In the second year under head coach Steve Sarkisian, the Texas Longhorns coaching staff has a new, younger look on the offensive side of the ball, as well as a familiar face with the addition of former TCU Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson as a special assistant to Sarkisian.
The hires of running backs coach Tashard Choice and wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Brennan Marion gives the Longhorns two young, dynamic voices in their position rooms and on the recruiting trail, while Patterson brings to bear his extensive experience as a head coach to provide input on virtually all aspects of the program.
And, according to Sarkisian, all three have impressed in their first weeks on the job.
A Georgia Tech alum who played in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, Choice got his break as an assistant with North Texas in 2018 before returning to his alma mater the following year. Choice originally intended to join Lincoln Riley’s staff at USC, but when Texas running backs coach Stan Drayton left to become the head coach at Temple in mid-December, Choice quickly became Drayton’s replacement on the Forty Acres.
“He’s got an unbelievable amount of energy,” Sarkisian said of Choice. “Great recruiter, great technician at the position. I think this guy provides a lot to our staff internally in what he brings from a staff perspective and in relationship to the players, but also on the recruiting front, and then also the development of the players at the position is big.”
At 37 and in his eighth year of coaching, Choice doesn’t have the depth of experience possessed by Drayton, but he’s already established a strong track record as a recruiter and turned those recruits into all-conference performers at Georgia Tech.
At Texas, the first step in recruiting is forming strong relationships with high school coaches in the state, relationships Choice has been building since he worked at North Texas. Sarkisian spent some time with Choice on the road in the Metroplex visiting high schools last month and even when Choice wasn’t there, Sarkisian consistently received feedback from coaches about the strength of that hire — coaches appreciated that Choice always stopped in when he worked at North Texas and then Georgia Tech.
In building strong relationships, high school coaches expect assistants to visit when they have high-level prospects, but those relationships are often defined by whether assistants take the time to visit even when there aren’t recruitable prospects at those schools.
Choice’s high-energy nature is surely an asset with high school coaches, with recruits, and with his own players.
“This guy’s an energizer bunny, it’s incredible,” Sarkisian said. “I don’t know if he plugs himself in at night or what he does, but he brings it every day and it’s a very positive attitude, it’s upbeat, it’s confident, it’s demanding.”
The other young assistant who just joined Sarkisian’s staff is Brennan Marion, a standout wide receiver at Tulsa who moved into coaching after knee injuries prematurely ended his professional career and joined Texas from Pittsburgh, where he spent one season coaching Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison.
When Sarkisian decided to move on from Andre Coleman due to the lackluster results in recruiting at the position in the 2022 class, Marion quickly emerged as one of the top candidates to replace Coleman and accepted the job after Pitt’s bowl game.
“Another young up-and-coming coach, a guy who really thrives in the technical aspect of the game,” Sarkisian said. “One of the best developers of talent that I’ve been around and his interview process was really great for me to watch how he develops the players. The drill work that he does with them to get them prepared to play and play at a really high level, not to mention he’s very innovative offensive mind. He did some really good things when he’s back at William & Mary and things and so I think he’ll add to that dimension with us as well.”
The inventor of the GoGo offense that helped Howard upset UNLV in 2017, Marion’s concepts have been adopted by noted offensive minds like Riley and Kliff Kingsbury. As the Texas passing game coordinator, what Marion ran at Pitt is similar to the schemes used in Sarkisian’s offense, so he’s unlikely to have a big effect in that area of the game — he’ll make his mark in the technical aspects of coaching the position.
“With Coach Whipple as the offensive coordinator, that scheme was probably a little more similar — a lot of the pass concepts are very similar and that’s where I was able to watch the tape,” Sarkisian said. “I don’t particularly like having guys tell me about what they’ve done. I like to watch the tape of what they’ve done and how their players have played in the scheme and if you watched the receivers at Pitt a year ago in a scheme that is similar to ours, you see the detail in the way they play, you see the competitiveness, you see the ball skills, and that was probably the biggest thing that jumped out.”
But Sarkisian may still adopt some aspects of the GoGo offense, particularly the two-back sets that sometimes include unbalanced looks with both backs to one side of the quarterback. Marion also liked to switch up the read on his counter plays, reading a back-side defender instead of a play-side defender.
Unfortunately, since Sarkisian doesn’t prefer to use his quarterback as a runner, Marion won’t be able to integrate his triple-option concepts into the Texas offense, although Sarkisian did express an increased openness to using running back Roschon Johnson more frequently on direct snaps. The offseason is for dreaming, after all.
Like Choice, Marion has also received praise from high school coaches for his ability to build relationships and there’s pressure for him to make a quick impact with a talented group of in-state receivers in the 2023 recruiting class.
As the final addition, Patterson is a familiar face around the conference — and all of college football — who could influence the Texas program in a variety of different ways.
Sarkisian compared Patterson’s role on his staff to those of former coaches who joined Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama as analysts to serve as a launching point for the rehabilitation of their careers, a position that Sarkisian himself occupied as he returned to coaching in 2016 after his termination at USC.
At Slate back in November, Alex Kirschner perceptively summarized why the Patterson era ended at TCU:
Maybe Patterson could’ve turned it around eventually, but I wouldn’t have bet on that. It wasn’t because Patterson doesn’t know football (he knows it better than almost anyone), but because he’d left enough public hints in recent years that his management style and view of the sport were at odds with where college football has been heading. Patterson was an obsessively well-prepared authoritarian, and while the first part of that descriptor works in any era, the second is not a good fit for a time in which player-coach relationships are changing. It’s not to say Patterson was a demon—a lot of people close to TCU’s program speak admiringly of him even while acknowledging his flaws—but it didn’t point to a bright future.
Patterson’s inflexibility and authoritarian tendencies represented the only cause for concern with his addition to the Texas staff — could Patterson operate as a subordinate after decades of leadership?
On Wednesday, Sarkisian pushed back on the public perceptions of Patterson and praised his easy integration into the program culture Sarkisian is trying to build on the Forty Acres.
“I think sometimes TV paints a picture of what a guy’s perception is and Gary’s a great guy,” Sarkisian said. “I think he’s really good around the office. I think he’s a really good team staff guy. He’s got a great deal of energy about him.”
In the roughly three weeks since Patterson joined the staff as Texas players returned to campus for winter conditioning, he and Sarkisian have started having the type of dialogues about the program that Saban had with the former head coaches on his staff at Alabama.
“He sees the game and he sees the staff and the team through the lens of a head coach and so I think a lot of times when my focus is on specific things, I can trust what he sees and we can have that dialogue,” Sarkisian said.
One of the most important dialogues that Patterson will have on the Forty Acres is with defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, whose first season with the Longhorns was disastrous enough to spark speculation about his job security, especially after the initial overtures between Patterson and Texas surfaced in December.
“I think for PK, it’s really the same thing — you’ve got a wealth of experience, you’ve got a guy who for 24 years was in Fort Worth coaching great defense, and has seen a lot of offenses and seen a lot of offenses in our conference. And he can be a great sounding board for him,” Sarkisian said.
The effectiveness of Patterson’s advice to Kwiatkowski depends on the two having a strong enough relationship for Kwiatkowski to seamlessly integrate those inputs into his existing defensive schemes. So far, so good, according to Sarkisian.
“I think he and PK have really forged a great relationship in a short amount of time already,” Sarkisian said.
As with Choice and Marion, Patterson’s relationship with high school coaches is a plus for the program — he can’t go on the road to recruit with Sarkisian and his assistants, but he can be an effective presence on campus hosting recruits and high school coaches.
During winter conditioning, Patterson’s advice may be easier to integrate than it will be once spring practice starts and, certainly, once preseason camp and the 2022 season arrive. Until then, one of Sarkisian’s most important tasks is to oversee the dynamic between Patterson and the Texas assistants while having the final say on what changes are actually implemented.
“The biggest thing that we’re getting to is, Gary is going to offer the advice and what he thinks we can should do, whether it’s personnel, whether it’s scheme, where it’s game plan,” Sarkisian said. “Ultimately, we as a staff have to choose to say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do or we’re going to go in this direction.’ And that’s okay. Gary’s a great sounding board for all of us — he provides, like I said, a wealth of experience and knowledge.”