The Steve Sarkisian era is set to officially get underway in the coming days, and there seems to be equal parts uncertainty and expectations ahead of the Texas Longhorns season opener against Louisiana.
How well Sarkisian and his staff can address some of those uncertainties and live up to and even exceed expectations will go a long way towards deciding how his first season in Austin plays out.
Here’s five questions and five bold predictions for what’s to come...
Question — Can Sarkisian develop Hudson Card into a quality quarterback in Year 1?
Sarkisian’s track record as a quarterback whisperer now spans two decades, and he’s coming off maybe his most impressive effort at Alabama after helping develop former three-star prospect Mac Jones into a 4,500-yard passer and a first round draft pick. Now, he’s starting almost entirely fresh after naming redshirt freshman Hudson Card, who’s completed just one career pass, his starter for Texas’ season opener. Expecting Card to mimic Jones’ display out of the gates would be absurd, but what Sark can do with his high-upside, yet tremendously inexperienced QB1 will have a significant say in how the Sark era gets underway.
Bold prediction — Hudson Card totals 3,000 yards.
Save for the obvious inexperience, Card has all the tools Sarkisian could want in his young quarterback prospect, including the ability to make something out of nothing with his legs. After all, he was the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in his class not too long ago, and for good reason. With Bijan Robinson and a loaded Texas running back room expected to be the focal point of the offense, Card should be able to ease into his role and establish some comfort and chemistry with his receiving corps without the pressure to make every play.
With that in mind, if Sark’s lengthy track record of developing elite gunslingers is a sign of what’s to come, Card should string together a considerably successful first season at the helm.
Question — Can Bijan Robinson become the star talent he’s anticipated to be?
Robinson was expected to become a star from the moment he signed with Texas — expectations that naturally accompany the No. 1 running back recruit in their class. Then, when he exploded for 355 yards and four touchdowns on just 19 carries in Texas’ final two games of the 2020 season — this, in addition to five catches for another two scores — the timeline for how quickly Robinson was expected to become that superstar moved from eventually to immediately.
Bold Prediction — Bijan Robinson rushes for 1,300 yards.
Dating back to his debut as Washington’s head coach in 2009, Sarkisian’s offenses have helped produce seven consecutive 1,100-yard rushers, with Chris Polk (Washington), Bishop Sankey (Washington), Javorius Allen (USC) and Najee Harris (Alabama) collectively averaging 1,365 yards per season.
There’s every reason to believe Robinson will maintain that pace in 2021. With no Ehlinger, Robinson will be the focal point of the Texas offense, and Sarkisian plans to utilize him as such, noting that Robinson will receive around 20-22 carries per game. If that actually proves true, expect Robinson to be one of, if not the Big 12’s leading rusher when it’s all said and done.
Question — Can the Texas receivers start living up to their potential?
The Texas wide receiver corps didn’t look quite the same last season without Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson — not even close, in fact. it was a group full of former top-100 prospects, yet none even eclipsed 475 yards or resembled the star talent Sam Ehlinger enjoyed in recent years with Duvernay, Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
Much of that talent remains, but can this group take a much-needed step forward to make life easier on an inexperienced quarterback room?
Bold prediction — Xavier Worthy leads the Longhorns in receiving, and four guys have at least 500 yards.
The No. 8 receiver in the 2021 class, Worthy’s been praised early on by Sarkisian and several teammates for his explosiveness and playmaking ability, and that helped him earn a starting role entering his Longhorn debut. His speed should allow him to become a walking mismatch, so look for him to show up on scouting reports sooner than later. Elsewhere, a healthy Jordan Whittington appears primed for a breakout season, and Joshua Moore, who said Sarkisian’s offense routinely allows receivers to be wide open, should take the anticipated step forward, as well. It may take a couple games for him to establish a sense of comfort after his ACL injury, but Troy Omeire could be a key factor if he can return the form that once had him looking like a first-year starter.
Question — Can Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense live up to the hype?
The Longhorns defense has been the team’s strength throughout offseason, which isn’t too much of a surprise given that it boast tremendous talent, depth and most notably, experience. Pete K recently said he wants his defense to hold opponents to fewer than 20 point. All of the ingredients to do so are there, but course, that’s far easier said than done in the Big 12, where Texas allowed 33 points each time out last season.
Bold prediction — The Texas defense finishes top 20 nationally.
Pete K has routinely done more with less, producing top-20 defense after top-20 defense during his stints with Boise State and Washington. Now, he takes over a Texas defense that doesn’t really have a discernible weakness until proven otherwise, and it’s arguably the most talented he’s had. Pair that with a defense starting exclusively upperclassmen and Kwiatkowski should be able to produce yet another top-20 unit during his first season in Austin.
Question — How well can Steve Sarkisian manage games?
Had Tom Herman been able to get out of his own way, he’d still be the head coach at Texas. The “binder” typically told him a fourth down attempt was preferable over field goals or even punts, and the result was losses in what should have been wins. To his credit, Texas didn’t suffer the blowouts it did under Charlie Strong, but the Horns also couldn’t take control against lesser opponents, and big leads often became nail-biting wins.
How Sark manages the game in those exact situations may very well determine how his first season — and ultimately his tenure — at Texas turns out. Will he blow games open as he did at Bama, and avoid letting big leads become close calls? In close contests, will his play-calling be why Texas comes out with a win instead of what reporters are asking about after another hard-to-accept loss?
Bold prediction — Texas covers the spread in all-but one game and loses no more than three games.
If it truly is all gas, no brakes, Sarkisian and his staff should have few issues continuing to apply pressure when things are under control, rather than struggling to stay afloat again opponents like Kansas, Texas Tech and Baylor. Too often under the previous staff, Texas would play not to lose, rather than to win, and the results were, well... there’s a new staff in Austin now. If Sark and Kwiatkowski actually keep their feet on the gas throughout games, those narrow, deflating wins should be a thing of the past with fewer self-inflicted losses in-between.