Dominic Espinosa

Longhorns look to rebuild team through offensive line commits

Following a season in which the Longhorns failed to win more than nine games for the fourth year in a row, culminating in a 30-7 defeat against Oregon in the Holiday Bowl, new head coach Charlie Strong came into the offseason looking to bolster its program in a multitude of ways.

For Strong, one key way to improve the program was to upgrade the talent level coming to the team. In an increasingly competitive state featuring vastly improved programs such as Baylor and Texas A&M, Strong focused on building the team through the offensive line in his recruitment of the Class of 2015.

Currently, the Longhorns have 17 commits for the Class of 2015, five of those commits being offensive linemen. This is the highest number of offensive line commits the Longhorns have had in four years. The five commits on the offensive-line -- offensive tackles Connor Williams, Ronnie Major and Toby Weathersby and offensive guards Patrick Vahe and Garrett Thomas -- will come to a Texas team that has recently seen mass changeover on its offensive line in the first year of the Strong era. 

Of the changes at offensive line, the first came during the season opener, in which senior center Dominic Espinosa broke his ankle during a 38-7 Longhorns win. Prior to the injury, Espinosa was viewed as the anchor of the Texas offensive line -- and the Texas offense as a whole -- as Espinosa had started 40 consecutive games for the Longhorns, dating back to the beginning of the 2011 season. 

After the departure of Espinosa, the offensive line was dealt another blow when Strong suspended senior offensive tackle Desmond Harrison and junior offensive tackle Kennedy Estelle for violating team rules. Estelle was eventually dismissed from the team on Sept. 23, making him the ninth Longhorn dismissed from the team during Strong’s tenure as head coach. 

The injury to Espinosa and the dismissal of Estelle dealt large blows to an inexperienced Longhorns offensive line, that minus Espinosa had only nine career starts coming into the season. With an offensive line that has lacked any true sense of cohesion thus far, the Longhorns are  currently ranked 106th in the nation in points per game, averaging under 16 points per game in their last three contests.

For a Longhorns offense that has struggled to move the ball both on the ground and through the air, a revamped offense can be expected for the 2015 season. The addition of the five offensive line commits will be an integral part of that revamped offense, and their ability to play together as a cohesive unit will be vital to the Longhorns hopes of returning to the top of the Big 12 in years to come. 

The absolute worst case scenario for the Longhorns this season has already happened. Junior quarterback David Ash, yet again, is struggling with concussion symptoms.

So, as Texas head coach Charlie Strong would say, “Next man up.”

QB Tyrone Swoopes

That means Tyrone Swoopes, the 6-foot-4-inch, 243-pound sophomore from Whitewright, is now the Longhorns’ starting quarterback. Naturally, Swoopes has to step up. Injuries and struggles at the quarterback position have plagued Texas since Colt McCoy went down in the 2010 National Championship Game. Swoopes doesn’t need to be McCoy, but he’ll have to be better than he’s been in the few chances he’s had thus far.

“He does not need to put an ‘S’ on [his] chest and a cape on his back and try to do it all by himself,” offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. “It won’t work that way.”

If Swoopes steps up, he may hear chants of “SWOOOOPES.” If he struggles, he will hear “BOOOO” instead.

C Jake Raulerson

The other part of Texas’ injury nightmare last week was the loss of 40-game starter and senior center Dominic Espinosa. Espinosa suffered an ankle fracture, which will likely sideline him for the rest of the season. The torch has now been passed to redshirt freshman Jake Raulerson.

Raulerson, a native of Celina, has big shoes to fill as the center. He will be responsible for keeping the offense organized and calling out reads — an even more difficult task, given the difficulties the line had at times against North Texas.

But the coaching staff believes Raulerson can get the job done.

“They know what they’ve lost in [Dominic],” Watson said. “[Raulerson] has taken a great sense of responsibility, making sure everybody is on the same page. They’re communicating together, [and] they’re in the film room together. [Raulerson] has captained a lot of that stuff. It’s impressive seeing those guys work together.”

Offensive Tackles

The offensive line suffered major losses after week one. Losing Espinosa was a tough pill to swallow, but even worse was the news that tackles Desmond Harrison, who was expected to return to action after being suspended prior to the season, and Kennedy Estelle were suspended for the game against BYU after violating team rules.

The offensive tackles will have to step up as a unit. Marcus Hutchins played left tackle last week but offensive line coach Joe Wickline may choose to rotate guys in. Whoever is lined up on the outside has a tough task in front of them and has to be ready to step up. 

QB Case McCoy (Sr.)

If David Ash is too banged up to play this week, it’s up to McCoy to lead the Texas offense against the Rebels. While McCoy has had his bright spots in the past, including an unforgettable comeback in College Station two years ago, overall, he has been average at best. Head coach Mack Brown has said he will not hesitate to put in talented freshman Tyrone Swoopes if McCoy struggles. With a struggling offensive line in front of him, McCoy will need to make good reads and get the ball out of his hands quickly.

 

OL Dominic Espinosa (Jr.) /OL Mason Walters (Sr.)

Although every lineman is accountable for the offense’s lack of production and inability to run the ball, Espinosa and Walters are the unit’s leaders. There has been little visible evidence of them carrying out that duty. Despite a plethora of talented backs, including two who were the top tailbacks in their classes coming out of high school, the Longhorns have done very little on the ground in their two games this year. The fault for that falls squarely on the offensive line, which was manhandled last Saturday in Provo by BYU. Considering its talent and experience — an FBS-leading 134 combined starts — this unit needs to step up. Espinosa and Walters need to take the reigns and lead the way for this entire offense.  

 

DE Jackson Jeffcoat (Sr.)

Just as Espinosa and Walters above, Jeffcoat is more of a scapegoat for the entire defensive line than for being at fault for poor individual play. However, that’s the nature of the best when it comes to being in a position of leadership. As Texas’ most talented defender and leader of a defensive line that got absolutely destroyed last week, Jeffcoat needs come out on Saturday and make something happen early on to help set the tone for the Longhorns. Whether it’s recording a sack or forcing a turnover, neither of which he has yet to do so far this season, he must step up and give this defense some bite. With things in a state of flux and defensive coordinator Greg Robinson taking over for Manny Diaz, it’s up to Jeffcoat to give this unit 
wan identity.

Dominic Espinosa, who started every game at center last year as a freshman, is one of four returning starters on the Longhorns offensive line, joining junior guard Mason Walters, sophomore offensive tackle Josh Cochran, and senior guard Trey Hopkins.

Photo Credit: Tamir Kalifa | Daily Texan Staff

Junior college transfer Donald Hawkins has entered the offensive line brotherhood at Texas.

Being the only starter on the line who did not start last year, he had a lot of catching up to do. But with fellow starters Mason Walters, Trey Hopkins, Dominic Espinosa and Josh Cochran, he assimilated quickly.

“The offense was a little different to what he had done. He had to adjust to it, adjust to the coaching staff, adjust to our style of play,” Walters said. “The jump he made from spring ball to now is extremely encouraging that he is definitely going to be a force on the line.”

Hopkins says it took a little time for him and the other offensive linemen to get to know Hawkins. But now he is one of them. And with an animated leader like Walters, it couldn’t take very long for Hawkins to open up.

“At first he didn’t let us see all of himself and into his personality,” Hopkins said. “But now he’s really become a brother of the offensive line and he’s a great guy. He’s funny and he keeps us laughing.”

The brotherhood of offensive linemen, led by coach Stacy Searels, boasts versatility. Each players has the skills to play both tackle and guard, which could be beneficial in case of an injury.

Hopkins, who has played both right tackle and left guard, said understanding every position on the line is helpful if they want to play in the NFL. But it also helps with cohesiveness and chemistry among players.

“If I can know not only what I’m doing but what my center and my left tackle are doing, it makes me move better within that framework, not get tripped up with the guys, and not have any miscommunications,” Hopkins said.

Head coach Mack Brown said Hopkins, Walters and Espinosa are important team leaders. The three of them made it a goal to help the freshmen.

Bringing back so many returning starters has helped create a solid line and provides learning opportunities for the younger players. But in helping the younger players, Hopkins believes the veterans are learning themselves.

“It’s a great thing [having four starters return],” Hopkins said.

“Just because we’re able to help the young guys. In helping them, we’re able to re-instill what we already know and that gives us the confidence. I can say, ‘hey I know this,’ so I know it well enough that I can teach someone else.”

Walters agrees that the impact of bringing back returners will be extremely beneficial for the offense, especially with an offense that is so reliant on the run game.

“A lot of time you’re working double teams, techniques to get to people and if you’ve worked with a guy enough, little nuances that can sometimes thwart a play, you don’t have to worry about because you know you can adjust on the run with a guy that you have played with for a year,” Walters said.

Brown said the line is in a much better position than it was at this point last season. Last season, the line allowed 28 sacks. Running back Malcolm Brown has witnessed the growth of the line firsthand.

“The offensive line is great,” Malcolm Brown said. “As a whole, we weren’t all there last year. We had a new system and everyone was still learning. The offensive line looks really great.”

The linemen brotherhood has been spending more time together outside of practice and they have become closer as a unit. Their favorite thing to do together isn’t much of a surprise.

“We like to eat,” Walters said. 

When Dominic Espinosa finally got his chance to shine, he didn’t disappoint.

Espinosa has been a nice surprise for the Longhorns coming out of fall camp, and the redshirt freshman impressed the coaches enough to earn the starting nod at center for the season-opener against Rice.

A local product from Cedar Park, Espinosa sat out his first year at Texas and then missed spring practice with an injured shoulder, which required surgery. This August, Espinosa fought his way into the starting five and solidified an O-line that took a step backwards in 2010, when the Longhorns averaged a paltry 150.2 rushing yards per game.

Texas was thin along the offensive line during spring ball, and first-year O-line coach Stacy Searels didn’t have a lot to work with. But with Espinosa healthy by the time fall camp got underway, the former prep All-American wasted no time making a name for himself.

“It has really helped us,” said head coach Mack Brown. “It’s one of those deals that Stacy has felt like is such
a bonus.

“I kept telling Stacy in the spring that he’s a good player, and you’ll be excited about him. He’s tough, he’s smart, he just doesn’t have experience, and it didn’t take Stacy long to put him in there.”

Espinosa was a heralded recruit when he first arrived on campus, but shoulder problems derailed his development. Now, though, Espinosa will anchor the offensive line.

“He was a great recruited offensive lineman so after he got over his injuries it was time for him to step up and play,” said senior left tackle Tray Allen.

To make room for Espinosa on the first team, senior lineman David Snow moved from center to left guard. Snow started all 12 games at center a year ago.

“To make the line better, we just needed to move people around,” Snow said. “He battled back and went through a lot of tough circumstances. He just really worked hard. Nothing was given to him.”

Although the freshman replaced the senior, Snow says he’s comfortable handing off the center spot to Espinosa, who has been lauded by the coaching staff and his teammates for his high football IQ.

“He knows the calls, he’s coming along very good,” Snow said. “With more experience, he’ll get even better and more confident.”

Espinosa has embraced Searels’ smash-mouth philosophy and has held his own in one-on-one drills against the defensive linemen in fall camp. Espinosa routinely goes against senior defensive tackle Kheeston Randall.

“That’s great practice [for him]; you get no better reps than those one-on-ones,” Randall said. “He’s a shorter center, but that gives him more leverage.

“He’s very quick. He knows the offense, he can give checks, and he’s a super smart player. He’s the captain of the O-line.”

Though Espinosa has turned heads with his play so far, having a veteran group of linemen has helped the young center’s development. He made the most of his redshirt season too, soaking up all he could in the film room and on the scout team.

“He’s so smart all ready; he’s one of those guys that you can put anywhere on the line and he knows exactly what to do,” said senior running back Fozzy Whittaker. “Having a more experienced line around him helping him and picking him up has helped him become a better player.”

So, is Whittaker concerned about the freshman being able to open holes from the Longhorns’ tailbacks?

“Seeing the way he’s played this fall camp, I’m very confident in his ability,” Whittaker said. “He’s very agile; he can pull. He’s one of those guys with flexible hips.”

Texas’ motto this offseason has been a brick-by-brick approach to rebuilding the team coming off a 5-7 season. The offensive line needs rebuilding too, with only two returning starters.

The Longhorns — and the O-line — will lay the first brick on the road to redemption down on Saturday night against the Owls.

Espinosa waited a year for his chance to shine. His moment is finally here.

Receiver Jaxon Shipley makes a run after catching a ball in practice. Shipley is one of the many first-years competing for a starting role.

Photo Credit: UT Athletics | Daily Texan Staff

It has been a while since McCoy and Shipley hooked up for a touchdown on the 40 Acres. But at last Friday’s scrimmage, it happened again.

Case McCoy, Colt’s younger brother, found Jaxon Shipley, Jordan’s younger brother, in the back of the end zone during the Longhorns’ second scrimmage of fall camp a week ago. McCoy is in the middle of Texas’ most high-profile position battle, which features two freshmen — Connor Wood and David Ash. Every team has their fair share of underclassmen but Texas has freshmen, including Shipley, competing for playing time at virtually every position.

“[Shipley]’s quick,” said sophomore defensive back Adrian Phillips. “When they have him in, he’s hard to guard. He gives us the snake eyes when he looks at you so you’ve got to make sure your technique is really good.”

Shipley is one of a few freshman receivers, along with Miles Onyegbule and John Harris who could play this season, with Shipley possibly snagging a starting spot. Whoever wins the quarterback job, however, could use a big target to throw at like Onyegbule, who is listed at 6-foot-4.

“Miles is a big receiver,” Phillips said. “He’s physical. He’s not afraid to block at all. When the ball touches his hands, most of the time it’s going
to stick.”

The ones who throw to receivers like Onyegbule and Shipley are the players everyone wants to know about. Garrett Gilbert is the incumbent and favorite to win the quarterback competition, but he’s got three guys breathing down his neck, including Wood, who’s been rumored to have plans to transfer, and Ash, who has impressed coaches this offseason.

Texas has two great freshmen running backs waiting for their shot. Malcolm Brown, the Big 12 preseason Newcomer of the Year and Rivals.com’s No. 1 running back coming out of high school last year, has generated tons of excitement. Joe Bergeron was not as highly touted as Brown but showed flashes of brilliance, including a 118-yard, two-touchdown performance in a USA vs. World game Feb. 2. He’s had a great offseason as well.

“[Brown and Bergeron] are more alike than they are different,” said Major Applewhite, co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach. “The pass protection is the stuff that gets them. But both of those guys have come in with a keen understanding of what they want to do in terms of studying. They’ve done well.”

Dominic Espinosa, a redshirt freshman from Cedar Park, is the one freshman on offense who’s sure to start. Senior David Snow, who started all 12 games at center in 2010, will move over to guard, where he played as a sophomore and in high school. Espinosa has a strong showing this offseason.

“He’s brought control and confidence,” said junior defensive end Alex Okafor. “He’s surprised everybody. When he got his chance, he just snagged his opportunity and took it.”

On defense, the Longhorns’ front seven won’t need much help from freshmen but defensive tackle Desmond Jackson should get a decent share of playing time. The secondary, on the other hand, is likely the team’s youngest unit, especially at cornerback. Texas’ top three defensive backs include two sophomores and a freshman, Quandre Diggs, another top performer this offseason.

“We call him Quandre the Giant,” said junior safety Kenny Vaccaro. “He is playing big for us. He is technically sound since his brother is Quentin Jammer.”

Youth and inexperience may not be ingredients found in a recipe that remedies 5-7 seasons. This many freshmen contributing would be concerning for most football teams but with the freshmen that Texas has — Shipley, Espinosa, Brown, Bergeron, Diggs — it should be exciting, not worrisome that these guys will see the field. 

Receiver Jaxon Shipley makes a run after catching a ball in practice. Shipley is one of the many first-years competing for a starting role.

Photo Credit: UT Athletics | Daily Texan Staff

It has been a while since McCoy and Shipley hooked up for a touchdown on the 40 Acres. But at last Friday’s scrimmage, it happened again.

Case McCoy, Colt’s younger brother, found Jaxon Shipley, Jordan’s younger brother, in the back of the end zone during the Longhorns’ second scrimmage of fall camp a week ago. McCoy is in the middle of Texas’ most high-profile position battle, which features two freshmen — Connor Wood and David Ash. Every team has their fair share of underclassmen but Texas has freshmen, including Shipley, competing for playing time at virtually every position.

“[Shipley]’s quick,” said sophomore defensive back Adrian Phillips. “When they have him in, he’s hard to guard. He gives us the snake eyes when he looks at you so you’ve got to make sure your technique is really good.”

Shipley is one of a few freshman receivers, along with Miles Onyegbule and John Harris who could play this season, with Shipley possibly snagging a starting spot. Whoever wins the quarterback job, however, could use a big target to throw at like Onyegbule, who is listed at 6-foot-4.

“Miles is a big receiver,” Phillips said. “He’s physical. He’s not afraid to block at all. When the ball touches his hands, most of the time it’s going
to stick.”

The ones who throw to receivers like Onyegbule and Shipley are the players everyone wants to know about. Garrett Gilbert is the incumbent and favorite to win the quarterback competition, but he’s got three guys breathing down his neck, including Wood, who’s been rumored to have plans to transfer, and Ash, who has impressed coaches this offseason.

Texas has two great freshmen running backs waiting for their shot. Malcolm Brown, the Big 12 preseason Newcomer of the Year and Rivals.com’s No. 1 running back coming out of high school last year, has generated tons of excitement. Joe Bergeron was not as highly touted as Brown but showed flashes of brilliance, including a 118-yard, two-touchdown performance in a USA vs. World game Feb. 2. He’s had a great offseason as well.

“[Brown and Bergeron] are more alike than they are different,” said Major Applewhite, co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach. “The pass protection is the stuff that gets them. But both of those guys have come in with a keen understanding of what they want to do in terms of studying. They’ve done well.”

Dominic Espinosa, a redshirt freshman from Cedar Park, is the one freshman on offense who’s sure to start. Senior David Snow, who started all 12 games at center in 2010, will move over to guard, where he played as a sophomore and in high school. Espinosa has a strong showing this offseason.

“He’s brought control and confidence,” said junior defensive end Alex Okafor. “He’s surprised everybody. When he got his chance, he just snagged his opportunity and took it.”

On defense, the Longhorns’ front seven won’t need much help from freshmen but defensive tackle Desmond Jackson should get a decent share of playing time. The secondary, on the other hand, is likely the team’s youngest unit, especially at cornerback. Texas’ top three defensive backs include two sophomores and a freshman, Quandre Diggs, another top performer this offseason.

“We call him Quandre the Giant,” said junior safety Kenny Vaccaro. “He is playing big for us. He is technically sound since his brother is Quentin Jammer.”

Youth and inexperience may not be ingredients found in a recipe that remedies 5-7 seasons. This many freshmen contributing would be concerning for most football teams but with the freshmen that Texas has — Shipley, Espinosa, Brown, Bergeron, Diggs — it should be exciting, not worrisome that these guys will see the field. 

Most Important Longhorn

David Snow prepares to snap the ball in a recent game for the Longhorns. The senior will move from center to guard this season. (Daily Texan file photo)

Photo Credit: Derek Stout | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: The Daily Texan’s series of the 10 most important Longhorn football players continues with No. 6 David Snow.

David Snow starting at center seemed to be one of the only sure things coming into this year.

What a difference an offseason can make.

Despite being the lone senior returning starter on the offensive line, Snow won’t start at the position he played all last season. Instead, he’ll move over to guard while redshirt freshman Dominic Espinosa will take over at center. The transition should not be too difficult for Snow as he made five starts there as a sophomore. In fact, the position change may not be the toughest thing Snow, who battled mononucleosis this spring, had to deal with.

“I was not very happy going through the spring,” Snow said. “It felt like you would just flop over dead at any time. Mono makes everything slow. It makes you drudgey. You have no energy. By the grace of God I made it through.”

Snow’s shift from center to guard and Espinosa impressing the coaches enough to let him fill in for Snow says a lot, not only about Snow but about the offensive line he plays on. It’s certainly a testament to his versatility. In high school, Snow was a four-year starter at guard. As a freshman at Texas, Snow started two games at center when Chris Hall was injured. A year later, he played all 14 games at right guard. Then, last season, Snow moved back to center and started all 12 of the Longhorns’ games there. Now, he’s being asked to make yet another switch, this time back to guard.

“[Offensive line coach] Stacy Searels is trying to get everybody to play every position except for center because we are thin on the offensive line,” head coach Mack Brown said. “Center is a unique position of course, and you can’t get everyone to play that position.”

Searels, like any college football coach, will be working with freshmen and sophomores but will be more dependent on them than most coaches. Excluding Snow, sophomore guard Mason Walters is the only other offensive lineman who has started a game and Tray Allen is the only other senior on the offensive line. Two sophomores, Walters and Trey Hopkins, along with one freshman, Espinosa, figure to join Snow on the first-team offensive line. Even most of their backups are underclassmen.

“There is this group of Luke Poehlmanns and [Dominic] Espinosas, plus the five freshmen that are coming,” Brown said. “The thing that we’ll look at in the offensive line is trying to create some depth.”

Because of Texas’ plethora of young linemen and the need for many of them to contribute right away, leadership from someone like Snow could come in very handy this season. Espinosa, Walters and Hopkins make up a trio of talented offensive linemen but none have more than a year’s worth of experience. Snow, who has 39 games and 19 starts under his belt, has expertise that could prove useful to the young linemen, especially Espinosa, whom he’ll be lining up next to this season.

“[Espinosa]’s a smart guy that makes the right decisions out there,” said co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. “I’ve been pleased with his performance, his snaps and I think he’s got the feel for playing that position. All those centers have really come along. We put a lot on those guys, but Dominic has done a good job.”

Texas’ offense struggled mightily in 2010. Better offensive line play would go a long way toward helping Garrett Gilbert improve on his 10-17 touchdown-interception ratio, helping someone in the Longhorn backfield get over the 600-yard hump that has eluded them since 2007, or helping Texas improve on the 23.8 points per game they put up in 2010. With Snow anchoring the offensive line, whether it’s from center or guard, Texas has a chance to accomplish all of that.

Printed on August 25, 2011 as: Snow anchoring young line, moving from center to guard