AUSTIN, Texas — With the Texas Longhorns leading the West Virginia Mountaineers 7-0 late in the first quarter, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian dialed up some trickeration — quarterback Hudson Card took the ball from under center and immediately threw it to wide receiver Xavier Worthy behind the line of scrimmage. As the defense focused on the Texas playmaker, tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders worked down the seam and behind the distracted safety as Worthy launched the pass for a 33-yard touchdown and some separation that the Longhorns never relinquished in the 38-20 victory.
“It was a little wobbly, but I wasn’t tripping on it. It was catchable. I would probably say about a six or a seven — it could have been better,” Sanders said after the game, grading Worthy’s throw.
Finishing with five catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns, the performance from Sanders deserved a higher grade as the sophomore became the first Longhorns tight end to record multiple touchdown catches in the same game since DJ Grant in 2011.
Now with three touchdown catches this season, Sanders has a chance to surpass Grant and Blaine Irby for the most touchdown catches by a Texas tight end since David Thomas had six in 2005, putting into perspective just how long the Horns have struggled to find production at a position often snakebit by injuries and disappointments and regularly populated by converted defensive ends or linebackers.
Ranked as the No. 13 player nationally and the No. 1 athlete in the 2021 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Sanders faced high expectations when he arrived on the Forty Acres last year, all mixed with the uncertainty of what position he would play.
A high school wide receiver and defensive end, Sanders started out at tight end under position coach Jeff Banks as even his family wondered if he couldn’t make a faster impact on the edge, where the Longhorns were struggling to mount a pass rush.
But Sanders stuck with the position even as he struggled to adjust as a blocker, spending the season contributing primarily on special teams. By preseason camp, Sarkisian was praising Sanders as one of the team’s most improved players. Five games into the season, Sanders has cemented his role as the starter and one of the team’s most dynamic offensive weapons with 20 catches for 212 yards.
“I love JT. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again — I give him a lot of credit,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “In this day and age of the five-star recruit, it’s instant gratification. He’s supposed to walk in the door become a starter the day he gets here, because that’s what he hears on social media and that’s what everybody writes about and all those things, when in reality, there’s this idea of development and developing players and I think JT put in a lot of work last year with Coach Banks and we asked him to do things that were different than maybe what he had done before. He had the skill set to do it, but we really wanted to dive into him that way to become a complete tight end and not just be a one-dimensional pass receiver. He’s done it — he really put in the work.”
The process of becoming a complete tight end isn’t complete. As a blocker, Sanders has experienced the highs of two knockdowns on the first three plays against UTSA before making the key block that helped spring running back Bijan Robinson’s 78-yard touchdown run. And he’s experienced the lows of missing the key block in overtime against Texas Tech on the linebacker who then forced Robinson to fumble, effectively winning the game for the Red Raiders.
But the growing pains are expected for a young player still banking reps at the position and, by all accounts, Sanders is putting in the work necessary to ensure the highs outnumber the lows as he continues to mature at tight end.
“Just a really determined and team-driven guy,” junior wider receiver Jordan Whittington said on Monday. “He works really hard and then when you work that hard on the practice field it has to happen [in the game], and y’all saw it Saturday, but that’s every day. He does that every day.”
Beyond just work ethic, though, Sarkisian raves about Sanders as the type of player who will soon move into the type of leadership role that senior running back Roschon Johnson currently occupies.
“Obviously we see the playmaking ability that he provides, the versatility that he provides us, but one thing that I think goes a little unnoticed for a guy who’s a true sophomore in his second year, he’s a really good leader,” Sarkisian said. “This guy has got the right makeup of a great player and that he has the leadership qualities necessary to be that kind of guy and he stands up, he’s not afraid, and the more guys like that we can get, the better for us.”
For Sanders, it’s all about serving notice that he can and will capitalize on the potential to become the best Texas dual-threat tight end since Bo Scaife and a future high NFL draft pick while helping the Longhorns back to prominence in the process.
“It’s definitely a great feeling, just knowing all the work I put in throughout the whole season last year is definitely showing this year,” Sanders said after the West Virginia game. “I’m just trying to show everybody what type of player I am, what caliber player I am, what type of leader I am, what type of tight end I am. I’m just trying to do whatever I can do to better the team in all aspects.”
Consider the sophomore on track to do just that.
“I love the progression that he’s made to get to this point. His development is not over by any means, but the trajectory that he’s on is a really good one,” Sarkisian said.