December 24, 2007

Season-in-review: The offensive line

As we continue our final breakdown of the 2007 season for the Texas Longhorns, we'll take a look at the offensive line. With three key starters missing from the 2006 team, there were more question marks about this group than answers coming into the season. Did they live up to expectations? We're going inside to find out.


Tony Hills (Senior)

Expectations - Heading into the season Hills was expected to compete at an elite level and many regarded him as the best lineman in the Big 12. Anything less than a tremendous senior season would have been a major disappointment.

Reality - Hills had his moment this season when he was every bit the All-American that he was projected to be, but he wasn't consistently dominant this season. Still, Hills played at a high enough level that he still ended up being named a Walter Camp All-American, while earning consensus All-Big 12 honors.

Bottom Line - One of the problems that Hills faced throughout his Texas career is that he was judged against a number of great linemen that arrived before him. Players such as Justin Blalock, Leonard Davis, Derrick Dockery and others have set a high bar and Hills never quite reached that level, even if his honors suggest he belongs in that rare air. At the end of the day, Hills' season was symbolic of the entire team, as there were times when he was everything he was hoped to be and on other occasions he left you wondering why he could consistently play at an elite level.

Adam Ulatoski (Sophomore)

Expectations - After an up-and-down freshman season, hopes were high that Ulatoski would come closer to becoming the elite lineman the staff feels like he has a chance to become. A full year in the weight room was expected to help Ulatoski's progress in the running game.

Reality - Ulatoski had a very solid season, but he's still not consistent enough in pass protection or in the running game to be considered more than a solid, but not elite-level player.

Bottom Line - The coaching staff believes that Ulatoski has a chance to become as good as any tackle they've had in the last ten years, but he needs to start chasing in on some of that potential that so many people, including myself, talk so much about. With Hills departing, Ulatoski has to be an anchor at tackle next season and that means becoming a plus-player on every down. The upcoming off-season is as important for Ulatoski as any player in the entire Texas program.

Tray Allen (True Freshman)

Expectations - With zero depth at the tackle position, all that was expected of Allen in his first season was for him to emerge as the team's No.3 tackle and a solid player in the tackle rotation.

Reality - Allen played as a true freshman and he was essentially the No.3 tackle for most of the season, but the adjustments to the college game came slower for Allen than many had hoped, which meant that Allen didn't quite live up to the hype in his first year that comes with being a five-star high school prospect.

Bottom Line - Although the progress took place behind closed doors, the staff is really excited about the way things started to come together for Allen in the last month. As he heads into next season, Allen's progress will likely determine which direction the staff takes with Ulatoski. If Allen emerges into the player everyone expects him to become, then they can keep Ulatoski on the right side. However, if Allen is slow to progress, the staff could move him to the left side and have Kyle Hix start on the right side.

Kyle Hix (Freshman)

Expectations - When Hix arrived this summer, he was not nearly as highly regarded as Allen, but with the limited numbers available at tackle, there was a very good chance that Hix would be forced into action in his true freshman season.

Reality -.From the moment that Hix stepped on campus he was locked into the two-deep and there's no question that he was ahead of Allen in their first seasons in Austin. As the team prepares for the Holiday Bowl, Hix might be preparing for his first of many bowl game starts.

Bottom Line -Hix is currently the team's second-best tackle when you take Hills' injury into consideration. With a full year to work in the weight room, Hix might actually emerge as the best tackle on the team. The issue is whether he can beat out Ulatoski, which seems unlikely because of the experience factor. Depending on what happens with Allen, Hix could end up starting next year at right tackle or he could be the team's No.3 tackle.


Chris Hall (Sophomore)

Expectations - The Texas coaching staff had been high on Hall coming out of the spring, but there were still some questions about whether he would merge as the starter heading into the fall. By the end of the first week of training camp, Hall had emerged as a starter and a player that the coaching staff had very high hopes for.

Reality - Hall ended up being he glue the held this entire offensive line together, as injuries forced him to play all five line positions at various times this season. Although Hall isn't the most physically gifted lineman on the roster, he's a fighter and this line needed him more than anyone else this season.

Bottom Line - Hall figures to start at guard next year, but his versatility will make him a valuable two-deep contributor, even if he is eventually passed by younger, more talented teammates. It's still hard to figure just how high Hall's ceiling as a player is. As important as he was this season, he has to improve in order to stay on the field, just like everyone else.

Charlie Tanner (Sophomore)

Expectations - Everyone has been waiting for the talented Tanner to emerge as a force inside at guard, but through the end of the spring he still hadn't been able to perform at a consistently high level. The hope was that tanner would finally start to take off in his third year in the program.

Reality - Tanner was a solid option at guard for the Longhorns this season, but he's not yet developed into a upper-echelon player and there are questions about whether he's a player that the Longhorns can build with in 2008.

Bottom Line - As Tanner heads into the off-season he's definitely at a crossroads of his college career. Although he has two seasons of eligibility remaining, it's still not known whether this kid can be more than just a decent player. With a number of young players coming up in the program, Tanner will need to improve or run the risk of being passes by player that have the ability to surpass the current threshold that Tanner seems to be stuck in.

Cedric Dockery (Junior)

Expectations - At the midway point of 2006, Dockery was an emerging young star at guard, but a knee injury wrecked the second half of his season. Heading into 207, the Longhorns hopes that he would quickly return to his 2006 form and emerge as a rock in the middle of the Longhorn offensive line.

Reality - Dockery made it back from his knee injury, but he did not make it all the back to pre-injury form and although he was a solid player for the Longhorns, there's another level that everyone is waiting for Dockery to reach.

Bottom Line - You have to cut Dockery some slack this season because he was back on the field less than a year removed from a serious knee injury, but the Longhorns need more from him than what they got this season. He has one season of eligibility remaining and the hope is that with a little more time he can get back into the form he displayed as a third-year sophomore. If he can't regain that form, the Longhorns will need to look at other options.

Michael Huey (True Freshman)

Expectations - As the nation's top guard prospect coming out of high school, the hope was that Huey would be able to give the Longhorns a boost inside on their two-deep.

Reality - As the season went on, Huey started to show some real flashes of being a tremendous player in his first season. Huey proved to be a solid member of the two-deep and improved weekly this season.

Bottom Line - The Longhorns have a future difference maker at guard in Huey and it's going to be interesting to see the progress that he makes after a full off-season. Although there are three upper-classmen in front of him, there seems to be little doubt among those in the program that Huey is the player with the most upside of those playing at guard. Either guys like Tanner and Dockery need to take their games to another level or Huey needs to be on the field.

Britt Mitchell (Redshirt Freshman)

Expectations - The former tight end turned offensive lineman was a dominant blocker in high school, but most felt like he was at least a year away from being a major contributor for the program.

Reality - Mitchell basically red-shirted for the second straight season, as his playing time was very limited, as he saw action in only eight games.

Bottom Line - It's too early to know where Mitchell stands in the big picture. If you look directly towards 2008, it would appear that Mitchell has his work cut out for him if he wants to get onto the two-deep because of the number of veterans returning the number of quality young players that he'll be competing with for playing time. If Mitchell is going to have any impact next season, he's going to need to make a lot of improvement.

Steve Moore (Redshirt Freshman)

Expectations - Really, there weren't any expectations for More coming into his second season. With older players in front of him and a couple of hot shot high school prospects coming into the program, Moore wasn't expected to be a factor this season.

Reality - Moore played in only three games this season and wasn't really a factor.

Bottom Line - As Moore prepares to enter his third season on the 40 Acres, he has to know that the competition is going to be very strong and that if he wants to get on the field, he's going to need to elevate his performance to a level he's never played at before.

Aundre McGaskey (Redshirting Freshman)

Expectations - As one of four top prospects coming into the program, McGaskey was the one player that seemed destined for a redshirt season heading into the start of the fall camp.

Reality - As expected, McGaskey redshirted.

Bottom Line - Had the Longhorns not made the decision to redshirt McGaskey early in the season, he probably would have seen snaps late in the year because the staff was really impressed with the progress he made throughout this season. If you're looking for a player that's currently off the radar that might emerge as a serious contributor next season, keep an eye on McGaskey because he's going to eventually be a big factor.


Dallas Griffin (Senior)

Expectations - Although he'd never started in his career, Griffin was expected to not only hold down the starting center position, but he was also expected to handle all of the line calls. For a player that hadn't been more than a role player during his UT career, the expectations for Griffin were very high coming into the year. This was one player that the Longhorns couldn't afford to have go bust.

Reality - Griffin was a solid starter and ended up winning the Draddy Award as the nation's top male student-athlete on the gridiron.

Bottom Line - When the Longhorns lost Lyle Sendlein after the 2006 season there was going to be a drop-off at the center position regardless of who took the spot, but Griffin did a better job than his previous work might have indicated he was possible of. As the Longhorns move forward, they'll need better than solid play at this position. In the end, Griffin was a solid stop-gap at the center position, but the team needs someone to emerge as a long-term answer.

Buck Burnette (Redshirt Freshman)

Expectations - With a head injury in the spring that caused some concerns heading into the year, it was tough to pencil in exactly where Burnette fit into the big picture. A healthy Burnette had been one of the team's five best linemen in the spring.

Reality - Although he was held out of early workouts, Burnette played in all 12 games, but he never emerged as the player the staff hoped they would have after the spring. He proved to be a solid back-up, but he didn't give them the lift at the center position that most thought he could provide when spelling Griffin.

Bottom Line - Burnette is one of the most important players in the program because he needs to emerge as the starter at center in 2008 or the coaches are going to be forced to juggle some pieces of the line-up in order to have confidence in this group as a whole. Burnette is strong at the point of attack, but he needs more reps and as he gets more experienced, he's likely to evolve into a quality player. One thing is certain, the Longhorns needs that evolution to occur sooner rather than later.

Greg Smith (Redshirt Freshman)

Expectations - The former tight end from Montgomery hasn't been healthy enough to play a full season in years, so as he made the move from pass-catching H-back to full-time offensive lineman, the expectations were very low for the upcoming season. Basically, Smith was viewed as a project that would need at least one more season to develop before being asked to contribute on the field.

Reality - Smith played in 12 games, but was never a factor on the line, although the coaches are pleased with the progress he's made in a short time.

Bottom Line - Smith is still kind of an unknown item. It's hard to believe that he could emerge as a serious candidate for playing time in 2008, but the staff seems to have high hopes for him in the future. The reality is that he's probably still at least another year away from being a serious contributor, if for no other reason than he's still trying to add size to his undersized frame.

Overall thoughts

This group was just ok this season. From week to week, you were never sure if this group was going to be a plus or a negative, which meant that consistency was an obvious buzz word for this group the entire season. Outside of Hills, none of the Texas offensive linemen performed at a level that warranted post-season honors, which is just unacceptable for a program like Texas. As the returning players look ahead to 2008, there's a serious need for a handful of them to elevate their performance levels or this team will likely struggle to achieve championship status once again. In some ways the immediate future of this team hinges on the continued development of players like Allen, Hix, Ulatoski, Hall, Tanner, Dockery, Huey and Burnette. This team has a lot of talented parts, but not a single sure thing heading into next year.

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