offensive linemen

Senior guard Trey Hopkins fields questions at last month's Big 12 Media Days. One of five returning starters on Texas' offensive line, Hopkins can play guard, tackle or center if needed.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

As Texas employs its revamped up-tempo offense for the first time on night, much of the focus will be on how quickly the Texas skill players can get down the field and score.

While the running backs and receivers prepared all offseason for offensive coordinator Major Applewhite’s scheme, the offensive linemen could very well be the ones forced to make the biggest adjustment.

The linemen have spent the offseason sprinting to the line between plays and practicing getting the snap off quickly in order to keep the fast-paced offense in rhythm. Senior guard Trey Hopkins said that quarterback David Ash is adamant on running through plays as quickly as possible to keep defenders on their toes, and he believes that the difference will be evident in Week 1.

“I feel like we have David pushing us in the backfield saying ‘Come on, let’s get up to the line,’” Hopkins said. “We’re really limiting the amount of time, squeezing every last second out of the amount of time we can get from snap to snap. I think that’s something that will be really noticed in the season.”

Hopkins joins fellow senior Mason Walters as a starter at guard for the first game at left guard, with Dominic Espinosa lining up at center. Josh Cochran and Donald Hawkins bookend the line as the starting tackles.

Junior college transfer Desmond Harrison recently received clearance to practice after being deemed ineligible due to taking a course through BYU over the summer. Despite Harrison’s lack of practice time, head coach Mack Brown expects the junior to see considerable playing time at left tackle against New Mexico State.

“We still expect him to play quite a bit on Saturday night,” Brown said. “We’re just going to put him out there and turn him loose. We still feel like he needs to be out there and he needs to continue working on his conditioning and learn what to do and be ready to go by the time we get to Big 12 play for sure.”

The Longhorns’ veteran line figures to be among the best in the conference due to its depth and experience. Even though Texas only allowed 16 sacks last season, Hopkins wants the team to play with greater consistency and dominance in 2013.

“Our goal for the offense line is to be dominant in every phase,” Hopkins said. “I think last year we had glimpses of where we were dominant against certain opponents or we had a really great run game or we had really great protection one game but could never really sustain that throughout the whole season and that’s one thing we have as our goal is to maintain consistency throughout the season no matter who our opponent is.”

Junior running back Joe Bergeron believes that the offensive linemen work well together, and this should help open for holes for him in the running game come Saturday.

“All of them are in sync,” Bergeron said. “All of them are working together. All of them are communicating better. It definitely it is a good feeling knowing that you’re going to hit in one place, and just like you practiced you should hit in
the game.”

The Longhorns offense expects to score early and often under the new offensive scheme, and the continuity and depth of the offensive line is a major part of that.

Freshman running back Jonathan Grey set national records in high school, and over the past five games he has shown his potential. With Texas' crowded backfield, he has not made it in the end zone. But he has rushed for 244 yards, including a 49-yard run to the 1-yard line against West Virginia.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

In high school, Johnathan Gray rushed for a national-record 205 touchdowns, but through five games in college he has just as many as all of his offensive linemen put
together — none.

This isn’t exactly his fault, though. Gray has run well during his freshman campaign and has shown the poise and patience of an upperclassman. Still, none of those attributes have helped him reach the end zone.

Last Saturday against West Virginia, he had his best opportunity to score yet. The offensive line created a large hole in the middle of the field and after one cut, Gray was gone. Well, almost. He ran 49 yards before getting caught from behind on the 1-yard line, falling just inches short of his goal.

Most backs would get the opportunity to punch it in from there, but not Gray. The Texas backfield features a 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound bowling ball in Joe Bergeron, who will “vulture” any goal-line carries from the other Texas rushers.

It’s a system that’s become a bit of a running joke between Gray and Bergeron.

“Yeah, I’m okay with scoring now and then,” Gray chuckled. “[Bergeron] told me, ‘If you fall on the one, my package is coming in,’ and every time I hit that 1-yard line I’m like, ‘Ah, here we go, you get it.’”

But other than his unfortunate lack of scores, Gray has been everything that he was billed as when he entered Texas as the consensus No. 1 running back in the nation.

He’s been an explosive threat out of the backfield, made impressively quick cuts and has even pounded the ball through the middle with success. Those talents have quickly earned him playing time from the coaching staff. In each game of the season his carry total has increased as had his yards gained. Gray has rushed for 244 yards on 47 carries through five contests.

The majority of those carries have come out of the team’s specialty package, the Wild formation, in which Gray lines up the backfield and takes the direct snap. It’s a formation where his rare combination of speed and power make him deadly, and it’s a set he’s directed with the poise of an upperclassman.

“He’s handling the Wild formation like a fifth-year senior,” head coach Mack Brown said. “He’s handling it like Fozzy [Whittaker] did. We didn’t know that in the preseason. We just weren’t sure who the guy was and what he was, but it’s definitely him.”

Brown may not have known it, but when Gray strolled onto the 40 Acres a few short months ago, the Longhorns were not only the recipients of an unbelievable football talent but they had also gained a heady individual in an 18-year-old’s body.

“Johnathan, he listens,” running back Jeremy Hills said. “He’s really mature for his age. He’s really good at taking what he learns in the film room out on the practice field and developing it. He’s not hard-headed like myself or other guys really early on, so he can go out there and play like an older guy.”

His quick maturation is evident when Gray discusses pass blocking, a skill that is often difficult for young backs to master because they just don’t do much blocking in high school. It’s a part of the game that’s key to any running back’s development, because without it coaches can’t lean on them in third-down situations.

“It’s something I have to get better at,” Gray said. “I work on it day in and day out. I just have to progress and be able to be that third-down back, too.”

With Gray’s drive you can expect him to make the improvement quickly. But for now Gray is sitting in a deep backfield that features the top fullback and halfback prospect in the class of 2010 — Bergeron and sophomore Malcolm Brown — and Hills, an experienced back who has excelled in his third-down role.

There aren’t a ton of carries to go around with that stacked of a running back room, but Gray has impressed the coaching staff with his poise and patience.

“He’s not one to sit back there and complain or pout,” co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said. “He understands the situation that we’re in, and he also understands that the backfield is crowded. He doesn’t worry about the things he can’t control.”

However, he does feel he can orchestrate a score sooner rather than later. But if his big friend Joe continues to steal his goal-line carries, he won’t be too mad. He’ll just have to work that much harder not to fall on the 1-yard line the next time.

 

Kheeston Randall squats down in a 3-point stance, ready to pounce on Nebraska’s offensive linemen. As he stares down the Huskers with a fire in his eyes, he turns to fellow defensive tackle, sophomore Alex Okafor, and cracks a joke before the first snap.
 
Bringing a sense of humor to serious situations allows Randall to maintain a balance between the fierceness and fun of football; a balance that he deems necessary to play at the demanding level that is the “Texas standard.”
 
On that snap, Okafor recalled that he was jittery and a little nervous because the game had so many implications. But Randall’s relaxed composure put him at ease.
 
“It was a big situation, huge. The crowd was going crazy,” Okafor said. “Then Kheeston was just like, ‘These Nebraska fans are loud.’ And it’s just something small like that that will get me laughing.”
 
Randall’s humor, which consists of him making pithy comments or humming random melodies, helps the Longhorns defense as a whole stay calm on the big stage.
 
“Kheeston is a funny guy,” Okafor said. “We’ll be in the middle of the game and he’ll crack a joke and it makes me laugh and mellows me out throughout the game. He keeps me levelheaded.”
 
More than making his teammates laugh, Randall likes to sing. He even sarcastically said that after his football career is over, he’d like to take voice lessons and become a famous singer.
 
His love for singing is most apparent in post-game press conferences. After both the Rice and Nebraska games, Randall plopped down in front of the microphone and before any journalist could ask him a question, he started in on a hip-hop song.
 
“I got a pretty nice voice,” Randall said as a giant grin stretched across his face. “My teammates love to hear me sing.”
 
Actually, his teammates don’t love to hear him sing.
 
“Don’t let him fool you,” Okafor said. “I’m not saying he’s bad, but I’m pretty sure he’s not as good as he’s telling you he is.”
 
The defensive line hears Randall sing the most, but the secondary players have had the pleasure, too.
 
“I wouldn’t suggest him being on American Idol or anything,” junior cornerback Aaron Williams joked. “He’s not as good as he thinks he is ... don’t tell him I said that.”
 
When asked about the bad grades his teammates give his voice, Randall just scoffs and says that they’re jealous.
 
“Everybody thinks they can sing, but I’m the best,” Randall said. “Gotta be the best at everything.”
 
Though Randall may or may not be as good of a singer as he leads one to believe, he feels that if he didn’t allow his fun-loving personality to seep into his football life, he wouldn’t be as good of a player.
 
“It helps me stay balanced in tough situations,” he said. “Whether we’re up by 10 or down by 10, I have to stay relaxed and continue doing my job, and singing helps with that sometimes.”
 
It was evident last weekend in Nebraska that the system that Randall has works, as defensive coordinator Will Muschamp awarded Randall with the “defensive belt” — a reward for the most productive defensive lineman — after the game because of his performance.
 
“Kheeston had five ‘twofers’ and ate two blocks, and that’s my favorite stat other than a sack or a caused fumble or recover for an inside player,” Muschamp said. “We put a very high stock on [those stats] for our defensive line, especially for inside players. When you’re in those numbers, you’re doing a very nice job. You’re being very disruptive.”
 
A “twofer” is when a defensive lineman takes on a double team, allowing another defensive linemen to roam free and attack the quarterback or running back depending on the play.
 
Muschamp explained that one of the defensive schemes heading into Nebraska was to force the offense to go east-west rather than north-south by cutting off all routes up the middle. To do that, the defensive line was down in a three-point stance and played thicker on blockers. The Longhorns were very successful with that gameplan, as they held the Huskers to just 125 rushing yards and 77 passing yards.
 
“Kheeston controlled the middle of our defense [on Saturday],” Muschamp said. “In order to have executed [that game plan], you better have a good nose guard and he better play well, and Kheeston certainly did that.”
 
As a thundering, 6-foot-5, 295-pound lineman, Randall is a major force for the Longhorns. Though he enjoys a song and a joke here and there, any opponent would be foolish to think that Randall’s sense of humor distracts him from inflicting crushing blows upon any player trying to come through the middle of the Texas defense.