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No more rotations, participation ribbons: Under Steve Sarkisian, the best will play at Texas

Cramps an issue during Friday’s first practice, but Longhorns get off to a good start overall

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian is refreshingly old school. He believes the best players should get the most playing time.

No more rotating the running back every series regardless of the situation, like former Texas coach Tom Herman did to a maddening degree. No more swapping out receivers because it’s another player’s turn. No more worrying about locker room harmony.

No more participation ribbons.

Sarkisian said he’ll give running back Bijan Robinson “relatively around 20” carries per game, maybe going as high as 30. He’ll give opportunities to Xavier Worthy, a freshman receiver who “showed some flashes during practice.” If you can play, you’re going to play under this new coaching staff, it seems.

If Herman had played Robinson more last season, he might still be the Texas coach. 

Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian instructs players during an NCAA college football practice in Austin, Texas, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

“I have a belief, I think we have a responsibility to our team to put ourselves in the best position to be successful and ultimately try to win a football game,” Sarkisian said after Friday’s first preseason camp practice. “You earn the right to play and the best players ultimately play, whether you're a fifth-year senior or a true freshman or anything in between, you’ve earned that right.”

Sarkisian noted that he’s not locked into picking an unbreakable 11 or 22 starters. And yes, there could be a rotation at some positions. But it’s worth noting right here at the beginning that when the game’s on the line, Sarkisian plans on having the Longhorns’ ultimate lineup on the field.

“I’m definitely not too stubborn to rotate players,” he said. “But ideally, we try to put the best players on the field that earned it, to give us the best chance to be successful and win.”

So who are Texas’ best players? Well, that’s to be determined, especially at quarterback.

Junior Casey Thompson and redshirt freshman Hudson Card stood and threw almost shoulder to shoulder at times Friday at Frank Denius Fields. In one drill, Thompson threw to his left while Card threw to his right. Sarkisian stood in the middle of the field, about where a linebacker in zone coverage might hover, watching both.

Quarterbacks Casey Thompson (11) and Hudson Card (1) hustle down the field during NCAA college football practice Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Austin, Texas.

In the 40 minutes that were open to reporters, Thompson fired a perfect spiral to Worthy, who was running an out route. Moments later, Card unleashed a perfect deep ball to Joshua Moore for a would-be touchdown. Back and forth they went. And so it will go in the days and weeks to come before the Sept. 4 opener.

Sarkisian said had Friday been the 16th spring practice, it would have been their best. The fact it was the first practice in August was “a really good sign for me that they tried to work on and apply the things that we wanted to work on.”

“I thought even as practice wore on, they became more comfortable,” Sarkisian said. “There was a feel to the game and not quite so robotically trying to run the offense and understand their reads.”

Given the forthcoming schedule, Sarkisian indicated the players likely have a full week to knock the rust off and learn the playbook’s contours.

The Horns will practice mid-afternoon Saturday and then late again Sunday. By NCAA rule, players can wear only helmets and shorts for two practices and then start wearing shoulder pads. Texas won’t have its first full-pad workout until Thursday, Sarkisian said. That means next Saturday’s scrimmage will just be UT’s second workout in full gear.

“To be fair to everybody outside of just being drastically, you know, egregiously wrong and not knowing assignments, we really got to give them a shot to get through that first scrimmage,” he said.

Cramps crimp day one: The only real issue that cropped up during Texas’ first practice were the cramps. 

“You could see drastic improvement in a lot of areas,” Sarkisian said. “The one issue we had today was the cramps. I felt like it wasn’t about physical condition, but I do think we need to make sure we’re hydrated.”

It’s been somewhat of a mild summer in Central Texas. Scattered rain showers kept temperatures in the 80s most of the afternoon. The old guard would’ve been aghast at how great it felt. Athletic director Chris Del Conte even showed up wearing his sport coat, in August no less.

Texas tight end Brayden Liebrock looks to catch a pass during an NCAA college football practice in Austin, Texas, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

Still, Sarkisian said any missed repetitions will add up. “Got to do a better job of that, coming out prepared,” he said. “So we’ll monitor that a little bit better, a little more closely.”

Newcomers get going: Sarkisian noted that edge rusher Ovie Oghoufo and running back Keilan Robinson, two transfers, caught his eye Friday. Both will need an introduction to Texas fans.

Oghoufo played three seasons at Notre Dame before transferring. He logged 22 tackles in 20 games with the Irish. Keilan Robinson transferred from Alabama after sitting out last season because of the pandemic. He probably wouldn’t have played much last season anyway behind Crimson Tide star Najee Harris.

Another newcomer that stood out Friday was freshman tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders, who is listed at 6-4, 256 pounds. Sanders spent time off to the side with assistant Jeff Banks working on his footwork and technique. The Denton Ryan product was ranked among the top-15 athletes in the nation by most recruiting services.

“All in all, I thought the young guys for their first college football practice I was relatively impressed with what they did,” Sarkisian said.

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