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Why Steve Sarkisian doesn’t plan changes to the Texas starting OL

The Longhorns head coach believes the current group simply needs more time playing together.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma State Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

A mediocre performance against the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns and an awful performance against the Arkansas Razorbacks won’t result in any changes to the Texas Longhorns starting offensive line, at least not in the immediate future, head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Monday.

“I think the guys that we have playing need to play more together,” Sarkisian said during his weekly press conference.

The demands in Sarkisian’s pro-style offense are significant from a scheme standpoint — it’s a system that features inside zone, outside zone, gap schemes, and pull schemes to allow the offense enough flexibility to adjust to what opposing teams defend poorly.

Beyond the versatility required of the starting offensive linemen, Sarkisian’s previous success at Alabama caused Louisiana and Arkansas to challenge the group with different looks. The Ragin’ Cajuns surprised the Longhorns offense with defensive looks they hadn’t put on film before. The Razorbacks made a switch from the schemes used against the Owls in the season opener.

Instead of an even front, Arkansas used an odd front dime defense in the three-safety structure popularized by Iowa State that makes it difficult to run the ball because the safeties can run the alleys and close down on running plays. For Texas, the bigger issue was missing second-level defenders as the opposing linebackers devastated the running schemes of Sarkisian and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Kyle Flood.

Hayden Henry had 15 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss. Grant Morgan matched Henry’s tackles for loss among his own 13 tackles. And Bumper Pool made 10 tackles even though he was suspended for the first half due to a targeting penalty assessed in the Rice game. So those three linebackers made 38 combined tackles on a day when Texas ran 64 total plays.

Sarkisian blamed a lack of trust in the training provided by Flood.

“We didn’t trust our principles and trust our training and fall back on the things that we had been building for eight months,” Sarkisian said. “That’s something that we have to get fixed. I don’t think it was about manpower or physicality or talent. It was doing what you’re supposed to do down in and down out and that’s a very fixable problem.”

Those breakdowns help explain why an offensive line that returned four starters and played well with Jake Majors at center late last season regressed from the Alamo Bowl to the season opener and then again in Fayetteville.

If Sarkisian has correctly diagnosed the issues, rotating in redshirt freshman Andrej Karic at tackle to move senior Derek Kerstetter inside from right tackle or simply substituting freshman Hayden Conner for super senior Denzel Okafor doesn’t make sense, because personnel isn’t the issue. Both young players may have more upside, but Okafor was serviceable late last season.

During preseason camp, Flood notably pointed out that all of his good offensive lines have gotten better and believes the same will happen at Texas, a sentiment that Sarkisian echoed on Monday.

“I think over time they’ll play better and better together,” Sarkisian said.

The pressure to make that happen is significant. Not only are games on the line, Flood still needs to convince offensive linemen like elite Arlington Bowie guard prospect Devon Campbell to join the 2022 recruiting class to build a group that more closely fits his vision.

But that’s the trickle-down effect — with conference play looming, Flood needs to start justifying his $1.1 million salary with some better results on the field, regardless of whether Texas is completely prepared for whatever defensive looks they happen to see in a given game.