Other than two assistant coaches, there’s another key similarity between Tom Herman and new Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian — the desire to use No. 1 athlete Ja’Tavion Sanders, the top-ranked player in the 2021 Texas recruiting class and the No. 12 player nationally, as a two-way player when he arrives in Austin this summer.
“We’re going to look at him at both, quite frankly,” Sarkisian said during his National Signing Day Zoom call with reporters.
At Denton Ryan, Sanders was a standout pass catcher and a standout pass rusher. Listed at 6’4 and 220 pounds, Sanders had 63 receptions for 1,161 yards (18.4 yards per reception) and 16 touchdowns as a senior, while also rushing 23 times for 71 yards and three touchdowns.
When Sanders spent his junior season focused more on defense, he finished with 39 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 24 pressures, two forced fumbles and three pass breakups. On defense in 2020, Sanders recorded four sacks and an interception. Not just any interception — a one-handed interception that he returned for a touchdown.
Not only did Sanders show off his flypaper hands on the play, his ability to read and anticipate the screen pass put himself in a position to make the play in the first place.
Sanders didn’t just reserve his one-handed catches for defense, though — his one-handed touchdown catch against Highland Park was also one of the best plays of the 2020 Texas high school football season.
“I’ve known JT for a while — he’s a tremendous player, very versatile player, as everybody well knows, and we’ve definitely had dialogue,” Sarkisian said of the future position for Sanders. “He’s a guy who’s a tremendous defensive end. I mean, he can rush the passer, he has all the skill set to rush, and then you look at him on offense at the tight end position, he’s a real difference maker, he can win one-on-one matchups, he can separate, he’s got great ball skills.”
The clear upside of Sanders on both sides of the ball could make for one of the early defining decisions by Sarkisian.
“My job is to put him in the best position to have success and to be successful,” Sarkisian said.
But it’s also one that he and his staff don’t have to make for several more months — because Sanders isn’t among the early enrollees for the Longhorns, Sarkisian and his staff can use spring practice, which is set to begin on March 23, in order to assess the roster at outside linebacker and at tight end.
“We need to identify what will be best for him first and then maneuver him to the other side of the ball when the time is right,” Sarkisian said.
Right now, the position with significantly less clarity is Pete Kwiatkowski’s outside linebacker position following the early departure of Joseph Ossai, who played the hybrid Jack position under former defensive coordinator Chris Ash. In an attempt to add experienced depth there, Sarkisian and his staff recently landed LSU graduate transfer Ray Thornton and Notre Dame graduate transfer Ovie Oghoufo.
With Thornton entering his sixth season, the Killeen Shoemaker product is a short-term solution at best, but Oghoufo is entering his fourth season, affording him two seasons of eligibility.
Texas also has younger players at the position like Prince Dorbah, who only appeared in the season opener against UTEP as a freshman, and 2021 signee Derrick Harris Jr., who missed his senior season due to injury. Both are likely at least a year away from contributing.
The tight end position has more proven depth — Cade Brewer returns for his fifth season, Jared Wiley flashed at times as a big-play threat in the passing game and credible blocker in his second season, and Malcolm Epps enters his fourth year in the program with a chance to spend a full offseason working at tight end. Third-year player Brayden Liebrock had his 2020 season derailed by a shoulder injury, but still possesses plenty of potential. And then there are two 2021 signees in jumbo athlete Juan Davis and two-time Colorado state champion Gunnar Helm.
Adding the two graduate transfers at defensive end should negate the need for Sanders to contribute early in that role and the path to playing time at tight end is perhaps even more difficult.
So while Sanders still has the best chance of contributing in 2021 at defensive end, the calculus has changed significantly since the Denton Ryan product signed his National Letter of Intent a little more than six weeks ago.
Not having to focus on where Sanders can make the most impact the most quickly allows considerations for his professional future to take on a larger role in the short-term decision making about where he’ll play.
Through the NFL is increasingly valuing tight ends more highly as players like Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski star as oversized wide receivers, a tight end hasn’t gone in the top five of the NFL Draft since 1972. Two others went fourth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Even as the NFL has drafted more tight ends in the first round, most of the value has come lower in the draft — neither Kelce nor Gronkowski were picked in the first round. San Francisco 49ers star George Kittle went in the fifth round.
The outside linebacker/defensive end position, however, remains one of the most high-value positions in the NFL, arguably ranking third after quarterbacks and offensive tackles. In recent years, defensive ends selected high in the first round have generally achieved at the expected level, making more clean transitions than some high-profile first-round tight ends who didn’t immediately live up to expectations.
There’s also another factor here — unlike most coaches, Sarkisian actually has a track record of using players on both sides of the football. The best comparison in his tenure for Sanders is probably former Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, one of the biggest recruiting coups for Sarkisian during his time in Seattle.
On offense, Sarkisian moved Seferian-Jenkins around, sometimes lining him up as a single outside receiver or as an in-line tight end. In three seasons with the Huskies, Seferian-Jenkins recorded 1,840 receiving yards and 21 receiving touchdowns. But he also spent some time as a third-down pass rusher, although the results were not particularly impressive — Seferian-Jenkins was credited with two tackles in his career, but never recorded a sack or a tackle for loss.
Wide receiver John Ross played some nickel back on defense for Sarkisian and then had 16 tackles and an interception in 2014 when Chris Petersen and Kwiatkowksi arrived at Washington.
At USC, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson played cornerback and wide receiver even more successfully than Ross — in his first two seasons, Jackson had 553 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns while also receiving eight carries.
So there is some reason to believe that Sarkisian and his staff can pull off a difficult feat — playing Sanders on both sides of the ball without setting back his development. After all, Jackson and Ross both went in the first round and Seferian-Jenkins heard his name called in the second round, so the results quite clearly suggest that playing both ways didn’t set back any of those three players.
Sanders, for his part, doesn’t have a strong preference about where he wants to play. “Getting a sack and a touchdown is pretty much the same feeling for me,” Sanders told 247Sports.
But even if there are successful packages for Sanders at tight end and defensive end, at some point he’ll have to make a decision about his positional future and the sooner he makes that decision, the better chance Sanders has to become an impactful NFL player.
Perhaps that’s merely conventional wisdom, though, because Sarkisian’s plan sounds a little bit different thanks to his previous successes with two-way players.
“Know that once we get him comfortable on whichever side of the ball that is, we’re gonna find a role for him to do what he does well on the other side of the ball,” Sarkisian told Mike Farrell of Rivals.com. “So exactly how that all is gonna play out, time will tell, but he is a very talented player, he is a committed player, he’s driven, he’s focused, he’s got all the cool traits that you’re looking for in a really good player.”