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Four months in, Texas’ Steve Sarkisian: ‘I know we’ve got a competitive group’

Each Texas position group ‘has got its own strengths and weaknesses within it,’ but Sark can retool with the transfer portal

In January and February, Texas coach Steve Sarkisian and his assistants spent countless hours watching old game and practice tape trying to determine what each Longhorn could do.

Now with offseason workouts and 15 spring practices behind them, these new coaches must determine if the assembled talent is good enough to compete for championships.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian's first spring drills period is over and he still doesn't have a starting quarterback or know what he truly has at offensive line, defensive line or linebacker. What he wants from every player, though, is consistency. “We’ve got some players that are a lot closer to that,” he said. “We’ve got some that have some work to do. But that’s part of the process, right?”

“I know we’ve got a competitive group. I know these guys are very willing. They try to do what we’ve asked them to do. They try to go compete at a high level. That part I know,” Sarkisian said Tuesday in a spring wrap-up Zoom call with reporters.

“But I think probably the biggest thing that I’m uncertain about, that I want to become certain about, is the consistency factor,” he said. “That’s every play in all three phases, playing a real consistent brand of football, doing our job down after down after down regardless of the elements, regardless of the score, regardless of the opponent. I think we’re still figuring that out. 

READ: With a ‘watered down version’ of the offense, Texas QBs have mixed results in spring game

How many Longhorns meet that criteria now?

“We’ve got some players that are a lot closer to that,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve got some that have some work to do. But that’s part of the process, right? That’s part of coming out of spring practice and where we lay emphasis on to improve our team.”

No longer do coaches have to cross their fingers and hope this all works out. The NCAA transfer portal is a radical sport-changer as far as roster management goes. If you have a position of need, there’s plenty of names out there to fill it. “It’s free agency in college football, quite frankly,” Sarkisian said. 

Texas needed more linebackers, for example. The Longhorns have picked up two portal commitments just since Saturday’s spring game. New Mexico State’s Devin Richardson and Alabama’s Ben Davis are not the single biggest difference-makers those recruiting websites would have fans believe. But they are experienced veterans at a position of need.

READ: New Mexico State’s Devin Richardson, Alabama’s Ben Davis bolster LB depth at Texas

Sarkisian said David Gbenda, a one-time running back, had a nice spring at linebacker, as did Jaylan Ford and Luke Brockermeyer. But by adding two more, Sarkisian is clearly signaling that, at minimum, he’d like more depth

The portal works both ways, though. 

A Texas helmet lays on the field after the Orange-White spring game at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Sarkisian said Tuesday that “probably say the most important position after quarterback in our system is the tight end.” Even knowing that, Malcolm Epps didn’t feel good about where he stood after spring drills and put his name in the portal. A player with 24 career games, seven starts and four touchdowns is leaving.

Coaches all over the landscape are figuring out how to deal with the transfer portal. Sarkisian said coaches can’t guarantee playing time, only the opportunity to compete. “We’ve got to be careful in this recruiting process of kids in the portal because they all want immediate gratification,” he said. “They want to step on the field the moment they get here.”

Ultimately, transfers have to come in and earn the respect of their coaches and teammates. “But we do definitely have to be careful of just making promises before a young man gets here,” Sarkisian said. 

For now, Sarkisian said every position group at Texas “has got its own strengths and weaknesses within it.” And it’s hard to fully gauge a group without its best players. 

Sarkisian pointed out that DeMarvion Overshown missed all of spring rehabilitating a shoulder injury. Would the linebackers look better if perhaps the unit’s best pass rusher participated? Same goes for Derek Kerstetter. Would the offensive line look better had the solid interior lineman not been sidelined with an ankle injury?

These are the types of questions that coaches grapple with while determining whether a position group has enough talent or needs more.

“So, I guess it’s all fluid when you’re talking about the position group,” Sarkisian said. “Some days, you feel like, ‘Man, you know this group doesn’t look so hot.’ Well, maybe we have a guy out at that position group already going into spring and maybe two other guys that were out for a variety of reasons, whether it’s COVID or an ankle or just a normal sickness.

“So I think every day it kind of evolved,” Sarkisian continued. “We really tried to study our roster as much as we could and dig into it and assess it and potential position changes and different things to make sure that we have a solid foundation for the summer, moving forward, especially once the freshmen arrive.”

At the quarterback position, Sarkisian said both Casey Thompson and Hudson Card would both do “some really cool things.” But it’s clear that neither one has pushed himself ahead of the other. The competition will extend into the summer and August practices.

Texas quarterback Hudson Card scrambles for yardage during the second quarter of Saturday's Orange-White spring game at Royal-Memorial Stadium. Card and Casey Thompson are battling for the starting job.

“I think both those guys have made tremendous strides. They’re not exactly where we want them to be yet,” Sarkisian said. “And I think that’s what’s so intriguing about this competition is that maybe one day, one guy takes some really cool strides and then the next day the other guy does. And so I think there’s still plenty of room for both of these guys to grow.”

Sarkisian said to name a starter “wouldn’t be fair to either of those two, because I still think they both have a lot of room for growth and a lot of potential still out there for them.”

Offensive line protection is an area that needs work, but the defensive line may be a team strength. The Horns were credited with nine total sacks during the spring game. Defensive lineman Moro Ojomo had three himself. 

More than anything, Sarkisian said he felt good that players are starting to grasp what this coaching staff wants. That, too, is a work in progress.

Four months on the job, the Texas coach sure has a better understanding of what he’s working with. But Sarkisian also understands there’s a long road ahead. 

“We know this is a big summer for us,” Sarkisian said. “We need to have highly, highly competitive practices (in August). We have some players that totally get it. We have other guys that kind of get it, that sometimes get it. And we have some guys still trying to figure it out.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.