Texas Tech offensive linemen don’t really argue with the label they’ve been given. All they ask is for a few weeks or months to disprove it.
“We’re not going to be the weak link of the team at the end of the season. I promise you that,” sophomore guard Alfredo Morales said this week.
New offensive line coach Lee Hays said this summer that his group is viewed as a liability, maybe as much as any unit on the team. And word seems to have gotten around.
“We are. I’ll admit,” sophomore center Jared Kaster said. “We are probably the weak link right now, as a team and as the offense. A football game’s won in the trenches, either as D-line or O-line. It’s won in the trenches. That’s something that’s going to have to motivate us.”
The Red Raiders had only 10 scholarship offensive linemen on campus for spring practice, but three of the 10 missed all or most of workouts. Two factors led to the low numbers: Three multi-year starters graduated, and four other offensive linemen Tech signed in 2009 and 2010 — players who would be fifth-year seniors and juniors, in position to carry the flag — are no longer in the program.
So this spring, at a time when new coach Kliff Kingsbury was trying to operate an offense at breakneck pace, the Red Raiders didn’t even have a two-deep line. Hays noted that during one scrimmage young guard Trey Keenan would run plays, go to the sideline to throw up and hurry back in.
Tech, which started preseason practice with only one senior and one junior in the offensive line two-deep, is in the uncomfortable position of considering one or two true freshmen to plug gaps up front.
“They know we’re the weak spot right now,” Hays said recently, “and we’ve got to make sure we do our part as an offensive line. I think we’re as good as anybody in the country skillwise. We’ve got to handle that part of the offense up front. The only way we’re going to get there is hard work.”
However, if the line can survive during this low tide of available bodies, the latest wave could yield another group of multi-year starters, with left tackle Le’Raven Clark, center Kaster, guards Alfredo and Tony Morales and Keenan and guard-tackle Beau Carpenter among them.
That nucleus, along with injury prone senior Rashad Fortenberry, seems to have the potential to get the job done, provided they can stay healthy.
Kingsbury said before training camp started that he views Clark as the only sure starter up front. Center and guard could be solid enough with Kaster, the Morales brothers, Keenan and possibly junior James Polk, who slipped to third team after the spring.
If Fortenberry and-or true freshman Josh Outlaw can secure right tackle, Carpenter figures to be the starting right guard; otherwise, he could be pressed into the right-tackle job.
Hays has less than a month to sort through them all and assemble the parts.
“I’m blessed,” he said, “because coach Kingsbury’s not going to give anybody anything as far as a job. They’re all going to have to earn it. I love that as an offensive line coach. He’s not saying, ‘This guy’s starting. This guy’s not.’ They have to come out here and grind and work hard.”
Carpenter said some of the underclassmen have taken their their best shot through the first few workouts.
“He (Hays) always highlights Trey Keenan, Jared Kaster and Alfredo for great effort,” Carpenter said. “That’s what he’s looking for during this camp is guys that can hustle downfield and work hard.”
It’s all part of the goal, to prove they’re better than anyone thinks.
“I think that’s motivated all five of us, the starters right now,” Kaster said, “that, ‘Look, we are the weakest link.’ We’ll take that under our belt, put a little chip on our shoulder and get after it.”
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