The last thing I asked Mason Walters following a brief one-on-one interview after the Longhorns' victory over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl was a simple question.
Mason Walters wasn't shy about saying he and the other linemen need to improve run blocking before the start of the 2013 season.
Where can this offensive line improve the most heading into 2013?
“Run blocking overall,” Walters said. “There have been times where it looks good, then a team throws something different at us and it all goes to Hell.”
It was a pretty simple answer to an open-ended question, but what the veteran leader of the Texas line said was on-point. So much so that it describes in a nutshell what we saw from Stacy Searels' group in 2012.
There were times when the line looked dominant. Go back and look at the Ole Miss, Baylor and Iowa State games and the way that group allowed the Longhorns to close out fourth-quarter games against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to see a line that was vastly improved from its first year under Searels.
Yet there were rock-bottom moments like giving up a safety against Oklahoma and failing to convert a 4th-and-1 at the goal line against Kansas. Those were lowlights that showed how much further the line has to go to be a group that can play championship-level football.
Last season the Longhorns averaged 171.5 yards per game on the ground, good enough for 51st in the country. That number was down significantly from 2011 (202.6) when Texas had a national top-25 ground game, but consider the Longhorns' pass offense threw for 73 yards more per game last fall and you can understand the production dip.
Still, if you look at the production the running game generated in the four losses it shows that no matter how much tempo Texas wants to use or what emphasis is put on making plays in space, the running game needs to be there to close out big games.
Against West Virginia the Longhorns averaged 3.5 yards per carry (39-135) but 49 of those yards came on one Johnathan Gray run. Texas was out-rushed by Oklahoma 343-74, one of the many lopsided statistical comparisons in that bludgeoning. TCU out-gained Texas on the ground, 217-86, and the same was true in the loss at Kansas State (178-99).
The Longhorns have stockpiled a lot of talented young lineman (like 2012 All-American Curtis Riser), giving the line more depth than it's had in years.
Even in the Alamo Bowl win over Oregon State, it was Major Applewhite's decision to go away from the running game and attack the Beavers with more tempo and a mix of misdirection plays and shots down the field that aided the victory. The Longhorns finished with 117 yards on 31 carries, but Texas was unable to get anything going on the ground with 64 of those rushing yards coming on a second-quarter touchdown run by Marquise Goodwin.
That takes us to this spring, and with spring practice starting on Thursday the Texas offensive line has a chance to put those four forgettable performances behind them for a while. Not only are four of the five starters from last year's group back (Trey Hopkins is out this spring recovering from a stress fracture in his lower left leg), but it's an experienced group.
Additionally Kennedy Estelle, Camrhon Hughes, Curtis Riser and Sedrick Flowers have drastically altered the two-deep, making this far and away the deepest and most talented group Searels will bring into a spring practice since he arrived after the 2010 season.
“I'm excited for what Texas has now,” Walters said. “Great teams have depth, and that'll help.”
Texas does have depth. Texas does have talent. Texas is also out of excuses for underperforming in the trenches.
With the kind of talent on hand, and that's without mentioning probable 2013 starter Desmond Harrison, a junior college transfer who arrives this summer, and the possible combinations being better than anything the Longhorns have put on the field up front in nearly a decade, there's a reason for fans to be optimistic. Optimistic that this group will be able to meet or exceed whatever expectations are placed before it.
We've been down this road before with the offensive line. The difference now is that there are guys behind the incumbent starters who pose a legitimate threat to take a job, meaning spring ball will be about more than just going through the motions and hoping nobody is injured at the end.
Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite is expected to run an up-tempo style of offense in 2013.
There will be real, legitimate competition for spots in the first team huddle. That in and of itself is a victory since it's something Searels has never had going into a spring session.
All of that said, it'll take more than just a good spring showing for things to come together and manifest themselves into a productive 2013 season. At least the type of productive season the offensive line needs to have to make the offense click.
One thing Walters feels this line needs to do is to not get hung up on winning drills and individual battles this spring. Rather there has to be a devotion to studying and respecting the process that leads to those results - good and bad.
“You have to look at how you got to those results,” Walters said. “If you're going against the defense in a drill in practice and you lost, why you lost is more important than the fact that you lost.”
That's where not only player development comes in, but self-development is also critical up front. Understanding hand placement, leverage, schemes, responsibilities on certain plays are things that need to be done individually and as a group without Searels present. That kind of effort can not only bring a group together that needs to have more continuity than any on the field, but it can also rub off on the rest of the team.
Walters remembers watching guys like Lamarr Houston, Roddrick Muckelroy and Sergio Kindle when he first arrived on campus. They're the type of players Walters is referencing when he talks about the little things that go into winning championships.
“They respected the process,” Walters said. “Knowing how hard those guys worked to be as good as they were made you feel like they really deserved and earned everything they got.”
During the bowl practices in San Antonio there was a feeling that the offensive line might be finally starting to see what that process is all about. With young, hungry defensive linemen like Malcom Brown, Hassan Ridgeway and Shiro Davis squaring off against them in practice, this Texas offensive line was getting a good look in practice and responded well to the challenge back in December.
“A couple of [practices] felt like spring ball where we were just getting after each other,” Walters said. “I think we really went back to being invested in the process.”
One thing the offensive line feels comfortable with is the offense being a more up-tempo attack. While they struggled to run the ball against Oregon State, there were visible signs that the no-huddle offense can work against a defense with a defensive front that boasts equal or superior talent.
“We were able to wear them down throughout the game, and that helped,” Walters said. “We could feel their will starting to break and we kept after it with the no-huddle stuff, pushed the tempo and it worked for us.”
That's not the only thing that needs to work for the Texas line in 2013. It needs to be the kind of line that sees everything come together so they can avoid the poor performances of 2012.
The process to being the kind of consistent group the offensive line needs to be officially starts on Thursday.