons. Texas’ hand was forced in some respects. It had to bridge a talent gap created by recruiting misses, particularly those in the 2009 class. Now, the result is that the gap has been somewhat plugged. Or, at the very least, there is a prevailing thought that field is full -- 19 starters return -- leaving little room for any of the true freshmen in the 2013 class to make a significant impact.
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Or should it be malcontent? After all, there has been quite a sampling of police blotter activity as of late. Oh wait, those transgressions occurred while the Longhorn players had a modicum of adult (read: coach) supervision. Soon they will have none. When the spring semester ends the Texas players will be set free to roam the world on their own. And, while they are at it, become better football players.
Being a coach, naturally, Mack Brown would like to change that.
"We’re trying to work with the NCAA to see if there could be some type of contact, because we all feel like we need more," Brown said.
The NCAA recently changed the summer rules as they pertain to basketball, allowing for up to eight hours per week -- a limit of two per day -- of varying types of coaching. Brown is angling for that type of flexibility in the summer rules for football. He might get it, but not soon enough for this year. And Brown and Texas need it this year.
"You’d hate to have those three young quarterbacks know [co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach] Major [Applewhite] is in the office, and they can’t walk in and ask him to watch film with them," Brown said. "That’s just not right. They’re trying to get better and they want to come in."
So, in place of being able to coach the player over the summer, Texas is working furiously to evaluate each player, his short-term and long-term needs and disseminate that information to the players prior to the NCAA's summer rules slamming down the no-contact iron curtain.
Spring Game Wrap-Up: April 19
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
TBD North Dakota State Iowa State TBD Louisiana Tech Oklahoma TBD North Texas Texas TBD Stephen F. Austin Kansas State TBD Samford TCU TBD Central Arkansas Texas Tech 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 8:00 PM ET Florida State Oklahoma State