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Steve Sarkisian turns focus to critical 2022 Texas recruiting class

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After a disappointing 2021 cycle, the stakes are high in an in-state recruiting landscape that might be the most competitive in the modern era.

Steve Sarkisian
Texas athletics

Armani Winfield had seen enough.

The top-100 wide receiver from Lewisville had spoken with new Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian before Sarkisian completed his career as the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive coordinator against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the national championship game.

After Heisman-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith racked up 12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, Winfield called Texas wide receivers coach Andre Coleman at halftime to give his commitment to the Longhorns.

Winfield’s pledge was the first of the Sarkisian era and marked the first sign of momentum in the 2022 class since the decommitment of Southlake Carroll quarterback Quinn Ewers, the nation’s top prospect, stymied forward progress back in October.

Then, hours before National Signing Day, the other staff retention by Sarkisian paid off when Klein Cain running back Jaydon Blue committed to Texas. Ranked as the No. 4 running back nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Blue arguably has the best combination of size and speed in the class — he’s 205 pounds and can run a sub-10.8 100m.

The Houston-area product is also the type of recruit who can serve as a leader in the class as Sarkisian pursues a quarterback to replace Ewers. On Wednesday, Blue teased some good news coming for the Longhorns.

The tweet came after Texas received three 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions for consensus three-star Arlington Martin linebacker Trevell Johnson and one Crystal Ball prediction for consensus five-star quarterback Maalik Murphy out of California, who is expected to visit next week.

But securing the type of top-three recruiting class inked by former head coach Tom Herman in his first full cycle in 2018 won’t be easy. In that class, the Longhorns signed 11 of the top 15 prospects in the state, including two consensus five-star prospects in safeties Caden Sterns and BJ Foster, the two highest-ranked players in the Lone Star State.

Not only is that an incredibly high standard, but the Longhorns are already behind other programs in the 2022 recruiting class and facing stakes increased by the No. 17-ranked transition class that only landed one of the state’s top 25 players.

Ohio State already holds pledges from Ewers and Austin-area wide receiver Caleb Burton, who is also a consensus five-star prospect and ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the state.

In the Houston area, Texas A&M has surged with recruits following one of the best seasons in program history and sits in strong positions with standouts like Cy Park linebacker Harold Perkins, the state’s No. 5 prospect, and Humble Summer Creek offensive tackle Kelvin Banks, the state’s No. 6 prospect. Head coach Jimbo Fisher already holds pledges from Katy defensive end Malick Sylla, the state’s No. 7 prospect, and Cypress Bridgeland quarterback Conner Weigman, the state’s No. 16 prospect.

In North Texas and the Panhandle, Oklahoma has regained ground, leading for Duncanville defensive end Omari Abor, the state’s No. 9 prospect, and Spearman athlete Brenen Thompson, the state’s No. 10 prospect. In Garland, a Longhorns-Sooners battle is emerging for the state’s No. 15 prospect, safety Chace Biddle, though the new staff’s preferences could impact that recruitment with the recent LSU decommitments at the position.

On National Signing Day, Georgia landed the state’s top defensive tackle, Bear Alexander of Denton Ryan.

So consider how much the landscape has changed since Herman took over. For most of the 2018 cycle, Kevin Sumlin’s tenure in College Station was crumbling, leading to his late-November termination. Lincoln Riley didn’t take over the Oklahoma job until the summer of 2017. At LSU, Ed Orgeron was still trying to reverse the lingering perceptions of him as a head coach from his disastrous stint at Ole Miss a decade before.

Now, Fisher’s championship pedigree from his time at Florida State has turned around the Aggies program, Riley has four Big 12 championships in four seasons and two Heisman-winning quarterbacks while compiling a 45-8 record, Orgeron won the 2019 national title with Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow at the helm, and Nick Saban just signed three of the state’s top 10 prospects in the 2021 class while winning yet another national championship with the help of Sarkisian.

It’s possible and perhaps even arguable that the in-state recruiting landscape has never been more competitive, even as Sarkisian starts his tenure on the Forty Acres with the same paeans to Texas high school football coaches as his predecessors.

“For the high school coaches in the state of Texas — this is your program, our doors are always open,” Sarkisian said at his introductory press conference. “I have so much respect for the high school football in the state of Texas, the great programs, the rich history and tradition, the great players that have come from your programs. Couldn’t be more proud and humbled to be your head coach and I look forward to creating those relationships with you as well.”

And Sarkisian’s staff does have some important ties to the state.

Running backs coach Stan Drayton has recruited in the state since he was hired by Herman weeks after Herman’s arrival on the Forty Acres, new safeties coach Blake Gideon has ties to Texas high school football coaches through his father, defensive line coach Bo Davis recruited the state in previous stints with the Longhorns and the Crimson Tide, and tight ends coach Jeff Banks built strong relationships during his time at UTEP and Texas A&M before continuing to focus on Lone Star State recruiting at Alabama.

But compared to Herman, who regularly touted the experience of his initial coaching staff recruiting the state of Texas, Sarkisian took a slightly different approach in building his staff, tapping into the Northwest for his co-defensive coordinators and hiring a Louisiana native to coach the secondary. Most of offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Kyle Flood’s coaching career was spent in the Northeast, while quarterbacks coach AJ Milwee is a virtual unknown as a recruiter, especially in Texas.

Given the disparities in high-level track records between Herman’s staff mostly made up of coaches he brought with him from Houston and the staff that Sarkisian has put together, the overall advantage goes to Sarkisian’s group by a wide margin.

It’s just not clear yet how the staff will fare in a competitive environment against programs that already have a head start in building many of the key relationships that will define the outcomes in the 2022 cycle.

The new Texas coach has made at least one key support staff hire that should help, tapping Lancaster head coach Chris Gilbert as his Director of High School Relations for his ties to the Metroplex in an attempt to claim back territory from the rivals across the Red River. The Longhorns are also expected to hire former Louisiana-Monroe offensive coordinator Eman Naghavi as a quality control assistant. Naghavi played at Katy and is married to the daughter of head coach Gary Joseph.

“I do think it is vitally important for the University of Texas Longhorns to get back to the top of college football, we need to keep the best players in the state of Texas home,” Sarkisian said. “And that’ll be the priority when it comes to recruiting.”

As the head coach, Sarkisian is focused on his authenticity as a person — in his introductory press conference, he mentioned the word “authentic” six times.

“I’m a relationship recruiter,” Sarkisian said in an interview with 105.3 The Fan. “I’m a relationship person in general when it comes to our players, recruits, high school coaches, and I think there’s a lot of value in having those relationships and developing those relationships.”

To see the benefit of those relationships, Sarkisian and his staff will have to go head-to-head against programs with recent on-field resumes that put the Longhorns to shame in a cycle that faces tremendous pressure to land a high-level recruiting class that can help define the program’s upside heading into the middle part of this decade.