Offensive line, running game critical to Longhorns' success against Iowa State

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Photo Credit: Gabriel Lopez | Daily Texan Staff

Head coach Tom Herman repeated the number just to make sure it registered properly with everyone listening — five.

Or maybe Herman uttered the number a second time just to make sure it registered with him.

Either way, the realization that Texas’ offensive line only had five players capable of playing in a game hit hard in Herman’s weekly press conference last Monday. Herman and the Longhorns were less than 48 hours removed from a gut-wrenching 27-24 double overtime defeat to then-No. 4 USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Junior left tackle Connor Williams suffered a torn meniscus along with a sprained MCL and PCL in his left knee in the second quarter of that game. Williams is out indefinitely after an MRI revealed that the preseason first team All-American needs arthroscopic surgery.

Senior Tristan Nickelson was forced to slide over to left tackle for the rest of the USC game, and sophomore Denzel Okafor settled in at right tackle. Currently, the offensive line’s lineup heading into Thursday night’s game at Iowa State has Nickelson and Okafor at those same positions. Juniors Patrick Vahe and Jake McMillon are at left and right guard, and sophomore Zach Shackelford is at center.

But outside of those five, Texas doesn’t have much help or experience up front. Herman said on Tuesday that junior center Terrell Cuney is back from injury and that freshman right tackle Derek Kerstetter is “playing well” in practice. But don’t expect to see any reserves against the Cyclones unless Texas really gets into a bind.

“Right now the five guys that are gonna start are playing at a higher level than those two guys,” Herman said. “So there won’t be any rotation or anything like that. But if we get in a pinch, at least those guys are serviceable at this point.”

The depth shortage on the offensive line has been felt most notably in the running game. The Longhorns struggled to run the ball against USC, with junior Chris Warren III and sophomore Kyle Porter combining for only nine carries and 24 yards.

“When you can’t get your run game going, no one likes that, specifically on the O-line,” McMillon said. “But that’s something we’re working at.”

During their bye week, the Longhorns had plenty of pondering to do with the running game.

“It has been a lot of idea-sharing, a lot of self-reflection, a lot of critiquing of who we are, what we can be, what we need to be, what our personnel will allow us to be,” Herman said. “We’ve lost three of our best run-blockers in Andrew Beck, Elijah Rodriguez and Connor Williams. And we’re three games into the season. Does that mean we’re gonna stop running the football? No. But we’ve gotta figure out ways to get in formations and to call runs that allow the guys that are playing to be successful running the football.”

The aforementioned Beck, a senior tight end, and Rodriguez, a redshirt junior right tackle, were lost in preseason camp. Beck is out for the season with a fractured foot and Rodriguez is out indefinitely with an ankle injury. Redshirt freshman offensive guard Patrick Hudson is also out for the season with a torn ACL.

But even with the injuries on the offensive line, the Longhorns still plan to utilize their running game early and often. They get a chance to prove their rushing attack’s viability on Thursday night against Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, as the Longhorns open Big 12 play.

“We feel like we’ve addressed (the running game),” Herman said. “I think you’ll see some new wrinkles. We’ve been definitely at the drawing board in that offensive staff room for the better part of a week and a half.”