Column: Protection up-front critical to success of Longhorn offense

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Photo Credit: Brooke Crim | Daily Texan Staff

Shane Buechele spent most of his Saturday at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium on the run. Rather than surveying the field for open receivers, a majority of the sophomore quarterback’s attention was dedicated to self-preservation, fleeing as Maryland defenders collapsed the pocket around him. 

Texas’ first offensive series in Saturday’s 51-41 defeat was indicative of things to come throughout the afternoon. Buechele was walloped for a sack at the Longhorn 1-yard line on the offense’s first play from scrimmage, and he tossed an interception while under duress two plays later. By game’s end, Buechele was sacked five times, taking additional hits along the way. 

“We didn’t come out and do our best,” junior offensive tackle Connor Williams said following Tuesday’s practice. “We were too afraid to make a mistake. We need to come out there and just let it all rip.”

The burnt orange offensive line was primed to be one of the Longhorns’ most effective units heading into 2017. The group returned four starters, headlined by Williams, who was named a first-team All-American following the 2016 season. Coming off a year in which the offensive line blocked for D’Onta Foreman’s 2000-yard rushing season along with Buechele’s record-setting freshman campaign, many expected the offensive line to be the backbone of an explosive Longhorn offense.

But that wasn’t the case on Saturday. The leaks that consistently sprung up across the Longhorn line allowed Terrapin defenders to burst into the backfield with ease. 

On a notable third down in the second quarter, Buechele took a snap from the shotgun with an empty backfield and five wideouts flanking him. Maryland rushed four defenders, a manageable task for the five Longhorn linemen. But a miscommunication caused junior right guard Jake McMillon to fan on his block, gifting Terrapin linebacker Jermaine Carter an open lane to sling Buechele to the turf. The play was emblematic of Texas’ afternoon, a game that amounted to a free-for-all for Maryland’s front seven.

Texas’ mistakes were most glaring on the right side of the line. However, Williams struggled on the left side as well. A projected first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, the Coppell native squashed Texas’ hopes of a comeback late in the fourth quarter. 

Down 44-34 with under six minutes remaining, Williams committed two holding penalties in the same series. The first hold negated a 14-yard completion from Buechele to sophomore Colin Johnson, and a second hold three plays later effectively killed the Longhorns’ drive on 4th and 14. Williams will have to play closer to his All-American status moving forward for the Longhorns to mount an effective attack.

The offensive line’s mistakes had an impact outside of simply affecting the outcome. Head coach Tom Herman announced on Monday that Buechele suffered a bruised shoulder during Saturday’s contest, forcing him to miss practice early in the week. Freshman Sam Ehlinger has taken reps with the starters during practice with Buechele sidelined, and will be deployed if the sophomore feels further discomfort. 

Buechele is a tough quarterback, one who’s bounced back from injury before. But he’s not equipped to handle a slew of crushing blows. This isn’t 6-foot-5 Vince Young taking snaps under center, dishing out punishment to whatever defender stands in his way. If the Longhorn offense wants to muster more than the three touchdowns they scored on Saturday, they’ll need to start by keeping Buechele upright. Otherwise, Texas may find itself in need of a new signal caller very soon.