This offseason Kansas State linebacker Tre Walker took a shot at the Longhorns. He stepped out and labeled one of the country’s most successful programs soft.
“They kind of laid down a little bit,” Walker said. “That’s nothing to say about their character. That’s just what they do.”
Seven games into the season, it’s hard to give much credence to his opinion. The Longhorns are a physically and mentally tough unit. It’s a drastic change, an alteration that began in the trenches with the offensive line.
“We were tired of hearing everyone talk down on us,” senior left tackle Donald Hawkins said. “When you get tired of people talking you step up.”
The Longhorns haven’t been known for a physical running style since Ricky Williams roamed the Texas backfield in 1998, winning the school’s second Heisman trophy. But this team and coaching staff envisioned a change.
Three years ago Mack Brown set out to alter the offensive mindset at Texas. Instead of the fast-paced spread offense the team ran under Colt McCoy, Brown sought to employ a physical, run-heavy attack that would wear down quicker Big 12 defenses. It was a sound strategy. Almost every team in the Big 12 had shifted to the nickel as its base defense in an attempt to counteract the four and five-wide sets offenses frequently utilized.
But the shift in styles wasn’t effective for Texas. A young, small group of Longhorns offensive linemen weren’t capable of consistently dominating opposing defensive lines. They’d be fine pass blocking, but when the time came to charge ahead and create the gap needed for a one-yard gain, the unit often fell short.
Fast forward three years and the offensive line looks quite different. Three seniors – four when right tackle Josh Cochran is healthy – one junior and a sophomore have combined for one of the best seasons by a Texas offensive line in the last decade.
“Those guys are playing at a very, very high level,” head coach Mack Brown said. “They’ve taken a lot of criticism over the last couple years. This is who we’ve wanted to be for the last three years.”
Before Kansas sacked Case McCoy in the third quarter last weekend, Texas had not allowed a sack in its previous 11 quarters. That’s an attitude stat. It’s takes a strong sense of pride to keep a quarterback’s jersey clean for so long, and the Longhorns have displayed that.
McCoy is appreciative of the effort, but now knows he’ll have to keep feeding them.
“They’re playing unreal,” McCoy said. “I guess I gotta keep feeding them. It’s getting expensive, but if that’s what I’ve got to do, I’ll do it.”
The extra meal or two a week benefits the group, but the increased focus on the rushing attack has been the greatest augment to their performance. The linemen know Texas is committed to run the ball, and it’s up to them to make sure the effort is successful. Thus far, it has been. The Longhorns have cleared the 200-yard barrier on the ground in each of their last three games.
“We want to run the ball down people’s throats,” junior center Dominic Espinosa said. “It’s the mindset and that’s what we are going to do.”
If the offensive line continues to do that, no one will call the Longhorns soft anytime soon.