With multiple Texas Longhorns players having decisions to make about whether to use their extra season of eligibility, head coach Steve Sarkisian started his post-regular season meetings with those players on Monday.
Other meetings may be even more important — making the re-recruiting pitch to players considering entering the NCAA transfer portal in an era where backchannel communication about NIL opportunities elsewhere can leave collectives scrambling to ensure they can meet or exceed those offers.
Last May, Texas was able to hold off reported attempts to poach star wide receiver Xavier Worthy and nickel back Jahdae Barron, whose breakout season ultimately made clear the importance of his retention.
Worthy followed up on his own breakout freshman campaign by leading the Big 12 in touchdown receptions.
“We have arguably the best receiver in the conference. I think so,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “Xavier led the conference in touchdown receptions again for the second year in a row and he’s caught 21 touchdown catches [in his career], he had another nine this year. So to me, we’ve got an elite player there.”
The operative question on Monday and as the Longhorns move forward in this transfer window is whether Worthy wants to remain in Austin and sees Texas as the best option for him after quarterback Quinn Ewers struggled to connect on shot plays with Worthy, the second straight season the Longhorns failed to capitalize on Worthy’s ability to get open down the field.
As a result, Worthy caught nine fewer passes this season, had 305 fewer receiving yards, saw his yards per catch drop by three yards, and had three fewer touchdown catches. The overall numbers indicate he was less of a big-play threat — in 2021, the Fresno product had four plays of more than 50 yards with a long reception of 76 yards. This year, Worthy’s longest play was 46 yards, one of only two plays that went for more than 40 yards.
And it wasn’t just the numbers telling the story. Worthy’s body language often conveyed a high level of frustration late in the season, bleeding over at times into his willingness to extend for contested catches over the middle, a concerning development for a tough player generally showing a high level of contact courage, and notably failing to run a slot fade with enough physicality against TCU.
As a result, Sarkisian fielded a question on Monday surrounding Worthy’s happiness on the Forty Acres.
“I think the one thing about Xavier is this — he’s a highly competitive young man and from the moment he arrived on our campus, he came to work and he came to work to earn an opportunity to play, came to work to become a starter. He came to work to be the best receiver he could be, whether that was in our conference or in the country.
“So I think the guy’s got a high sense of competitiveness and drive to be the best and he works that way every day. And so sometimes when you don’t get the actual result of it, that can become a sense of frustration. I would much rather have a receiver that’s frustrated that he didn’t contribute more to a win than a guy who’s content to go on the field and playing and the ball not coming his way, because I think he values his ability to get open. I do, too. I get it.”
Over the offseason, improving the passing game will be a priority for Sarkisian and the Longhorns to the extent that the Texas head coach already went on the record about the quarterback competition being open once again. Compared to other Big 12 programs, the Horns finished fifth in passer rating, fifth in yards per attempt, eighth in completion percentage, and sixth in touchdown passes.
“So, again, addressing the passing game is going to be a critical component to what we do, but it would be hard to find the guy in his first two years of college football at the Power Five level who’s got 21 touchdown catches in two years,” Sarkisian said. “So he’s been off to a pretty good start, but I think his best days are ahead.”
But after Worthy removed Texas pictures and references from his Instagram account over the weekend, at issue isn’t Worthy’s quality, it’s the state of the Texas passing game and what type of options he would have elsewhere.
For Sarkisian moving forward, it’s about selling Worthy on how improving pass protection, quarterback play, and the talent around Worthy will benefit him next season.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re versatile enough of threatening people to where one guy is not getting doubled, one guy’s not getting all these intricate coverages,” Sarkisian said.
And as last May’s drama indicated, the other important piece is about Worthy’s NIL opportunities at Texas.
“It’s a new era of college football, the transfer portal, and things of that nature are all areas that we have to adapt to,” Sarkisian said. “I think that we’ve got a creative group of people that we work with. Again, we take a lot of pride in what this university stands for, and how we go about it, and the support that we get. We’ve just got to make sure that we do it the right way and that’s the plan moving forward.”