Newcomers welcomed, but Texas’ Steve Sarkisian focused on developing who’s already here
Longhorns’ 2021 recruiting class stacks up 17th nationally as Sarkisian shifts focus away from rankings and onto development
Imagine being named the new coach at Texas. Now, imagine that happening in a pandemic.
Steve Sarkisian, a coach with virtually no Texas ties, had to do everything virtually on Zoom. And since most of the 2021 recruiting class was signed in December, he had more time to dissect game and practice film.
Just who are these Longhorns that Sarkisian inherited?
“I think we’ve got good talent on this team. I think we have good leadership on this team. And I think we have good young talent on this team,” Sarkisian said Wednesday, national signing day.
Texas, which signed 18 players in the early period in December, added three more for a class that ranks 17th nationally and second in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma.
Sarkisian saw a 7-3 team lose on a goal-line fumble against TCU, a four-overtime game to Oklahoma and miss a last-second field goal against Iowa State.
"In a blink, you’re 10-0,” he said.
But he also saw Texas get a lucky bounce from an onside kick at Texas Tech and the seesaw battle that took place at Oklahoma State.
“In a blink, we’re 5-5," he added.
“Probably the one thing that jumped out to me that — for me, philosophically from the head coach's perspective — is getting our team to understand it's not about the opponent,” Sarkisian said. “It’s not about the moment, if it’s big or small. It’s playing to the best of our ability or as close to the best of our ability every time we take the field.
“And that’s being the best version of ourselves every day, regardless of the opponent, regardless of the moment,” he said. “And that’ll put us in the best position to gain the results that we want.”
Coaches rarely ever blast their predecessor. But Sarkisian said, “And I felt like at times, maybe that didn't show up for these guys, for whatever reason. But now that's my task to try to get that resolved.”
The Horns added three new players to their roster on national signing day: Mansfield Legacy defensive end David Abiara, Dallas Kimball cornerback Ishmael Ibraheem and Bryan Rudder receiver Keithron Lee, giving the Horns 23 total newcomers. That includes former LSU linebacker Ray Thornton, who has transferred in.
Sarkisian is purposely leaving four spots open to give the Longhorns flexibility for whomever may show up in the NCAA transfer portal. There is expected to be more movement once the NCAA passes legislation that gives all athletes one free transfer year.
Transition recruiting classes are usually a mixed bag. The former coach may have liked one thing, the new coach may like something else about a player. Nobody can truly say with certainty how any of these new Longhorns are going to pan out.
Some Texas fans will lose their minds over not finishing in the top 10, or even the top 15. But during the fall, Urban Meyer kept stressing one major point to Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte. Are you recruiting for stars and rankings just to win the press conference on signing day? Or are you recruiting players that actually fit your system?
“Look under the hood,” Meyer said repeatedly on Fox’s pregame show each week, a phrase he was telling Del Conte directly during their talks.
Sarkisian has been tearing the entire Longhorns’ engine apart.
He said he likes UT’s depth at receiver and tight end. Offensive line is thin, though.
“That is going to be a position that we’re really going to have to focus on in the ’22 class,” the coach said. He’s hired Kyle Flood, a former head coach at Rutgers and offensive line coach at Alabama, to oversee that position.
Sarkisian feels “pretty good” about quarterbacks Casey Thompson and Hudson Card, although he hasn’t seen either throw in person yet. That alone is a little nerve-wracking, the one-time BYU quarterback acknowledged.
“I think we've got two kind of front-line guys to start the process,” he said.
“When you look at the defensive side of the ball, I’m not as comfortable with the depth right now with the inside linebacker position,” Sarkisian said. “I do think there’s quality players, and I’m not talking about quality of players. I’m talking more just sheer depth.”
Linebacker depth was thin last season, too. Part of that was because of the alignment change to a four-man front. The previous staff moved Joseph Ossai from outside linebacker to a rush defensive end position. DeMarvion Overshown and Juwan Mitchell, two players returning in 2021, had to play almost every snap the entire season.
Sarkisian also noted how Texas had some attrition at cornerback.
"My opinion, you can never have enough guys that can run and cover in the back end,” he said.
Sarkisian said he wants to build the roster overall “to keep developing not just in depth but the quality of players needed to be a team that we all want to be for the next one, seven, 10 years. And that takes time and consistency to get that done.”
Texas is a program that’s enjoyed four straight winning seasons capped by four bowl victories. But the question must be asked: how many five-star recruits does it take to beat TCU? How many four-stars are necessary to beat Iowa State?
Sarkisian appears to like what he’s seen on UT’s practice film. Now, it’s about squeezing more out of the talent that’s already here.
“I want to make sure I’m clear on something that, to me, it's very important,” Sarkisian said. “We have to be the best developmental staff in the country.”
Sarkisian said that everybody always feels good on signing day, whether your class ranks No. 1 or No. 30. Ultimately, he noted correctly, these recruiting classes shouldn’t be judged until three or four years down the road.
What ultimately happened to those players? Did they develop into true stars with NFL potential or not? That should be how you ultimately judge a staff.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do in developing the players on our current roster,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve got a lot of work in developing the players that we just signed, the 23 players we just signed. That’s where we can really increase, the value of our team and our ability to play here moving forward into the years to come.”