'All gas, no brakes': Texas coach Steve Sarkisian has the depth of a title contender

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas coach Steve Sarkisian blows his whistle, calling for the Longhorns to begin “two-spotting” — the simultaneous 11-on-11 drills during spring practice. On one side of the field, his first- and second-string players face each other; on the other, his third and fourth string. Everyone practices at once, not just the top players on the depth chart as is often the case.

Entering its fourth season under Sarkisian — and the school’s first in the SEC — Texas is deep enough to lose a school-record 11 players in the first six rounds of last month’s NFL draft and still have enough remaining talent to make a second straight run at the College Football Playoff, according to those within the program. They have arguably the best quarterbacks room in the country, headlined by starter Quinn Ewers and second-year megarecruit Arch Manning. It wasn’t always this way.

“This is what I always hoped it could be like here,” Sarkisian said, “in that you lose an abundance of really good players to the NFL and then we reload it with players that some might be better than those guys that moved on.”

It took three straight top-five recruiting classes to build and patience from one of the most infamously impatient fan bases. Now, even ahead of an arduous SEC schedule after losing multiple first-round NFL draft picks for the first time since 2007, Texas has a legitimate chance to make a run at a national title — four seasons after an abysmal 5-7 record to start the Sarkisian era.

“We’ve recruited in a way that there’s definitely talent, but I would say we never have sacrificed character for talent, and I think that was definitely a little bit of the secret sauce,” Sarkisian said. There were a lot of great players, but we wanted to make sure the players we brought into our program, their character matched our culture. You never know why you’re hired until you actually look behind the curtain and you’re like, ‘OK, what are the issues, what are the warts?’ Some of those warts and issues don’t get exposed until adversity strikes. Quite frankly I felt like culturally, we have to get this right. That was such a big investment we were making in Year 1, but we really made that investment in Year 2 and Year 3.

“Now we’ve got the talent and the culture, and I don’t know if I could’ve said either of those two things quite frankly early on, but now we’ve gotten ourselves to that point.”



Oklahoma, Texas join the celebration of SEC spring games

The Sooners and Longhorns, who will begin play in the SEC this fall, join Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M in hitting the field for spring football.

It’s been a measurable climb on and off the field. Not only did the Longhorns finish with a 3-6 record in the Big 12 in 2021, they also didn’t have any players drafted — and they finished with a 2.33 team GPA, according to Sarkisian. In his second season, Texas finished 8-5 with a 2.78 team GPA and five players drafted.

Last year, Texas finished 12-2 with a 2.98 GPA and the aforementioned 11 drafted players. Its resounding 34-24 win at Alabama in Week 2 made an early statement in the CFP race, and ultimately — along with the school’s first Big 12 title since 2009 — that win earned Texas the No. 3 seed and a trip to a CFP semifinal, where it fell six points shy of No. 2 Washington.

Sixth-year linebacker David Gbenda said the win in Tuscaloosa gave the Longhorns a higher level of confidence.

“We managed to go toe-to-toe with a great team,” said Gbenda, who had six tackles (three solo) and a sack for a 10-yard loss at Alabama.

After the season, Sarkisian was rewarded with a four-year contract extension that takes him through 2030 — a rare sign of commitment in Austin. Not since Mack Brown (1998-2013) has a coach lasted more than four seasons at Texas, as Charlie Strong was fired after two and Tom Herman was fired after four.

Gbenda said it wasn’t exactly a “smooth transition,” but now they understand what it takes.

“It was a culture shock when he came in, because he did things a lot differently,” Gbenda said. “‘All gas, no brakes’ is not something he just says — he means that in everything we do. … Year 3 is the year we finally had the right pieces and the right guys.”

If Texas is going to build on last season’s success, beating the likes of Alabama is only the beginning. This year the Longhorns will host Georgia on Oct. 19 in what will be one of the most consequential games of the season. They also have November trips to Arkansas and Texas A&M — plus the annual rivalry against OU — and travel to defending national champion Michigan in Week 2. Texas is the only team in the country that will play the past three national champions this season, as it faces both Georgia (2021, 2022) and Michigan (2023).

The Longhorns return four of five starting offensive linemen, a unit the coaching staff emphasized building since its first recruiting class. Texas has also been meticulous about its use of the transfer portal, luring in speed and experience at wide receiver and depth at defensive tackle, where Texas needed it most. And of course, there’s that quarterbacks room.

What the Longhorns lost is nothing to scoff at, as they have to replace their top five receivers in both receptions and yards, and the returners accounted for just 16% of the receiving yards last year. That position, though, might be the best example of how Texas has combined its high school recruiting, the transfer portal and player development to establish a room capable of saying farewell to first-round NFL draft pick Xavier Worthy and second-round pick Adonai Mitchell without flinching.

Alabama transfer receiver Isaiah Bond was considered by many the top receiver in the transfer portal, and he joins Oregon State transfer receiver Silas Bolden and Houston transfer Matthew Golden as new Longhorns. Last season, Bond and Bolden led their respective teams in receiving yards. They’re all talented enough to start, but they’re in good company with players such as Johntay Cook II and DeAndre Moore, who have been waiting in the wings — and true freshman phenom Ryan Wingo, who is capable of earning a starting role.

According to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, Texas ranks No. 38 in the country in overall returning production (67%) and seventh in the SEC. The other CFP semifinals from last season rank 101st (Alabama), 128th (Washington) and 131st (Michigan).

According to Connelly, the Longhorns have stocked their returning production drastically since Sarkisian’s first season when they were 120th in the country. In 2022, that jumped to 62nd in the FBS. Last season, they were 15th in returning production, including No. 3 in the country on offense (85%).

That type of depth is what allowed Texas to run its “two-spotting” drill this spring and have a true spring game with substitutions.

“I can have one field with 22 guys a snap working,” Sarkisian said. “Well, that means I’ve got 100 guys watching. Or I can have two fields and now I have 44 guys working. Dramatic difference. And then when they go watch the tape, they’re watching themselves, not somebody else.

“We’ve always been trying to do it, and every team tries, but a lot of times that second field doesn’t have enough linemen or things. We’ve done a good job of balancing our roster at multiple positions to where we can do that. We’ve probably done it more in spring practice than we ever have at anywhere I’ve really been.”

Not that the new faces don’t have something to prove.

Gone is Byron Murphy II, the Big 12’s defensive lineman of the year, along with defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat, the league’s 2023 defensive player of the year, and linebacker Jaylan Ford. That means an opportunity for linebacker Anthony Hill Jr., who was named the Big 12’s co-defensive freshman of the year. His five sacks were the most by a Texas freshman since 2000.

Texas finished with the No. 5 recruiting class in the country for 2024, luring in 14 ESPN 300 commits. Sarkisian’s 2023 class was No. 3 in the country, inking Manning, who is still the biggest quarterback name on a collegiate roster. In 2022, Sarkisian’s first full recruiting class as head coach, he had the No. 5 class and added Ewers into the class after he transferred from Ohio State. That was also the class for four-star offensive tackle Kelvin Banks, who committed to Texas on the heels of the five-win season.

The two recruiting classes before those three were ranked No. 15 and No. 9 by ESPN.

Banks said a big reason he bought into Sarkisian’s philosophy was because former offensive lineman Christian Jones was proof of player development. Jones was recently drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the fifth round.

“He had a down year and the next year he went crazy, absolutely crazy,” Banks said. “He had a great year, was high in the rankings as an offensive tackle. Just seeing that and him as well telling me and giving me all the information, everything that was going on, it made me feel like, if he’s doing it, why can’t I do it, too? … Listening, doing it and seeing it working all helped me along the way buy into the process.”

Discipline has been part of that process, the players said, agreeing that Sarkisian is a stickler for uniformity. Tuck the shirt in, take the earrings out, wear the same socks. Get to class on time. Clean up the locker room, close the locker doors, don’t leave tape lying around.

“How are you going to do the big things when it’s quarter four, it’s a long drive and you’re expected to be relied upon and you can’t even pick up your tape?” Gbenda said. “That’s the standard we try to build here, the standard of excellence on and off the field. Sark is really big on that. He doesn’t like playing with jerks or people he can’t rely on. Trust is a big thing in this program.”

Texas hasn’t been without incident, as Sweat, the Outland Trophy winner, was booked into jail after an arrest for driving while intoxicated in April. Linebacker S’Maje Burrell has since been identified as the driver of the vehicle that hit the SUV Sweat was driving. Police said Sweat was driving a Ford Bronco when he was hit from behind, causing him to lose control, veer off onto a service road and roll the car onto its side. When police responded at 4:41 a.m., the other driver, later identified as Burrell, had left the scene.

On April 10, Sarkisian released a statement saying the school had suspended Burrell from all team activities due to “conduct detrimental to the program.” Burrell has since entered the transfer portal.

Gbenda said anyone who doesn’t follow the rules gets called out by the leaders on the team or position coaches, and some form of individual punishment is done “off to the side.” If a player doesn’t get the message and is a repeat offender, the whole position group gets punished, Gbenda said.

“After a point in time,” he said, “if you’re not getting the message, everybody around you will understand the message.”

The Longhorns are still searching for their first national title since 2005 — the ultimate proof that Texas is indeed “back.” The CFP will unveil a 12-team format this fall that guarantees the five highest-ranked conference champions a spot in the playoff — making that October home game against Georgia significant to the CFP seeding, as the top four seeds will earn a first-round bye. Banks said the “Texas back” talk infiltrates the locker room, but they try not to get consumed by what people outside the program think.

“As a team we’re very focused,” Banks said. “We’re thriving. It was a little taste last year. We want to reach that national stage. We want to show everybody, ‘Hey, we’re not just going to say we’re back and be here and not show it on the field.’ We want to show people what we’re talking about, that’s what we’re building here.”

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