One of the things that happened very quickly during the spring was the move of long-time right guard before moving to right tackle last year, Baylen Brown to left tackle. It happened really before anyone could think about it and the move was odd, at least for me. I thought for sure that we would see the two redshirt freshman at either one of the tackles, making the line that much more suspect heading into the season.
But Brown’s move to left tackle signaled a few of things for me in regards to the offensive line that makes me think that Lee Hays is doing what he’s always done, find the best guys, no matter position type that I’ve thought that a player should be. For example, I always thought that Justin Murphy was a perfect tackle prospect, and maybe one day he will be, but Hays has always seen him as a guard.
Part of the solution is that Justin Murphy returns and even though I’ve thought that Murphy absolutely belonged at a tackle spot, Hays has continually had him at right guard and to be honest, he’s been terrific there . . . when healthy. The offensive line struggled once Murphy went out last year and slotting Murphy right back where he started as he could still be recovering from an ACL tear makes sense. Put him where he is comfortable and where he played really well.
It seems like the center position is the one spot where you don’t have to be as big, or as athletically gifted, in order to play for Hays. Jared Kaster was undersized physically, but he made it work for four years and Hays never wavered from Kaster getting the starting nod. With Morales earning an extra year of eligibility due to injuries, he allows Hays the ability to start a senior and also allows Morales the ability to somewhat redeem that high school 4-star ranking. Injuries stink and Morales has been the victim of them for a long time. I think he’s ready to show what he can do.
After spring practices, Madison Akamnonu was the starter at left guard, but the very late addition of Jack Reichel, a junior college transfer from American River, who arrived in Lubbock this spring semester is currently getting the nod. To me, Reichel is more guard that Akamnonu, or at least, that what the video of Reichel shows. I don’t know that Reichel will get the starting nod in the long-term and I think that Hays has Paul Stawarz who was a late addition in 2015 and could also be a guy that eventually gets the starting spot. Usually it takes time to get acclimated to playing on the collegiate level and wonder if Reichel’s inclusion in the starting lineup is motivation more than anything else. It should also be noted that Akamnonu was slated to be the starter at right guard until the latest depth chart was released.
The one guy who has seemingly been on a fast track to starting, pretty much no matter the position, is Terence Steele. I can’t remember where he was slated to start, I think before the spring, it was left tackle, but now Hays has settled him on right tackle, which pairs him with the nimble Justin Murphy on the right side. I like this move and it sets up for Steele to be a staple at right tackle for the next four years. I can certainly live with that.
The biggest question I have for Brown at left tackle is his footwork and then also pairing him up with a guy in Reichel who doesn’t appear to be the most athletic on video. Reichel is a bruiser, but this offense and Hays require you to be light on your feet as well. The other options, Madison Akamnonu, Cody Wheeler and Paul Stawarz all have their faults. I remember last year, the thought about Wheeler was that physically, he just wasn’t ready. The same could be said about Akamnonu, who appears to have really come on strong in the strength program from last year. I don’t know a ton about Stawarz other than his JUCO film and he’s similar to Reichel, but I think Stawarz is a tad bit more athletic. My biggest concern is if Brown can handle those speed rushes that even gave Le’Raven Clark fits. There isn’t an Erik Striker, but there will be someone and I’m just not sure if Brown has the physical ability to make that transition, from right guard. However, if Brown can make the move, then look out.
This current configuration means that the starters consist of two seniors, Brown and Morales, two sophomores, one of which has starting experience, Reichel/Akamnonu/Wheeler/Stawarz and Murphy, and only one redshirt freshman, Steele. I’m nervous about Brown and whoever plays that right guard spot, but I’m not at all nervous about Steele. For whatever reason, I think Steele has the goods and I have absolutely nothing to base that on other than intuition.