When Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Kyle Flood met with the media for the first time since coming to Austin last Wednesday, it only took one question for him to make a bold statement about head coach Steve Sarkisian.
“I would start by saying, I am fortunate — this is the third stop that Sark and I have been together. We were together in Atlanta with the Falcons and together at Alabama and now here,” Flood said. “One of the things about working with Sark that you realize right away is that he’s the best play caller in football. And I mean that. I’ve been around a lot of really good play callers in my career and he’s got a special talent for it. So, as he handles that part of the job, it’s always made me feel really good that I’m working with somebody that does it at an elite level.”
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley certainly has an argument for that title, along with Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, but the results at Alabama certainly give Sarkisian a case as one of the best.
In 2019, the Crimson Tide finished No. 2 offensively in SP+ and while Alabama lost two games that season, neither of them were on Sarkisian’s offense, which scored over 40 points in the defeats by LSU and Auburn. Last season, the run to the national championship included the nation’s best offense by a significant margin over Ohio State.
Without wide receiver Jaylen Waddle limited by an ankle injury, the creative ways in which Sarkisian used Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith were masterful.
The hope for Texas is that Sarkisian is good enough to go head-to-head with Riley in the Cotton Bowl and, hopefully, at AT&T Stadium in December. At the least, Sarkisian needs to be the play caller the Longhorns thought they were getting when they hired Tom Herman following the 2016 season, only for Herman to abdicate that responsibility to Tim Beck for most of his first season and then to Mike Yurcich for his final season.
In Herman’s most successful season, Texas finished No. 27 in SP+, though Herman’s final year as a play caller featured the No. 10 offense nationally as a young and banged up defense struggled enough to prompt the dismissal of Todd Orlando and derail the hopes of matching the success in 2018.
At the least, Flood and Sarkisian have a high level of familiarity entering their fifth season working together when it comes to game planning effectively together.
“He knows exactly what I like in the run game, he knows exactly how I think the RPO’s fit,” Flood said. “He knows exactly how I think we should play the game up front situationally, whether that’s short yardage and goal line or four minute or two minute, whatever those things are. We have a really strong relationship in terms of how we communicate during the week, and then on game day, yeah, I feel great because I’m working with a great play caller.”
Flood is still with Sarkisian and taking on the challenge of holding the offensive coordinator title for only the second time in a coaching career that now spans close to 30 years because of his ability to develop offensive linemen.
Specifically, Flood is responsible for ensuring that Sarkisian has the full spectrum of running plays available on Saturdays — inside zone, outside zone, gap schemes, and pull schemes. Most remarkably, Flood was able to accomplish that Alabama despite a preference for and the presence of some extremely large offensive linemen, including 350-pounders in guard Deonte Brown and tackle Evan Neal. As Brown prepared for the 2021 NFL Draft, Flood took pride in that fact that although Brown’s body type profiled in gap schemes, he’d succeeded running wide zone.
“We want complete players because the system is complete and we don’t want to ever have to play a player that’s going to hinder us in terms of what we want to do play-call wise because against certain defenses you’d rather be a zone team,” Flood said. “Against other defenses, you’re going to be adapting — some weeks we run a lot of pin and pull, some weeks we don’t. So it’s all available to us and we need players really that can do it all.”
Sarkisian is heavily involved with the rest of the offense in practice. During last Wednesday’s open practice, he was vocal ensuring that wide receivers were running routes at the correct depth. But what makes him special is more than attention to detail — it’s his ability to see how each individual piece is contributing to the whole of a play.
“He can see it from both sides of his peripheral,” tight ends coach Jeff Banks said. “He can see the tight end over here was supposed to take a a lateral play-side step to a nine technique, but he also knows the bubble was a little bit short on his footwork on the slot receiver to the right.”
Instead of noticing those mistakes on film after practice, Sarkisian can make those corrections immediately without making it personal with the players who didn’t get things right.
“He has no ego and you know what else? He has no memory, he doesn’t,” Banks said. “When he gets on a guy or he coaches them aggressively, it’s not personal — he doesn’t keep going after the guy, he just fixes the problem. And he does it immediately and I think everyone feels an urgency to be great.”
The urgency comes in part from Sarkisian focus on the process instead of the results. As an example, Banks said that even if the offense scores four touchdowns in a row in practice, if a player didn’t run the route correctly, Sarkisian will correct it immediately because he understands small mistakes made against the best teams can be the difference between winning and losing.
“His day to day is unbelievable. I mean it’s day-to-day energy, consistency, and just how aggressive he is in terms of wanting to make it perfect. It’s unbelievable,” Banks said.
As a head coach who calls plays from the sideline as opposed to an offensive coordinator in the press box with the advantage of seeing the whole field from a more favorable angle, Sarkisian’s ability to identify fine details on opposite sides of the same play surely helps him as a play caller in identifying coverages and understanding how to exploit them.
And now the first installment of long-awaited insight into how effectively Sarkisian can call plays for a Texas offense less talented than Alabama is less than two weeks away.