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By teaching concepts, Texas’ Steve Sarkisian can lean into a ‘positionless’ passing game

Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian watches his players run drills during a practice last weekend. The Longhorns' passing game philosophy has changed as Sarkisian emphasizes getting the best receivers on the field at the same time.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian’s offensive effectiveness is predicated on the Longhorns’ football IQ. 

Are the skill position players capable of understanding concepts regardless of position? Can they process if-then scenarios based on what others are doing? 

It’s not freelancing, per se. Are the Longhorns capable of a “positionless” passing game?

“This guy out here might be our fullback who weighs 250 pounds,” Sarkisian once explained during a detailed passing game presentation when he was coaching the Washington Huskies. “Might be a tight end standing out there, might be a third receiver, might be a second tailback.”

Related:After first scrimmage, Sarkisian on Texas QBs: ‘Neither guy played up to the standard that I view as acceptable’

During a 100-minute presentation at a coaching clinic, Sarkisian showed his contemporaries a simple play design off a “stick” route. A player lines up just off the line of scrimmage — let’s say it’s the tight end, for example — runs 5 yards straight forward, turns and shows his hands to the quarterback. 

Another receiver — again, it could be a wide receiver, tight end, fullback, anybody — runs an “arrow” route to the sideline. Now the quarterback has two targets. 

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“If you are the third route runner on the stick route runner side, it’s an automatic bus ticket. You’ve got to go,” Sarkisian said during the clinic. The outside receiver in that scenario must start running a deep route to draw defensive traffic away from the other two receivers. “That’s automatic,” the coach told the room. “I don’t call it; that’s learned.”

Obviously, most of the decision-making falls to the receivers. They’ll be the ones who must know what each person is doing in each spot, along with the quarterbacks.

Joshua Moore has the most experience of any returning Texas receiver. But he also had just 30 catches for 472 yards last season.

“The receivers, they’ve done a good job of buying in,” Texas quarterback Casey Thompson said. “Hudson (Card) and I had route sessions with the receivers that wasn’t mandatory, the stuff that we called on our own. I’ve held a lot of position meetings just watching film, going over the installs and the playbook with the receivers in the afternoons and just working with some of those guys.”

On the same “stick” design detailed in 2017, Sarkisian turned on the film to show options. His Washington quarterback saw both primary options covered, so he looked for a backside receiver running an inside slant. Easy throw and catch for a first down. All off the same play design. Again, anybody could be lined up to run that inside slant route, too.

Sarkisian has a strong disdain for stationary targets and prefers to connect with receivers on the move. Alabama didn’t have a top-three passing offense the past two years because Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones were throwing to spots. Receivers caught the ball in stride and accelerated.

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

But let’s say the Horns line up five wide against a zone defense. In Sarkisian’s teaching, the three inside receivers will all run “stick” routes underneath the zone while the two outside pass catchers run deep. Again, anybody could line up out wide and take off, provided he knows what everyone else is doing.

“If you know what you’re doing, you don’t necessarily have to think,” UT receiver Joshua Moore said. “When you don’t have to think, you play much faster. That’s my main focus right now. Just knowing wherever they put me, knowing my responsibility and getting the job done.”

Redshirt freshman Troy Omeire missed last season with a torn knee ligament, but he gives the Longhorns a playmaking threat.

In all of Sarkisian’s recent coaching school presentations, he has shown play designs and game film from his days with the Atlanta Falcons and the past two years at Alabama. Asked which film the Horns are watching, Moore said, “Both.”

Last week Sarkisian was asked about the receivers and reframed the discussion around his philosophy. “We don’t teach our receivers to play one spot and only one spot on the field,” he said. Once players learn how to handle concepts, then coaches will readjust the formation and take advantage of perceived matchups.

Then it becomes a matter of whether the receiver, tight end or running back can use his physical skills to get open and make the play.

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“As you get through it, we really pride ourselves on not running routes like the drawing on a piece of paper or on the whiteboard,” Sarkisian said. “We pride ourselves on, ‘I know what to do; now I know how to get open?’

“Some guys use their speed; some guys use their size; some guys just use that savviness to get open,” he added. “Whatever that is, you have to start to lean on what you’re good at to get open, and then ultimately you’ve got to make the play.”

Sarkisian will put his best receivers on the field and not worry about receiving labels like X, Y or Z. Former coach Tom Herman was once asked if he’d ever consider putting Jordan Whittington and Jake Smith on the field at the same time because they were both so dynamic. “Why would we do that?” he asked in a dead serious tone. In Herman’s mind, those two played the same position.

Sarkisian’s approach might work wonders with a team that doesn’t have an established bell cow out wide. Moore is the team’s best returning receiver, but he had just 30 catches for 472 yards last season. He also suffered a slight shoulder injury last week that needs to be monitored.

Brennan Eagles (28 receptions, 469 yards) left school early but went undrafted and signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent. Smith (23 receptions, 294 yards) transferred to USC. 

Is this the season that Jordan Whittington puts it all together? The former five-star recruit from Cuero has played only five games in his first two years with the Longhorns because of injuries.

Whittington was fifth on the team in receiving yards last season (206) but didn’t catch a touchdown pass and is still thought of as injury-prone. He’s a third-year sophomore with five career games on his ledger.

RELATED:Texas WR Jordan Whittington trusted his mind, body and faith while battling injuries

Troy Omeire, a redshirt freshman, missed last season after suffering a torn knee ligament in preseason practice. He hasn’t played a single snap in a real game. Neither has Xavier Worthy, a highly touted freshman who initially signed with Michigan and then landed at UT. 

“For the receivers, there’s not a certain position theyneed to know,” Card said. “They need to know the play conceptually because they can interchange. I think film study really helped them from the spring until now, and we’re going to need all of them. They’re all doing a great job.”

The tight ends should get more opportunities with Sarkisian’s love of the “stick” concept. Cade Brewer and Jared Wiley combined for 24 catches last season and three touchdowns. 

And of course, the running backs are pass-catching targets. Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson are likely to get plenty of work on wheel routes. 

Texas has lots and lots of athletes who can catch the ball. That’s why Sarkisian and his staff should lean into the idea of “positionless” football. 

John Harris (2014), Lil’Jordan Humphrey (2018) and Devin Duvernay (2019) all were 1,000-yard receivers. Collin Johnson (2018) fell 15 yards shy of that mark. 

Texas can produce athletes who can put up big receiving numbers. The only one of those four who really moved around the field was Humphrey. Duvernay had a breakout season as a senior after moving to a specific position during training camp.

Moore is certain Sarkisian’s way will lead to more opportunities, more yards and, ultimately, more offensive success. That’s only if everyone knows what to do no matter where he lines up.

“What makes it so unique is that every receiver who runs around, it doesn’t matter what defense they play, somebody will be open,” Moore said. “It’s up to the guys to make the play. Somebody will be open every play, and that’s what makes this so exciting. No matter who the ball goes to, the best receivers will be on the field.”

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