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Texas transfers expected to contribute better balance to Steve Sarkisian’s offense

Quinn Ewers, Isaiah Neyor, and Jahleel Billingsley are big additions to an offense that relied too heavily on its running backs in 2021.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

While Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian considers his pro-style offense a run-first endeavor, every offensive coach desires the balance and versatility to threaten defenses on the ground or through the air.

Three crucial transfers are expected to provide Sarkisian with the ability to fully unleash his offense — quarterback Quinn Ewers, wide receivers Isaiah Neyor, and tight end Jahleel Billingsley, all of whom are enrolled for the spring semester. The development and return to health of players from the 2021 roster should hep, too.

“I think now we’re getting ourselves some balance here in where we want to go offensively where you can’t just hone in on one or two guys,” Sarkisian said on National Signing Day.

Over Sarkisian’s career, he’s proven himself extremely willing to lean on his top running back without sacrificing his desire to aggressively exploit defenses that can’t defend post routes or other vertical route concepts.

In 2021, the Longhorns were clearly tilted towards the running game led by Bijan Robinson’s rising star, the physicality of Roschon Johnson, and, at times, the speed of Keilan Robinson as a change-of-pace back. Even when taking into account the depressed results behind a questionable offensive line, the Texas running backs were by far the most talented position group on the entire roster.

Recognizing the high-level quality of the running backs necessarily demands a full accounting for the comparatively massive disappointment of wide receiver play and, relatedly, the missed opportunities on shot plays by Texas quarterbacks.

Xavier Worthy proved himself one of the most productive and dynamic Texas freshman wide receivers with the potential to become the top receiver in school history. And the quarterbacks still failed to connect with him on multiple would-be touchdowns when he was open — Worthy did his job well enough mere weeks after his arrival on campus to make his historic season even more historic with a little help from behind center.

The thumb injury suffered by Casey Thompson against Oklahoma certainly impacted his deep-ball accuracy for the rest of the season. But Thompson also lacks ideal arm strength down the field even when healthy and struggled early in the season to deliver those passes accurately, even when Sarkisian schemed Worthy open.

Hudson Card wasn’t much better as his pocket presence often broke down when pressured and his highly-regarded arm talent struggled to translate to on-field results all around and particularly in the vertical passing game.

As arguably the top quarterback prospect in the modern era, Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers has the talent to fully balance Sarkisian’s offense and unlock the deep passing game.

But the issues in the passing game weren’t about the quarterbacks as much as the lack of weapons for Thompson and Card — Jordan Whittington was injured against Oklahoma, Troy Omeire hurt his knee in preseason camp again, Joshua Moore was inconsistent before his altercation with Sarkisian and subsequent departure, and none of the other wide receivers were able to step up to fill those voids.

As a big-play threat to complement Worthy, Neyor is capable of exploiting defenses intent on stopping Worthy, whether it’s running post routes or generally winning in jump-ball situations, something the Longhorns haven’t done well since the departures of high-point artists like Collin Johnson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and Devin Duvernay.

Texas was able to generate some production from the tight end position — Cade Brewer caught 22 passes for 184 yards and Jared Wiley contributed nine catches for 67 yards and two touchdowns before transferring to TCU.

But Alabama transfer tight end Jahleel Billingsley should provide an upgrade as a pass catcher with 35 catches for 553 yards and six touchdowns over the last two seasons. Capable of working out of the slot more effectively than Brewer or Wiley, Billingsley can also exploit man or zone coverages on deep crossing routes.

Billingsley also spent two seasons playing in Sarkisian’s offense at Alabama under current Texas tight ends coach Jeff Banks, so there’s already a comfort and level of familiarity for player and coaches as Billingsley start his Texas career.

Even similar production as his last two seasons for the Crimson Tide would make him one of the most prolific tight ends on the Forty Acres since Jermichael Finley.

Sarkisian also praised Billingsley as a physical blocker — if the Chicago native can open up some creases from the H-back position for the talented Texas running backs, the Longhorns could have even more opportunities to become the dynamic, well-balanced offense Sarkisian envisions at Texas and helped maximize at Alabama.

Adding Billingsley reduces the pressure on the young tight ends to develop quickly, but Sarkisian was quick to note his continued belief in their collective upside.

“Like I’ve said before, I’m excited about the young tight ends that were already here in JT Sanders, Gunner Helm, and Juan Davis,” Sarkisian said.

Helm should be the team’s best in-line blocker while Davis is a high-level athlete for the position. Sanders is facing an important offseason after struggling at times to adjust to his blocking responsibilities at the position after playing wide receiver and defensive end in high school.

At the wide receiver position, bringing in Brennan Marion to replace Andre Coleman wasn’t just about recruiting because Coleman didn’t earn himself any margin for error by showing a capability to develop the wide receivers who were available in 2021 — Marion was hired by the Longhorns to get more out of the returning players, too.

Sarkisian touted the potential for Marcus Washington to take the next step in his fourth season on the Forty Acres. After playing at a private high school in Missouri, Washington has taken time to develop while dealing with enough injuries to help slow that progress — he caught four passes in his first two seasons on the Forty Acres before flashing late in 2021 with strong performances against Baylor and Kansas while serving as the team’s best blocking wide receiver on the season.

But Washington also disappeared at other times, failing to catch a pass in five games and finishing the season with a single catch against West Virginia and a single catch against Kansas State. Call Washington’s inconsistency one of the clearest developmental examples leading to Coleman’s dismissal.

Getting a healthy season — or even a mostly-healthy season — from Jordan Whittington would benefit the offense tremendously, too. He’s physical enough to serve as a plus player when blocking, showed some flashes of making downfield plays with strong ball skills, and was a security blanket on third down when healthy.

“I look back even to going into the OU game, Jordan Whittington was having a heck of a season for us,” Sarkisian said. “He was a really critical component for us on third down. The guy extended drives, he was great in the slot. I thought when we lost Jordan, that hurt as well.”

Whittington only appeared in eight games for the Longhorns in 2021, but still finished second on the team in receptions (26) and receiving yards (377), while tying for third with his three touchdown receptions. Of his 26 catches, 11 came on third down with nine conversions and six of those plays going for 15 or more yards.

Most of that production came early in the season when Whittington was healthy and even Worthy couldn’t match it despite catching 62 passes — the breakout freshman star only had nine third-down receptions with eight conversions and three plays of 15 or more yards on third down.

Of course, as Worthy gets stronger and more experienced while developing as a technician under new position coach Brennan Marion, he should win more one-on-one matchups on third down and more consistently find holes in zones, but the 2021 results clearly suggest that Whittington will be the best third-down option for the Longhorns if he can stay on the field this year.

Imagine Worthy as a more refined wide receiver — an easy expectation given his youth and Marion’s reputation — in an offense with more pieces around him capable of unlocking even a portion of Alabama’s acumen under Sarkisian.

As offseason hype goes, the transfer additions provide plenty of reason for optimism without even considering improvement from returning players at wide receiver.

“Hopefully, if you try to hone in on one or two guys, we have the weapons at the other spots that can really hurt you and create explosive plays,” Sarkisian said.

And that’s big news for Robinson, too, as he enters what is likely to be his last season on the Forty Acres.