As the old adage goes, games are won in the trenches.
While that’s an oversimplification, that cliché has stayed true in the Big 12. Its most dominant offenses have always possessed great offensive lines. Baylor has been a stalwart up front, seemingly always with an All-American. Oklahoma isn’t far behind and TCU is improving up front. Kansas State hasn’t missed a bowl game in six seasons thanks in part to Bill Snyder’s consistent O-lines.
On that same note, while Texas’s downfall can be traced to inconsistency at quarterback, the offensive line hasn’t done many favors for those lambasted signal-callers. That could change this season with a young group which produced several shining moments last year.
A Longhorn offensive lineman on the all-conference team has been a rare sight. The last season UT graced the All-Big 12 team was 2013, with two players on the first team. (Texas won eight games that year.) Since then, not one lineman has even made the second team. Two sophomores could be the key to turning that ship around, and they’re already on pace to do so.
Along with being named to the all-conference preseason team, tackle Connor Williams and guard Patrick Vahe were selected as the third- and ninth-best linemen in the conference by ESPN. Those rankings may be a bit reactionary with only a year under their belts, but they did turn a lot heads last season.
Both Williams and Vahe walked into the starting lineup out of necessity, but that was only for the best. Should they have been backups-turned-starters this season, the learning curve would be a year behind. Now there’s a great level of security for coach Charlie Strong — that has become a rarity in Austin.
UT’s quarterback play should improve, if only because Williams can be a blindside anchor who protects either Tyrone Swoopes or Shane Buechele.
Williams came into his freshman season a bit green in the passing game, needing to work on his footwork. He did grow over the course of 2015 through training camp this year, though his real strength lies in the run game.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, runs toward Williams’ area averaged 5.98 yards per carry. Texas averaged 5.1 yards per rush as a whole last season, third in the conference. Without the help of Williams, that average yardage would likely have dropped below five yards and ranked in the bottom half of the league.
What’s more surprising is that Williams came into 2015 as a three-star recruit and is making this much of an impact on a team greatly comprised of four-star recruits such as Vahe at right guard.
Vahe came into his freshman season as the No. 2 center in his recruiting class, but he made the move to guard to fill an immediate need. Now he may move back to center to address the recent injury to true freshman Zach Shackelford, though a timetable for his return has yet to be determined.
Regardless of Vahe’s position — whether has to move back to center or stay put to help the right side of the ball — this is an important season for Texas to prove if it is truly back. Quarterback play will get the most attention, but it really starts with Vahe and Williams to turn things around.