As the final days of November tick away, the month of December looms as an important one on the football calendar as the Texas Longhorns players prepare for a bowl game for the first time in two years while dealing with the end of the semester and final exams and the coaches conduct post-regular season meetings while scouring the NCAA transfer portal and building towards Early Signing Day on Dec. 21.
“There’s a lot of moving parts here this month, but in the end, keeping the focus on what this team has accomplished, what some of these players have has accomplished — I’m proud of them for that,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Monday.
The next step for the current football team is for Sarkisian to meet with each individual player. Those conversations range from whether participating in the bowl game will help their NFL draft stock to whether graduates want to use their so-called Covid year of eligibility to which players may leave for the NFL Draft.
Sarkisian values having “candid conversations” to help players make rational instead of emotional decisions, including with players like wide receiver Jordan Whittington and linebacker Devin Richardson who participated in Senior Day, but could still return. Other players, like defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat and linebacker Jett Bush, did not participate, but could opt to move on.
“Where are they at in school? Have they graduated? Do they want to pursue a masters? What if they’ve already started a masters? Where are they at? What does your future look like here? What is their future look like somewhere else?” Sarkisian said.
Then there’s players with NFL decisions to make like rising linebacker Jaylan Ford and breakout nickel back Jahdae Barron, along with the more obvious choice for running back Bijan Robinson, who fits the profile of players who opt out of bowl games to avoid injury risk.
Once Texas gets into bowl preparation following the announcement of their destination next Sunday, Sarkisian and his staff will split practices into two phases, starting with a return to fundamentals and then moving on to game planning.
“Our first five or so practices for bowl prep will be really dedicated to, call it the spring ball mentality or training camp mentality,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to get back to the basics on a lot of things. We’re going to reteach some fundamentals, some techniques, some general schemes to make sure that everybody’s got a firm understanding and we can work with those players to do that.”
After focusing on areas that benefit the developmental players the most, Texas will spend the second half of bowl preparation on the game plan.
“I think one mistake you can make is do all the work on the game and then the players I don’t want to say get bored, but it’s the monotony of the same stuff for two to three weeks and then they finally play the game. I think you have to keep it fresh this time of year,” Sarkisian said.
Meanwhile, as players make decisions about their future, the staff starts to evaluate options in the NCAA transfer portal.
“You have to assess your own roster as we kind of talked about earlier,” Sarkisian said. “And then what are the needs and what’s a specific need and what’s a luxury? There’s a difference between a want and a need and I think we have to acknowledge that on our roster.”
While some positions stand out as potential areas to target, including wide receiver, edge, linebacker, and safety, Sarkisian said that the staff has to take a more wide-angle approach at this time of year.
“In this day and age with the portal you’ve kind of got to look at everything because I don’t know what we’re gonna have with our own team — I don’t know who’s going in the portal,” Sarkisian said. “You just kind of have to take it day by day, quite frankly. I don’t think that you can say we need that, I mean, I don’t know.”
The other factor is projecting developmental players. Where are they going to be after bowl practice, after offseason conditioning, after spring practice, after summer conditioning, after preseason camp? It’s an imprecise science, but avoiding using roster spots on transfer portal players who come in and then get beat out by someone who was already in the program is of massive importance.
“I refer to them as disgruntled employees, because the guy thinks he’s coming here to be a frontline starter and he got beat out, so we’ve got to be very transparent, open, and honest with the kids that decide to come here that this program is based on competition and the best players are going to play that give the team the best chance to win,” Sarkisian said.
Before determining remaining needs, the staff has to secure the 2023 recruiting class, much of which will sign during the early period. While there are still several remaining targets who are uncommitted, including No. 1 linebacker Anthony Hill, and one committed target who plans to take an official visit in December in West Virginia defensive line pledge Justin Benton, most of the work will surround keeping the current class together.
“We recognize the early signing period, but that doesn’t mean other people aren’t still trying to get guys on visits and those types of things, so we’ve got to close well in December,” Sarkisian said.
Among the commits other programs are targeting are four-star safety Derek Williams, who may choose to sign in February in order to take his four remaining official visits, and four-star cornerback Malik Muhammad, who took an official visit to Texas A&M this fall after committing to Texas during the summer.
So in a little more than a month, the Longhorns will determine whether they enter the offseason with the momentum from a bowl win, some players will be off to the NFL Draft, some will return, some will depart to the NCAA transfer portal, portal target will emerge, and the program’s future will begin to take shape based on the potential of the 2023 signees who ink their National Letters of Intent during the early signing period.
Buckle up, folks.