Spring Football Questions: How will the 2016 Texas Tech offensive line shape up?


Texas Tech football has opened spring practice with yesterday’s firs team workout. Coming off of a 7-6 2015 season that saw the program return to a bowl game after 2014’s losing campaign, the Red Raiders look to build momentum and climb the Big 12 ladder. But as Texas Tech appears to be heading in the right direction, there remain numerous questions to be answered by the 2016 squad. Over the next month, the spring practice sessions will begin to bring those answers into focus.

 Today’s question: How will the offensive line shape up?

The Texas Tech football program entered last season with one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation. The unit had a collective 95 collegiate starts and was the least of Kliff Kingsbury’s offseason concerns as he was focused on picking a starting quarterback.

The situation heading into 2016 is the complete opposite. Junior quarterback Pat Mahomes is solidified as the starter but which five players will be protecting him remains an uncertainty that spring practice must begin to sort out.

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Texas Tech lost right tackle Le’Raven Clark, guard Alfredo Morales, center Jared Kaster, and backup tackle Emeka Okafor to graduation.   Fortunately, three offensive linemen with significant experience return for the 2016 season.

Seniors Baylen Brown and Tony Morales and sophomore Justin Murphy began last year as starters for Texas Tech. Brown started 11 games in 2015 and has 23 career starts. It is clear that he will be in line for a starting role in 2016 but what is not clear is whether he will be playing guard or tackle.

Redshirt sophomore Justin Murphy will likely remain at guard according to offensive line coach Lee Hays.

“I think, down the road, Justin could be an all-Big 12 guard,” Hays said.

Murphy is big and plays with a nasty mean streak. He started four games and played in five, mostly next to Clark at left guard, before a torn knee ligament ended his season. Murphy is still recovering from the injury and will not participate in contact drills during spring football.

As for replacing two-time 1st team all-Big 12 left tackle Le’Raven Clark, Texas Tech may look to a talented group of redshirt freshmen. Madison Akamnonu, Connor Dyer and Terrance Steele will receive plenty of reps with the first team unit. All three were highly sought after members of the 2015 Texas Tech recruiting class.

Dyer has player mostly guard and center during his time in Lubbock, which has been limited due to an August 2015 knee injury that put him out of action all season. He is still not cleared to be a full participant in spring practice leaving plenty of snaps for other young linemen.

Akamnonu from Arlington, TX is a legitimate candidate to lock down one of the two tackle spots. He spent last season practicing at left tackle and was so highly regarded by the coaching staff that he traveled to half of the Texas Tech road games just to gain experience in regards of what life on the road in the Big 12 is like.

The 6-foot-5, 295-pound Akamnonu may remind fans of Dallas Cowboys’ all-pro left tackle Tyron Smith in terms of his build. The athletic young Red Raider, like Smith, is a fantastic athlete that carries very little fat on his frame.

Steele, a product of San Antonio is also quickly emerging as a strong candidate to start. According to offensive coordinator Eric Morris, Steele will open spring practice as one of the first unit tackles.

The 6-foot-6, 285 pound Steele has been highly praised by Hays who has seen the former 3-star recruit improve as much as any offensive lineman on the roster. He has the natural skill set of a tackle, which may be the reason that he has spent most of his time on the edge of the offensive line.

Other young linemen like redshirt sophomore Robert Castanada, redshirt freshman Cody Wheeler, and juniors Paul Starwarz and Poet Thomas could also figure into the equation in at least back up roles if they do not earn starting spots.

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As spring practice opens, injury and youth have the offensive line up in the air. There is no way to know who will be protecting Pat Mahomes on September 3rd against Stephen F. Austin in Lubbock.

It is hard to imagine that Texas Tech will start the season with redshirt freshmen at both tackle spots, especially since the second game of the year is a road test against Arizona State. It seems that unless he suffers another injury, Tony Morales will get the nod at center but beyond that anything could happen.

If I had to predict the opening day starting unit, I would go with Murphy at left tackle (despite what Hays said about him being an all-conference guard) and Steele at right tackle. In the middle I predict Baylen Brown and Conner Dyer as the guards flanking Morales with Akamnonu rotating in at both tackle positions and playing as a swing tackle.

Next: Spring practice questions: Who will be the backup QB in 2016?

Texas Tech has had fantastic offensive line play for as long as most fans can remember. In order for this trend to continue in 2016, the coaching staff must emerge from spring practice with a clearer plan of how they want to piece together one of the most important units on the team.