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Texas spring practice storylines

The Longhorns begin practice on Tuesday as head coach Steve Sarkisian tries to turn a big offseason into 15 productive practices, capped by the annual Orange-White game.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Get ready for the new-look Texas Longhorns.

When head coach Steve Sarkisian and the Longhorns take to Campbell-Williams Field at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Tuesday for the first spring practice of Sarkisian’s second year on the Forty Acres, they will do so with 14 new players, two new position coaches, and the addition of special assistant Gary Patterson.

The roster has received a big boost, too. Sure, there was the five-game losing streak that cratered a 5-7 season, but since then Sarkisian closed with the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite team rankings, and filled needs through the NCAA transfer portal.

The class includes two consensus five-star prospects at need positions, offensive linemen Devon Campbell and Kelvin Banks, and the big Early Signing Flip from top-100 prospect Terrance Brooks, a defensive back who was previously committed to Ohio State. Of those three players, Brooks is an early enrollee along with eight other members of the 2022 recruiting class.

From the portal, Texas added quarterback Quinn Ewers from Ohio State, wide receiver Isaiah Neyor from Wyoming, tight end Jahleel Billingsley from Alabama, and cornerback Ryan Watts from Ohio State. All three are on campus and ready to spring practice after going through winter conditioning.

“We’ve got a nice nucleus of new faces that are participating now that have integrated well and I give the current players, the guys returning, a lot of credit for integrating those guys into our team quickly,” Sarkisian said recently on the Second Thoughts podcast. “Because we’ve been really preaching culture and team here hard for the last two months. The only way that that works is if the team buys into that and that that the leaders on the team buy into that and then they really have.”

The context surrounding the program has also changed. Last year, the winter conditioning program was geared towards establishing standards and a culture, but it was also disrupted by the ice storm when ice froze in the football complex. Sarkisian had to isolate in a hotel room when he contracted COVID-19 shortly after his arrival. Texas had to take a 10-day pause after the first spring practice because of COVID. The team met on the eighth floor in the north end zone sitting on car table chairs in front of a bar, operated out of the visitor’s locker room, and lifted weights in the rec center.

Now the south end zone is complete, along with the football complex. The players can use the new weight room. They can hang out in the new player’s lounge. They can receive treatment in the new training room. Most of all, players have developed a better connection between each other after the isolation necessitated by the pandemic and with the coaching staff.

“The biggest thing that has come out of this year and now being in the south end zone is we really can be a team — we’re really connected,” Sarkisian said. “The players don’t run out of here and leave because they want to get out of the visitor’s locker room.”

Having the completed football complex and greater access to players has allowed Sarkisian to hold more frequent meetings. The Texas head coach estimated that he meets individually with three to five players per day, an important development for Sarkisian, who frequently refers to himself as a relationship-based coach.

“I feel a lot better this year on March 9 probably than I did a year ago, quite frankly,” he said.

Player leadership and accountability

The five-game losing streak last season was due in large part to the team’s inability to regularly respond to adversity with the type of mental and physical fortitude possessed by the best teams. And too often, messages of accountability had to come from the coaches instead of from the players themselves.

Sarkisian has attempted to address both issues this offseason.

“We had a tendency not to respond great and that falls upon me as a coach, that falls upon just kind of our approach and how we do things throughout the offseason to try to strengthen ourselves, not only just physically, like mentally, psyche-wise, but also physically to make sure that we’re strong in the fourth quarter, and I think that that’s been a big emphasis of ours the last eight weeks of winter conditioning,” Sarkisian said.

Instead of teaching during winter conditioning, the Texas coaching staff has amped up the difficulty with better support from the players.

“We’re better this year than we were a year ago, too, and I think that comes down to a lot of accountability from peer to peer from teammate to teammate to where teammates are holding each other accountable more now than ever, as opposed to waiting for the coaches to hold the player accountable for not doing something that could that could hurt us late in the ballgame,” Sarkisian said.

Quarterback competition

Following the departure of last year’s starting quarterback Casey Thompson, Texas added Ewers and California product Maalik Murphy to the position room, which is bolstered by the return of redshirt sophomore Hudson Card, who started the first two games of the 2021 season and appeared in eight games overall.

Sarkisian clearly brought in Ewers to become the starting quarterback — the former Southlake Carroll standout is viewed as a generational talent and may only be on campus for two years after expending redshirting last fall at Ohio State before entering the transfer portal.

But Card likely has the early advantage in spring practice and Sarkisian was quick to point out Card’s experience.

“I’m hesitant for everybody out there to write Hutson Card off — this guy’s got some invaluable experience. He’s in year two of our system, he’s working his tail off, and and I’m excited to see what he can do,” Sarkisian said.

“That being said, we brought in two really talented players, which we’re gonna do every year at every position. Really good programs continue to build their roster every position, quarterback is no different.”

Murphy is still taking mental reps as he rehabilitates from the leg injury he suffered in the state title game as a senior, but experienced plenty of growth in the last calendar year as he played two seasons of high school football and started to add a level of refinement to his remarkable arm talent.

Considered the No. 1 prospect in the 2022 class before reclassifying, Ewers arrives with some of the biggest expectations facing a quarterback at Texas since Garrett Gilbert in 2009. And Gilbert had the luxury of waiting behind and learning from Colt McCoy during the regular season before he was trust into the spotlight during the national championship game. Ewers faces significantly more pressure to immediately become one of the faces of the Texas football program.

Just don’t expect Sarkisian to name a starter following spring practice — in all likelihood, he’ll once again wait until game week to reveal who will take the field with the first-team offense on Sept. 3 against Louisiana-Monroe. So over the next five months, the emphasis will be on refining all that potential, including Card after his disappointing redshirt freshman season.

“We’ve got to do a really good job developing those guys and see how far we can take them,” Sarkisian said.

Position changes

Since Sarkisian hasn’t held a media availability since National Signing Day back in February, he hasn’t had a chance to address multiple position changes on the roster, but the release of the spring football roster did reveal some of them.

The biggest change comes from redshirt sophomore Sawyer Goram-Welch, who is switching from defensive line to offensive line. The Longview native spent two seasons playing defensive tackle, appearing in five total games with two tackles. But he was also passed on the depth chart by Byron Murphy last season and wasn’t likely to emerge as a rotation player this year. Now listed at 6’4 and 306 pounds, Goram-Welch will have a chance to compete at one of the roster’s most depleted positions — with the departures of Tyler Johnson and Rafiti Ghirmai, Goram-Welch becomes the 10th scholarship offensive lineman on campus this spring before players like Banks and Campbell arrive. The biggest need for Texas is outside at tackle, but look for Goram-Welch to get a look at guard.

The most important position change is super senior Anthony Cook moving to safety after a successful year as the starter at the Star position, the nickel back in defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s scheme. After several disappointing seasons at cornerback, Cook notched 46 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Now he’ll try to solidify a position without much experienced depth, but the transition should be a relatively easy one because Cook has cross-trained at safety in the past.

Cook’s move leaves an open competition at Star, where junior Jerrin Thompson could be the top contender to take over for Cook after underachieving last season while starting six games at safety.

Adding depth at safety are sophomore Morice Blackwell, who dropped 14 pounds from last year after being recruited as a linebacker, and junior Kitan Crawford, who will compete for a spot in the rotation following two seasons as a reserve cornerback.