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How Texas' Steve Sarkisian held it together after a 5-7 season to craft a top-five class

Texas signs 26 players in a class ranked No. 5 nationally. “It’s an amazing feeling knowing you’re getting some people that you need on the team.”

Steve Sarkisian did a victory lap on Wednesday. The Texas coach dangling off a cliff and peering into the abyss last month is now back on steady terrain, eager to climb anew.

Such is the healing power of a top-five recruiting class that few saw coming.

“All in all, pretty good day,” Sarkisian said at his signing day press conference.

The way Sarkisian, his coaching staff and UT administrators melded together the last two months may ultimately mark a major turning point. Opening Pandora’s box with relaxed rules on name, image and likeness money may feel icky to some, but this is the business the Horns have chosen.

Signing day:Texas' 2022 recruiting class adds an intriguing all-purpose receiver in Savion Red

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian went 5-7 and the Longhorns missed out on a bowl game in his first season, yet Wednesday's first day of the early signing period saw Texas flip three recruits from high-profile programs and the Longhorns ended the day with a class currently ranked No. 5 nationally.

Still, the end result was undeniable, a blockbuster recruiting finish with 26 newcomers. Texas loaded up in the trenches by signing 14 offensive and defensive linemen and landed two quarterbacks with intriguing storylines — the mullet-wearing Quinn Ewers by way of Ohio State and the state-championship winning Maalik Murphy from California. Both quarterbacks will enroll in January.

More:Recruits and former players react to Texas' rise in ranks after flipping three recruits

In a true signing day surprise, three players flipped from other blue-chip schools, including four-star cornerback Terrance Brooks who was Ohio State's highest-rated corner. Texas found itself right alongside future SEC foes No. 1 Texas A&M, No. 2 Georgia and No. 3 Alabama in the 247Sports composite recruiting rankings.

This doesn’t happen if there’s division in the ranks. Previous coaches have talked about, or maybe wished for, true program alignment. It’s mostly been a mirage the last decade or so. But right now, everyone on campus is reading from the same hymnal. 

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian's consistent messaging

A six-game losing streak never shook Sarkisian’s beliefs. “I’m built for this,” he said on Nov. 22. Sarkisian had the same meticulous demeanor in press conferences, never getting too excited after wins or too low after losses. He never panicked, at least not publicly.

Sarkisian also never strayed off message. He was remarkably consistent.

“One thing for me getting a third opportunity at doing this, I wanted to be a really consistent head coach with my approach to how I did things,” Sarkisian said. “I think when you’re consistent with something, that reinforces it, and that gives it a chance to drive whatever your messaging is home.”

In recruiting, the messaging pitch is simple. The product is “the University of Texas,” Sarkisian said. “And we’ve got a tremendous product. But ultimately they’ve got to buy it.”

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian managed to pull off three commitment flips from high-profile programs Ohio State, Michigan and Oklahoma on signing day, which helped the Longhorns' 2022 recruiting class move into the top five in the national rankings.

Losing to Kansas alone was horrific. Finishing the season 5-7 and missing a bowl game would spark serious doubt inside the UT Tower. But Texas brass kept the faith and stressed there’d be no staff changes forced upon Sarkisian.

“I’ve watched him navigate the challenges and distractions this season presented, while at the same time lay out a vision, stick to a plan and build the program for long-term success,” Texas President Jay Hartzell told the American-Statesman on Wednesday. 

“Like many players and fans — and clearly now, many top recruits — I continue to have the utmost confidence in his ability to deliver the championship results we expect from our football program,” Hartzell added.

It took a little luck, too. 

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal left his job there for Miami. Once that happened, five-star offensive tackle Kelvin Banks decommitted from the Ducks on Dec. 6. Cristobal turned around and offered him a scholarship at Miami, but he chose Texas within five days.

Oklahoma recruiting sites were certain the Sooners would land Allen offensive lineman Neto Umeozulu. He committed to Texas on Monday and signed Wednesday.

Name, image, likeness playing a role in Texas football recruiting

Opposing fans were crying foul on social media knowing this new group Horns With Heart, which claims to be a nonprofit entity, was promising each offensive lineman $50,000 if they came to UT.

That’s in addition to the new Clark Field Collective, a group that purports to have $10 million lined up in name, image and likeness opportunities for all UT athletes, not just the football players.

More:Texas' Bijan Robinson can get NIL deals, but the Clark Field Collective may be solution for others

Horns With Heart and Clark Field Collective both had initial press releases after the end of the regular season. It’s impossible to believe their eyebrow-raising dollar amounts didn’t play some role in Texas landing some of these key offensive line recruits.

Rob Blair, a founder with Horns With Heart, said his group is planning future endeavors and would discuss those in the coming weeks.

Westlake defensive end Ethan Burke wasn't even offered a scholarship by Texas until Tuesday, the day before early signing day, but he decided to decommit from Michigan on Wednesday and sign with the Longhorns.

“We are only interested in charitable endeavors” and partnering with UT athletes, Blair said Wednesday. “Inducing or influencing recruitments is against the rules of the NIL laws and we have no interest outside of our charitable causes.”

Whenever contacted by the Statesman, school officials try as best they can to dodge NIL questions. By NCAA rule, Texas officials cannot steer athletes to specific NIL deals or even help players negotiate terms. But they are fully aware that outside forces are incentivizing the recruiting process. 

Steve Sarkisian: ‘NIL is real’ 

“The stipends that we get at school help me take care of my bills,” defensive tackle Keondre Coburn told Orangebloods, a website that’s been paying UT athletes for exclusive interviews in its own NIL deal. “I can go take a nice trip. I can get cheese on my Whataburger.”

Linebacker DeMarvion Overshown told Orangebloods, “It’s like 75 cents a slice.”

Coburn: “I can get the meal and my brothers can get the meal with cheese.”

Overshown: “I can get a milkshake. And a large fry.”

Most major media outlets, including the Statesman, do not pay for interviews. 

“It is real,” Sarkisian said of NIL. “I think every time we watch the news and see something for a new guy with NIL we’re thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a lot. That can’t be.’ It’s a reality.”

Sarkisian said he does worry about locker room dynamics, and frankly, “I don’t know where this is headed. I really don’t know.”

“But these are the rules that are in place, and you have to kind of play by the rules,” Sarkisian said. “And so, if our players have opportunities to take advantage of NIL deals that are presented to them, that don’t hinder them from being a great football player, don't hinder them from being a great student, I’m all for it.”

Some athletes do have grander ambitions than just making money, though. Edge rusher Jus Finkley, an Alabama native, chose Texas over staying close to home. He specifically cited Dell Medical School in his evaluation. 

“I was looking for a good school with books and ball. And of course, I want to be a neurosurgeon,” Finkley said on the Orangebloods live show.

Sarkisian still has some work ahead. Running backs coach Stan Drayton is reportedly in line to be named the new Temple coach. The new athletic director there, Arthur Johnson, spent the last seven years at UT. Sarkisian also said former TCU coach Gary Patterson has not decided whether he wants to have a role at UT or somewhere else going forward.

More recruits are wanting to join the UT party. Four-star offensive lineman Malik Agbo committed on Wednesday afternoon and quickly signed. It’s unclear how many more UT can take in the late signing period in early February.

As Jordan Whittington told Orangebloods during his NIL interview, “It’s an amazing feeling knowing you’re getting some people that you need on the team.”

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

Top classes

The top 10 recruiting classes in the country after Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period. Classes won't be finalized for this recruiting cycle until February:

1. Texas A&M

2. Alabama

3. Georgia

4. Ohio State

5. Texas

6. Penn State

7. Notre Dame

8. North Carolina

9. Michigan

10. Oklahoma

How Texas' class was built

When Texas secured its 2022 class by players' commitments:

February (4)

Feb. 2: RB Jaydon Blue

Feb. 13: QB Maalik Murphy; LB Trevell Johnson

Feb. 28: S Bryan Allen Jr.

March (1)

March 23: DL Kristopher Ross

April (1)

April 26: DL Zac Swanson

June (3)

June 7: LS Lance St. Louis

June 15: K Will Stone

July (4)

July 2: OL Cole Hutson; OL Connor Robertson

July 14: S Austin Jordan

July 31: DE Derrick Brown

August (4)

Aug. 5: CB Ronald Lewis*

Aug. 26: DL Aaron Bryant

Aug. 30: DL Jaray Bledsoe; DE J'mond Tapp

September (1)

Sept. 9: DE Justice Finkley

October (1)

Oct. 6: WR Brenen Thompson

November (1)

Nov. 25: CB Jaylon Guilbeau

December (8)

Dec. 11: OT Kelvin Banks

Dec. 12: OT Cameron Williams

Dec. 13: OL Neto Umeozulu

Dec. 15: CB Terrance Brooks; DE Ethan Burke; ATH Xavion Brice; WR Savion Red; OT Malik Agbo

*not signed