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Golden: After gruesome injury, Texas' Derek Kerstetter wants to go out on his own terms

Kerstetter is back for his fifth season.

Texas center Derek Kerstetter's 2020 season ended prematurely after a gruesome ankle injury at Kansas State, but he's back for a fifth season this fall. He leads the team with 37 career starts and has played all along the line.
  • Kerstetter is Texas' most experienced offensive lineman with 37 career starts.
  • Kerstetter called the eight months of rehab from his ankle injury "one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced in my life.”
  • Kerstetter is impressed with the practice habits of quarterbacks Casey Thompson and Hudson Card.

Derek Kerstetter could have left and thrown his hat into the NFL draft ring earlier this year, but there was work that needed to be done.

Besides, he had zero interest in leaving college with a final image of him being carted off the field.

So Texas' senior center is back for a fifth season after a gruesome ankle injury at Kansas State cut his 2020 season short in Week 9. Eight months of resolve-testing rehabilitation have fueled Kerstetter's desire to finish out his college career, and he's eager to lead this offensive line into the latest new era of Longhorns football.

Tough people overcome, and Kerstetter, a hard-nosed sort who doesn’t back down from a fight, didn’t take long to make the obvious decision, even if he will be playing in front of an inexperienced quarterback for his final year.

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Texas offensive lineman Derek Kerstetter, celebrating with Roschon Johnson after a touchdown last season, has been whistled for drive-halting personal fouls in the Longhorns' last two games.

“They’ve been hectic,” Kerstetter said of the weeks of recovery followed by the months of rehab. “It’s been just a pleasure to be able to come out here to be with my teammates again. What I went through was a blessing because it taught me so many different things, but it was also one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced in my life.”

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Few things compare with a trip home after a road win, and though past Texas teams have had their share of problems at Kansas State's Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, the Longhorns' 69-31 obliteration of the Wildcats was one of the most enjoyable return flights in recent memory.

For most.

Kerstetter was seated next to his quarterback, Sam Ehlinger, on the plane. The trip was one of pain from the injury and the mental anguish that came with knowing his season was over. The two-hour flight must have felt like six for the team’s most experienced lineman, who went down awkwardly while protecting Ehlinger on a bull rush from Kansas State's Bronson Massie in the second quarter. Another Wildcat, defensive end Wyatt Hubert, clipped Kerstetter’s lower leg as he was bending backward, which didn’t help matters.

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It was one of those Joe Theismann moments. One replay was more than enough and subsequent views caused many of us turn away from the screen.

"I don’t think Kerstetter lost anything,” UT defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said of Derek Kerstetter, above. "Kerstetter was always a good offensive lineman. That injury, sad to say, was a step back, but he did everything he could to get back, and he is obviously back.”

“Prayers to Kerstetter and his teammates who have to move forward and play,” Fox color commentator Joel Klatt told the viewing audience as Ehlinger’s best friend was being carted off the field.

Later that day, as the plane was making its descent into Austin, Ehlinger steadied his best friend’s leg to cushion the impact of the landing. It was a rare reversal of roles, the quarterback protecting his lineman.

“Sam is a very close friend and he’s a person that’s kind of irreplaceable,” Kerstetter said.

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Kerstetter's injury had a big impact on the team and tugged at the Longhorns' collective heartstrings. He's a self-made man — a largely overlooked three-star lineman from San Antonio who has gone on to play all over Texas' line — who brought the right mix of toughness and intelligence up front. So powerful was the respect for him that teammates gathered around him in the locker room in Manhattan and sang "Texas Fight" when he returned from the hospital.

Four-year starters up front are an invaluable resource. The possibility of Kerstetter having played his final UT game was sobering entering the final stretch of last season. His decision to come back was met with great enthusiasm. And new Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian and offensive line coach Kyle Flood understand what it means to have experienced, smart guys in the O-line room who can teach the others.

And his play has drawn raves.

"I don’t think Kerstetter lost anything,” defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said. "Kerstetter was always a good offensive lineman. That injury, sad to say, was a step back, but he did everything he could to get back, and he is obviously back.”

Kerstetter says this experience has made him a better player, and Sarkisian said he saw no hesitation or mental scar tissue in the first week of practice.

After suffering a season-ending ankle injury at Kansas State in Week 9 last year, UT center Derek Kerstetter, seen here running the state flag onto the field before the game at West Virginia in 2017, decided he wasn't done as a Longhorn.

“He's going for it, and he's cutting it loose,” Sarkisian said. “He's a great leader. He's a physical player. He’s smart. I'm really, really glad to have him back this year.”

The line will have to apply new verbiage and a different philosophy this fall, and with Louisiana and Arkansas first on the schedule, there won’t be an easing-in period. A lineman like Kerstetter, who has 37 of the line's 89 career starts, will definitely aid that transition, especially with unproven quarterbacks Casey Thompson and Hudson Card taking over.

Junior Angilau, the team's most vocal lineman, has 24 starts under his belt, and tackle Denzel Okafor (14) and Christian Jones (10) are the others in double digits. Sophomore Jake Majors stepped in capably for Kerstetter and also is in the running to start, maybe even at center since the versatile Kerstetter has worked at tackle at times this summer.

We know running back Bijan Robinson will be the featured attraction, adding to the pressure to block against fronts that will be stacked to stop the run. To that end, Flood is seeking more depth in the trenches.

The offensive linemen will enter the fall on high alert because it will be the first season in their college careers in which they won't have an experienced quarterback behind center. Thompson showed playmaking ability in the Alamo Bowl win over Colorado, but that came after the issue had long been decided.

Kerstetter likes what he has seen so far from both Thompson and Card.

“These young guys have done incredible,” he said. “As an old guy, you can only ask that they do their best, and that’s what they’ve done each and every day. They’ve come in and they’ve worked hard, and they’ve used their voices and took over the offense, so it’s been awesome to see both of them just continue to work and grind. It’s really a special thing here.”

Sarkisian said the battle to replace Ehlinger is fierce and the combatants are making it really tough to decide. The winner will jump into a real pressure cooker but should be comforted by knowing that Ehlinger’s most trusted lineman is manning the ship up front.

Kerstetter is back and hungry to go out on his own terms.