Reliance on technique, improved communication, and a more nasty disposition have helped the Horns overcome early struggles in the offensive trenches.
“I don’t ever want to see those grades again and, you know, I think the four guys around me would say the same.”
For Texas Longhorns redshirt freshman center Jake Majors and his fellow offensive lineman, the grades handed out by offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Kyle Flood following the 40-21 trashing by the Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville matched the embarrassment they experienced on the field.
“I just think that we felt embarrassed by the way we approached that game,” Majors said on Center Stage with Jake Majors this week. “I don’t think we were emotionally attached to that game — I feel like every game you should play with emotion and I personally didn’t feel it, I don’t think I had it either. I think we just thought we were gonna show up and win and we soon realized that’s not the case.”
Texas allowed 11 tackles for loss against Arkansas, including three sacks, as the Longhorns only managed 3.4 yards per carry, with most of the success on the ground coming from junior quarterback Casey Thompson well after the outcome was already decided.
Despite plenty of experience among the five starters, Majors said the group didn’t trust their preparation in Fayetteville, losing their focus on their technique and fundamentals when they experienced adversity.
“He told us technique is what we need to rely on when things get tough and we didn’t really understand that, but after the Arkansas game, I think without even talking about it we all knew that we needed to listen to Coach Flood,” Majors said.
By practice the next Tuesday, Majors starting feeling confident in the buy in from the offensive line to get better.
Hand placement and hat placement were points of emphasis for Flood, but the staff also stressed the nastiness and effort level that it takes to finish blocks.
“I think that we’re trusting the communication amongst one another — there’s not as much hesitation,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Monday. “I think we’re using much better fundamentals and techniques to make the blocks. And then when we’re getting there, I think we’re getting there with a much nastier demeanor. That’s part of offensive line play, we’re cerebral with a lot of what we do and there’s design and there’s scheme and there’s communication, but at the end of the day, you still have to defeat your man.”
As the group’s confidence improved, the Texas offensive line translated successful work in practice to successful plays over the last two games, including three touchdown runs of 60 or more yards against Rice and 336 rushing yards against Texas Tech.
Over those two contests, the Longhorns rushed for 763 yards and 10 touchdowns on 93 carries (8.2 yards per carry) while drastically reducing the number of negative plays allowed. Against Rice, Texas didn’t allow a sack and only gave up one tackle for loss. In last week’s Big 12 opener, the only official sack came on a fumble when sophomore running back Bijan Robinson clipped Thompson on a play fake and the other two tackles for loss by the Red Raiders came on the final possession.
Majors was quick to downplay the significance of the quarterback change on the offensive line before admitting that Thompson’s experience and preparation do make a difference on the field. While Majors makes most of the line calls as the center, his limited view requires him to rely on Thompson to change the call if he sees the defense tip off a blitz, an area where Thompson excels thanks to his diligent film study.
Sarkisian’s play calling has helped, too — after calling outside zone only four times against Arkansas, it’s become a staple for an offensive line that moves well laterally and a starting running back in Robinson who excels finding holes or cutback lanes in that particular scheme.
But improved technique and an increased ability to create displacement off the ball have allowed Texas to find more success running the ball inside, too, a key development for Sarkisian since he prefers a diverse run game capable of attacking opponents with a variety of schemes.
Now the challenge for the Longhorns is to avoid becoming complacent and communicate well enough on the field to keep the Horned Frogs from using line games and blitzes to disrupt Sarkisian’s blocking schemes, a consistent problem for the Texas offensive line against TCU and other opponents for most of the last decade.