Four days after Texas Longhorns athletics director Chris Del Conte released his infamous statement reiterating that Tom Herman was still the head football coach in Austin, Herman met with the media to discuss a 2021 signing class that ranked as the worst non-transition class for the Longhorns in the modern era of recruiting.
During that Zoom call with reporters, Herman emphasized that he and his staff kept the overall size of the class relatively small in order to add graduate or other transfers with the still-looming possibility of a one-time blanket transfer waiver.
So with the first Texas transition class under new head coach Steve Sarkisian, one might say that the cake was already baked and that just needed a little icing. To put it another way — with so many prospects signing in December, that wasn’t much else for Sarkisian to do other than stay the course. That’s simply the new reality for transition classes.
But staying the course doesn’t mean that Sarkisian and his staff were derelict in assessing the roster before moving forward.
“We really tried to do a thorough job of assessing our roster as best we could have, looking at the game tape of what we have currently, getting an idea of kind of the movement skills of our players on the field and maybe where they would fit scheme wise now that we have our coaching staff on board, and then identifying the players that were really available that we felt like could help the University of Texas not only on the football field, but also in the classroom and from a character standpoint of what they meant moving forward of representing the university.”
Since the early signing period, Texas added two high school signees, including longtime cornerback commit Ishmael Ibraheem, two graduate transfers, and one new commitment. Including misses on Cy-Fair running back LJ Johnson and Dallas Episcopal School offensive tackle Austin Uke, key targets at the end of the Herman era, the only new targets that Sarkisian and his staff emphasized were Mansfield Legacy defensive end David Abiara and LSU graduate transfer outside linebacker Ray Thornton.
The only National Signing Day commitment for the Longhorns was Abiara, a one-time Fighting Irish pledge who originally received an offer from the previous staff in late May. When Sarkisian arrived, new defensive line coach Bo Davis ramped up the pursuit of Abiara and Texas faced little significant competition for his signature in the final days.
Sarkisian believes that the 6’4, 250-pound Abiara will eventually play at 265 or 270 pounds, but still have the versatility to serve as a stand-up pass rusher in defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s scheme that often uses two outside linebackers in that role. The key to fully fitting that role, though, is the ability to threaten the edge from a two-point stance while still possessing the ability to play with a hand in the dirt and control the edge against the running game, something that Abiara did well in high school. He had 15 sacks as a junior, too, evidence of his ability as a pass rusher.
Thornton returns to his home state after five years with the Tigers, including the last two years facing Sarkisian and the Crimson Tide.
“The versatility he brings, the pass-rush ability, we feel like is something that can really uplift the roster,” Sarkisian said. “A guy who’s got championship pedigree at LSU from a couple years ago, really good third-down pass rusher.”
Bryan Rudder wide receiver Keithron Lee signed with Texas after committing to Herman and Andre Coleman on Christmas Day. Lee’s late ascent thanks to an excellent senior season helped him land on the Longhorns radar and the need for a slot receiver and the retention of Coleman made Lee’s addition by Sarkisian an easy decision.
Sarkisian praised Lee’s football intelligence while noting his ability on so-called gadget plays like jet sweeps and bubble screens, the simple ways a play caller can get the ball to dynamic players with some space to operate. But, like Herman, Sarkisian saw more than that in Lee.
“When you really start digging into the tape on him, his ability to adjust on the football down the field is something that’s been very impressive to me,” Sarkisian said. “He’s got tremendous hand-eye coordination, he can make plays on the ball, he wins one on ones. So again, I think when you look at those key components, we got a versatile slot receiver.”
After a December arrest, Dallas Kimball cornerback Ishmael Ibraheem also signed on Wednesday, becoming the second cornerback in the 2021 class and filling another key need.
“In the Big 12 and in any league, you’ve got to have cover corners and he clearly can do that,” Sarkisian said. “But I think the one thing that jumps out with Ish is the physicality that he plays with. You watch his tape, he’s a tremendous tackler, he can get off blocks, and in this day and age of the bubble screens and the quick screens, your corners have to have the ability to tackle, not just cover.”
Sarkisian cited Kwiatkowski’s success at Washington with long cornerbacks who are now in the NFL to illustrate Ibraheem’s scheme fit in the secondary.
Despite the additions of Thornton and Notre Dame graduate transfer edge rusher Ovie Oghoufo, who wasn’t announced as a part of the class on Wednesday because he won’t arrive until the summer, Sarkisian still has four open spots in the class to use in the coming months. Once again, that choice was a continuation of strategic decisions also made by Herman.
“Clearly, what happened for us here is we didn’t want to reach too far and just fill up all of our numbers,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve really got four spots still available for us. In the nature of college football right now with the transfer portal and the things going on and the potential one-time transfer rule coming down the road, we wanted to make sure we left ourselves enough wiggle room and versatility to get through spring ball and maybe address some a few more needs that may come down the road.
“Ideally, you come in at the front end and you sign all the 25 of your guys and away you go. This was obviously a unique situation with the signing period where 19 kids were already signed, which we feel very good about. We think they’re going to be good additions to the program. Now what do you do with those last few spots, knowing the majority of the players are off the board and they’re already signed and going to other schools? All in all, I thought we did a really good job on the ‘21 class, leaving us some wiggle room and filling some needs.”
Sarkisian mentioned experienced depth at inside linebacker as a potential need, in part because those players often serve on multiple special teams units. With two returning starters at those positions, including DeMarvion Overshown, who could be the team’s best defensive player in 2021, adding starting-caliber transfers won’t be easy, but new linebackers coach Jeff Choate may choose to target players similar to Thornton to fill out the roster.
After losing Jalen Green to Mississippi State, cornerback is another position that Sarkisian could target, even with former McNeese State standout Darion Dunn already on the Forty Acres. Texas
Those were the only two positions specifically mentioned by Sarkisian, but depending on whether Gabriel Watson returns for another season at running back and whether Derek Kerstetter returns along the offensive like, those are other positional possibilities for the remaining four sports.
Spring practice will afford more clarity at all four of those positions and help Sarkisian and his staff narrow down players who might be fits.
But just like the final weeks of the cycle largely reflected the course set by Herman, the ultimate outcome and analysis of the 2021 Texas class will depend on Sarkisian and his staff succeeding where Herman and his staffs largely failed.
“I want to make sure I’m clear on something that to me is very important — we have to be the best developmental staff in the country,” Sarkisian said.