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Expectations are swirling as Steve Sarkisian steers Texas football into new era

Come Saturday, Steve Sarkisian’s backwoods journey through personal and professional hell will finally be complete. Once again, he will be standing on the sideline as the head coach of a true college football blueblood.

All the eyes in Texas are upon him.

“Sark has been through hard times, and he’s seen that. He’s better for it,” Pete Carroll, one of Sarkisian’s mentors, said Friday after the Seattle Seahawks finished practice. “Sometimes it’s easy to criticize that, but it’s made him a better man and a better coach.”

Sarkisian’s first game out of the box is a doozy, too. No. 23 Louisiana, a team loaded with returning veterans, comes to Austin after going 10-1 last year. Coach Billy Napier’s Ragin' Cajuns have gone 21-4 the past two years.

More: Texas coach Steve Sarkisian on his QBs: ‘I thought they had a really good week’

For new Texas football coach Steve Sarkisian, game week is finally here. His Longhorns will open the season Saturday against No. 23 Louisiana. This start of a new era is big for both coach and university: For Texas, it's the hope to return to the national elite stage; for Sarkisian, it's another chance to coach a blueblood program.

“I guess more than anything, it’s exciting,” Sarkisian said last week. “I’m a really lucky guy that gets to do what he loves to do. And there’s not a lot of people that can say that in the world, and I’m one of them.”

Sarkisian told the American-Statesman in January that there was a time he wondered about ever getting a second chance. But he soon stopped worrying. “How do I be the best version of Steve Sarkisian today?” he said.

January:One-on-one with Steve Sarkisian: New Texas coach on his offense, addiction and second chance

Once considered a coaching wunderkind, Sarkisian was fired by USC in October 2015 when alcohol issues surfaced. He looked untouchable for a moment, but Sarkisian’s offensive mind was never a question. So Alabama’s Nick Saban first gave him a shot as an analyst, so did the Atlanta Falcons as their play-caller, and then Sarkisian went back to Tuscaloosa to help the Crimson Tide win a national championship as their offensive coordinator.

USC coach Pete Carroll, second from left, and quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian, right, celebrated plenty of good moments during their time together in Los Angeles. "Sark has been through hard times, and he’s seen that. He’s better for it," Carroll said Friday. "Sometimes it’s easy to criticize that, but it’s made him a better man and a better coach.”

“Sark is a gifted football coach, and he proved that question to me way back when,” Carroll said. “His ability to handle all of the demands that a head coach has to deal with is totally gifted.”

More: What did Steve Sarkisian inherit? Here’s a detailed breakdown of the Longhorns’ roster

Sarkisian served as Carroll’s quarterbacks coach on the USC squad that lost to Texas in the 2005 national championship game. Carroll has always been in his corner. For Sarkisian to get two chances at Alabama was a telltale sign. 

“Nick is an all-time ball coach, and he knows what he’s doing,” Carroll said. “I couldn’t agree with that endorsement more. Now that he’s reestablished himself in his career in college and gets his next opportunity, it totally makes sense to me.

“He’s going to do a terrific job” at Texas, Carroll added. “Every experience you have is beneficial; the hard ones are unfortunately just as important as any of them.”   

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, left, is joined by former Texas quarterback Vince Young, right, during the NCAA college football team's practice Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in Austin, Texas.

Now Sarkisian is back as a head coach, leading the most financially lucrative, equally admired and villainized program in college sports. It’s the equivalent of coaching the Yankees, Lakers or Cowboys. And Sarkisian seems comfortable in the spotlight.

He was the play-caller for Alabama’s title run last season, and he’ll be the play-caller at Texas. He doesn’t shy away from that responsibility, either. “No, I’ll call the plays,” he said in the spring.

More: With a new coach at Texas, tight ends enter the 2021 season with 'a lot to prove still'

Texas administrators are banking on this 47-year-old California native lifting the Horns into regular playoff contention and staying there. Former coach Tom Herman orchestrated four consecutive winning seasons with four straight bowl wins. But his teams played for only one conference title (2018). 

Texas doesn’t pay its coaches to be good. They’re paid to be great.

The Longhorns have already accepted an invitation to join the Southeastern Conference in 2025, if not sooner.

“This is a monumental decision,” UT President Jay Hartzell said when the school executed a well-designed Big 12 exit plan this summer. “I believe the greatest and most exciting days for Texas Longhorns athletics are ahead of us.”

UT System Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife, Hartzell and athletic director Chris Del Conte all want Sarkisian to lead the charge.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian was hired in January, and the former Alabama offensive coordinator is ready to call plays at Texas, too. “You always just want to make sure your team is prepared,” he said. “You want to make sure that everything we're doing, ultimately when that ball gets kicked off next Saturday, that our players are in position to have success.”

Just like Charlie Strong and Herman before him, Sarkisian is facing a major challenge at UT. Texas is the biggest job they’ve ever had while making the most money they’ve ever made in their life. Sarkisian was awarded a six-year contract worth $34.2 million.

Every coach in this position has one daily thought: Don’t screw this up.

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

“You always just want to make sure your team is prepared,” Sarkisian said. “You want to make sure that everything we're doing, ultimately when that ball gets kicked off next Saturday, that our players are in position to have success.”

So who’s the Longhorns' quarterback?

Right off the bat, Sarkisian faced a massive decision at quarterback. Should the Longhorns start junior Casey Thompson or redshirt freshman Hudson Card?

Report:Redshirt freshman Hudson Card will be Texas’ starting QB vs. Louisiana in season opener

Sarkisian knows what he’s looking for. Once a struggling shortstop, he switched to football at El Camino (Calif.) College and eventually became a star quarterback at BYU. 

The Athletic did a detailed look back at BYU’s 41-37 win over No. 13 Texas A&M in the 1996 Pigskin Classic. Sarkisian threw for 536 yards and six touchdowns that day in Provo. His impression on teammates is still as strong today as it was 25 years ago.

“He’s one of the best, if not the best leader I’ve ever been around,” former BYU receiver Levi Kealaluhi told The Athletic. “He had this swag about him. … I actually strive to be like him as a coach and a leader. He had this way to make us feel comfortable when we knew it was on the line.”

The battle to replace Sam Ehlinger as Texas' starting quarterback has been waged all summer by junior Casey Thompson, left, and redshirt freshman Hudson Card, right.

Sarkisian said Thompson and Card were still splitting practice time 50-50 with the first-team offense last week. The Horns were scheduled to have a full mock game Saturday at Royal-Memorial Stadium. Sarkisian had the team go through an entire mock weekend, even staying at the team hotel and going through pregame meetings. Every detail is important.

Sarkisian might formally announce his decision during his Monday game week press conference. Or not. A UT spokesman would not confirm any decision on Saturday, and Sarkisian could not be reached.

Sarkisian said that from a defensive perspective, he didn’t think delaying an announcement created much of a competitive advantage.

More:Texas coach Steve Sarkisian on his QBs: ‘I thought they had a really good week’

“If the players were drastically different style of players, if one guy was just a straight pocket passer and the other guy was an elite runner and maybe not as gifted of a passer, then you'd have to prepare for knowing which one is in the game,” Sarkisian said. “That might adjust your calling of the defense. But I think most people have their schemes; they run their schemes.”

One thing is clear. Sarkisian wants to pick a starter and stick with him. Asked if he was worried about the other quarterback jumping into the transfer portal, he said, “I can’t worry about that. I have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire football organization and our entire team.”

Steve Sarkisian building his support staff

Sarkisian’s initial staff has better credentials than Strong’s or Herman’s did, on paper anyway. Kyle Flood (offensive line) and Jeff Choate (inside linebackers) have both been head coaches. Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski was the architect of some of the nation’s best defenses at Washington. Bo Davis is widely regarded as an elite defensive line coach.

“This is the third stop that Sark and I have been together,” Flood said. “One of the things about working with Sark that you realize right away, he’s the best play-caller in football. And I mean that. It makes me feel good that I’m working with someone who does it at an elite level.”

Sarkisian’s first team isn’t perfect from a roster makeup standpoint. Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson make a terrific tandem at running back. The offensive line should be solid with veterans such as Derek Kerstetter and Junior Angilau paving the way. But there are questions about the receivers and whether there are enough dynamic playmakers out wide.

Roster:What did Steve Sarkisian inherit? Here’s a detailed breakdown of the Longhorns’ roster

The defensive line should be impressive, possibly the best unit on the team. Texas has plenty of veterans in the secondary. But are there enough linebackers besides DeMarvion Overshown? Sarkisian went after six transfers, including edge rushers Ben Davis (Alabama) and Ovie Oghoufo (Notre Dame). 

Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian instructs running back Bijan Robinson during the Longhorns' opening preseason practice Aug. 8. This is Sarkisian's third major head coaching job; he previously coached Washington and USC.

On the field, Sarkisian should be fine. Off the field, it’s literally a circus. 

School officials are ramping up the pregame Bevo Boulevard festivities with a Ferris wheel, zip lining and more carnival games. The school is eager to unveil the new south end zone project with a large Longhorns logo outlined in LED lights. There’s a new video board, new items at the concession stands and better antennas for cellphone use. 

When Herman arrived, he wanted to know every detail down to what kind of messages were played on the stadium video board. Sarkisian’s different.

“I'm connected to it. I don't make it a point to try to micromanage everybody and everything. We’ve got a great team,” Sarkisian said. “But I do take a lot of value in it, because I do think that we are the product on the field. We’ve got to make sure that we’re creating an environment that is exciting.

“I don't get overly involved, but I am aware of the things that we're doing.”

Most Texas fans would probably offer clear advice: Just focus on the winning. Let Del Conte handle the rest. 

It’s Sarkisian’s first game week, but Texas officials hope it’s the first of many.

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