O-line unit emerging as strength after poor performance last year

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Center Dominic Espinosa (55) opens a hole for running back Joe Bergeron (24) to run through. Espinosa has started every game this year.

Photo Credit: Tamir Kalifa | Daily Texan Staff

In one short year, the Longhorns’ offensive line has gone from a glaring weakness to a
definitive strength.

Like most of the team, it went through many changes. Texas hired Georgia’s Stacy Searels to coach the offensive line this January. True freshman Dominic Espinosa has started at center since the first snap of the season opener. Senior David Snow, who started all 12 games at center last year, moved over to left guard.

Another freshman, Josh Cochran, replaced senior Tray Allen as the Longhorns’ starting left tackle and backup guard Luke Poehlmann has made his presence felt at tight end. So far, the moves have paid off.

“We’ve got the right five guys,” said co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. “Running the football builds confidence for the O-line, the tight ends, the running backs and the receivers. Everybody’s doing their job.”

The offensive line was highly criticized last year as Texas averaged just 23.8 points per game and Garrett Gilbert threw more interceptions than touchdown passes. No Longhorns running back topped 600 yards rushing in 2010 but they have three — Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Fozzy Whittaker — on pace to do that this year.

“Last year, we never got good at anything,” said head coach Mack Brown. “So we said let’s do something we can identify with. That was let’s get better in the running game and play action because we weren’t protecting very well.”

One of the biggest reasons for the transformation up front has been the new leadership Searels has provided. Like Texas’ last three defensive coordinators, Searels, a two-time All-SEC selection at Auburn, came from the SEC to Austin. Searels, who coached at Georgia for three years and was in charge of LSU’s offensive line when the Tigers captured the 2004 national title, has worked wonders with Texas’ offensive line this season.

“Coach Searels has done a great job with those guys,” Harsin said. “He’s a technician with those guys and done a good job drilling them with what they’re trying to do, drilling them in their techniques and what they’re going to see. He’s constantly critiquing and coaching.”

Like Searels, Malcolm Brown and Bergeron weren’t a part of the Longhorns program last year when Texas tried and failed to install an effective rushing attack. But the freshman tailbacks have resurrected the dormant running game this year, already combining to run for more than 1,000 yards.

“Good backs help,” said Mack Brown. “One obvious advantage to [the offensive line] is Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown are good players. Fozzy’s a better player than he’s been and he’s been able to stay healthy.”

Brown and Bergeron are not the only first-year players making contributions to the drastically improved run game. Cochran, whose Hallsville team went 4-6 in his senior year of high school last season, has done his part to make sure Texas doesn’t have a similar year again.

“Josh is really smart,” said Mack Brown. “He’s moving his feet. He’s gotten more comfortable. He can really run. He’s athletic. So Stacy and Major [Applewhite] and Bryan are using him on sweeps.”

Poehlmann, a fourth-year junior, is a seasoned veteran compared to players like Cochran but is helping the Texas offense in new ways, too. The junior offensive guard moved over to tight end against Kansas and it hasn’t been a coincidence that the Longhorns’ two most productive offensive outings have come with Poehlmann opening up holes on the edge of the offensive line.

“The O-line is doing a great job,” Whittaker said. “When you look into their eyes, you can tell that they’re focused and ready to push them off the ball no matter what kind of play it is.

When Whittaker is asked something, he almost always finds a way to work in the phrase “got to give credit to the offensive line” into his response. Not bad for a group that was considered a liability a year ago.