During the 2019 season, the top four Alabama Crimson Tide wide receivers combined for more than 3,700 yards and 37 touchdowns. In 2020, following the departures of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, and with Jaylen Waddle dealing with an injury, DeVonta Smith emerged as the go-to target, winning the Heisman Trophy after racking up 1,856 receiving yards and 23 touchdown on 117 catches.
So when new Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian addresses his wide receivers room after spending the last two seasons leading that group in Tuscaloosa, he has unquestionable proof of concept.
And that’s beneficial, because he’s asking for his group to become more well-rounded wide receivers overall instead of largely sticking to the positional definitions within the group that defined them under former head coach Tom Herman.
Under Herman, the wide receivers generally slotted into three clear categories and remained in them — the big X receiver split out alone to the single side, the Z receiver lined up nearest the sideline on the opposite side, and the H receiver next to the Z in the slot.
But where Herman largely wanted those receivers to master routes and releases for their specific designation, Sarkisian wants each his receivers to be able to line up anywhere on the field.
“Well, I think, in general in our offense you have to have the ability to conceptually learn,” Sarkisian said following practice on Monday. “We don’t teach our receivers to play one spot in only one spot on the field.”
The idea is to build the diverse skill sets necessary for any player to exploit any matchup that Sarkisian can create with opponent-specific game planning, culminating for Smith in his historic performance in the national championship game with 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns. In the first half.
Sarkisian made some of it easy for Smith, like famously using a trips formation to the field to get him matched up against Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland. Suffice it to say that went poorly for Borland. Overall, Smith’s performance served as a blueprint for how Sarkisian can seek and exploit matchups for his wide receivers.
“As we get into game planning for our opponents, then we can start to kind of create some of the matchups and put people in positions that we want, so one of the keys to our system is these guys really learning conceptually, especially early on. That’s the first part,” Sarkisian said.
The second part is winning one-on-one routes. Of course that seems to go without saying, but this isn’t whiteboard stuff.
“We really pride ourselves on not running routes like the drawing on a piece of paper or on the whiteboard,” Sarkisian said.
For every player, learning to win routes might look a little bit different as they attempt to maximize what they do well, whether it’s using size, speed, or savvy.
“Ultimately, you’ve got to make the play, you know, I mean, all of that — know what to do, know how to get open, then you have to have the ability to make the play, so it’s kind of a three-level approach to how we view these guys,” Sarkisian said.
Through four practices in preseason camp, Sarkisian and position coach Andre Coleman are still figuring out their players and who can make those plays, especially in situations where it’s hot or they’re fatigued.
The most diverse talent on the team right now may be sophomore wide receiver Jordan Whittington, the former consensus five-star prospect who only has 23 receptions through his first two seasons thanks to a string of injuries.
In the spring, Whittington was one of the first players to pick up the offense conceptually, positioning him well for his other attributes to flash in preseason camp.
“Jordan is obviously a physical guy for wide receiver, and just definitely has a worker’s mentality, you know, he’s a grinder, he’s blue collar, tough nosed, and those are all great traits to have at that position, but the understanding of the offense gives him a lot of versatility,” Sarkisian said.
On Monday, Whittington showed off three different styles of play — perimeter plays, a key block, and a critical third-down reception.
“It’s all those things where you feel like you can really count on him, and that’s a great trait to have as wide receiver, knowing you can count on a guy,” Sarkisian said. “I think he’s earning that. It definitely started in spring and even through the first four days he’s earning a lot of trust of the coaches and then obviously the quarterbacks.”
Junior running back Roschon Johnson believes that junior wide receiver Joshua Moore is one of the “drastically improved” players in Coleman’s room. Moore said he gained 12 pounds during the offseason to get up to 174 pounds, finally adding the type of armor that Herman always preached about to help players get through seasons — in 2020, Moore got off to a strong start, but then suffered knee and shoulder injuries that limited him to six catches over the final five games of the regular season.
When bowl preparation allowed him the time to get healthy, he responded with five catches for 86 yards and two touchdowns against Colorado in San Antonio.
Now Moore is working on improving his ability to read defenses because part of consistently winning those battles to get open in Sarkisian’s offense involves identifying coverages and making the right route adjustments to whatever the defense is running.
Of all the returning players on the roster, he has the build and skill set most similar to Smith, but also a tremendous amount to prove if he wants that comparison to stand up at all.
Johnson, like his teammates, is also excited about the return of redshirt freshman wide receiver Troy Omeire, who dropped some weight this offseason after the ACL injury that ended his 2020 season after a sensational start to preseason camp.
According to Sarkisian, Omeire is trying to find the right combination of consistency and trust in his knee, but has steadily improved and shown some flashes since returning in the spring as a non-contact participant in practice.
The single receiver drawing the most buzz since arriving during the summer is unquestionably freshman Xavier Worthy, who may already be in contention for a starting role.
Worthy’s teammates also mention the most obvious characteristics of his game when asked about him — speed and explosiveness — but it’s also becoming clear that Worthy excels in that first level of learning Sarkisian’s offense.
“When you watch him you can see the speed, you can see the explosiveness,” Sakisian said. “Probably the most impressive thing that he’s done in the short amount of time that he’s been here is learn.”
The result is that Worthy already has a strong understanding of the offense, he can play multiple positions, and that’s allowed him to be in position to make plays.
“He’s a guy that pretty much does everything he’s asked of, and he does it to a T,” Johnson said.
Consider that one of several positive signs for a Texas position group attempting to turn talent into production as soon as they hit the field at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium next month. Another positive sign? Moore believes Sarkisian’s offense will put the wide receivers in positions to succeed.
“What makes it unique and what makes it exciting is that every receiver that runs a route, it doesn’t matter what defense they play, somebody will be open no matter what. It’s all up to the guy to make the play.”