Texas offensive lineman Patrick Vahe, known for his long hair and bruising guard play, returns in 2016 after being named a freshman All-American. RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

BEVO BEAT Football

Spring review: Offensive line — Connor Williams, Patrick Vahe anchor young unit

Longhorns could start freshman Zach Shackelford at center while leaning on other newcomers for depth

Posted April 21st, 2016

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Picking the top five Texas offensive linemen on the roster is easy. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot, at best.

Lock in Kent Perkins, Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe as starters. All three have proven themselves as durable, versatile players. Perkins, who will be a senior, has 24 career starts (12 at right guard, 12 at right tackle). Williams and Vahe were freshmen All-Americans last season.

Kent Perkins lines up against BYU during the first half of action held at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, September, 6, 2014. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Kent Perkins lines up against BYU during the first half of action in 2014.
(Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman)

The other two starting jobs may go to players with no experience at this level.

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Brandon Hodges, a junior, transferred to UT last season and redshirted. Freshman Zach Shackelford enrolled in January and appears to have already won the starting job at center.

If any of those five get injured, new offensive line coach Matt Mattox faces some tough decisions.

Tristan Nickelson, a 6-9 behemoth, started three games last season. Elijah Rodriguez was part of last season’s rotation. But Garrett Thomas redshirted last season, and Jake McMillon was on defense.

Here’s how UT’s offensive linemen stack up:

1. Kent Perkins: Once considered the sixth-best offensive tackle prospect in the nation, Perkins (6-5, 320 pounds) is going to wind up starting more than 30 career games — if he can stay healthy. His versatility is a terrific bonus. He can play tackle, guard and probably center if it came down to it.

2. Connor Williams: Not many players come in and start 12 games at left tackle, one of the most demanding positions on the field. Williams (6-6, 288 pounds) flashed a nasty mean streak last August. Good luck to anyone who wants to beat him out.

3. Patrick Vahe: Just like Williams, Vahe was on track to start every game at left guard last season before missing the last two with injury. As nasty as he is on the field, Vahe is just as fun-loving and loquacious off it. Any team would take him.

4. Brandon Hodges: The Mississippi native had all the right credentials when he transferred in from East Mississippi Community College. Hodges (6-4, 318 pounds) was rated the nation’s 15th-best junior college tackle prospect by 247Sports. Now, Hodges just needs to be coachable, be consistent.

UT offensive lineman Zach Shackelford talks to a teammate during the first Spring practice at Denius Fields on Monday March 7, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
UT offensive lineman Zach Shackelford talks to a teammate during the first Spring practice at Denius Fields on Monday March 7, 2016. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

5. Zach Shackelford: Now that Perkins and Williams have broken the mold on what freshmen are capable of, there’s no reason to keep Shackelford on the sideline — assuming he’s ready to roll. The center position requires a calm leader, someone who can identify what defenses are doing and help bark out signals.

6. Tristan Nickelson: A permanent member of the all-airport team, Nickelson can simply amaze people just by walking through the lobby. He’s 6-9 and weighs 316 pounds. There was real hope he could cement himself at right tackle. That could still happen. But now other freshmen are coming in that will push him for playing time.

7. Elijah Rodriguez: Now a sophomore, Rodriguez (6-5, 307 pounds) played in seven games last season. He helps bolster UT’s depth, but it’s still unclear whether he can elevate himself into a starting role.

8. Buck Major: The redshirt freshman is still finding his way, but with a 6-6, 328-pound frame, Major could still become a major force.

9. Garrett Thomas: Entering his second year after redshirting last season, Thomas (6-6, 300 pounds) was considered the 23rd-best overall prospect in Louisiana as a high school player.

10. Jake McMillon: The sophomore has bounced around during his UT career, just like tight end Caleb Bluiett. McMillon was a reserve offensive guard in 2014 and a defensive tackle last season. Now, he’s back on offense.

2016 freshmen: Shackelford is already in the mix. Several others have the chance to get into the rotation. North Mesquite’s Jean Delance will begin by playing right tackle, but he’d ultimately like to start at left tackle. Lewisville’s Denzel Okafor has a seven-foot wingspan. Arlington Bowie’s Tope Imade may need to redshirt his first season to get acclimated.

2015 review: Former offensive line coach Joe Wickline wasn’t shy about inserting two players with no experience, but Williams and Vahe made immediate impacts. Seniors Taylor Doyle and Sed Flowers were durable, too. The Horns averaged 224.8 rushing yards per game. The unit allowed 32 sacks, tied for fourth-most in the Big 12.

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