With the annual Orange-White game looming on Saturday as the official end of spring practice, Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian met with the media on Thursday to recap the improvements made by his program over 14 practices.
“I thought this was a really good spring for us. I thought that really at every position group we saw improvement and that’s the goal when you come into spring is that every time we take the field, you’re striving for somewhere in your game to improve, to get better, to find that growth that we talked about before spring, and I thought for the for the most part, every guy at every position group in some way, shape, or form found that,” Sarkisian said.
One position that stood out to Sarkisian is the safety position, which featured the departures of BJ Foster, Chris Adimora, and Tyler Owens to the transfer portal and the graduation of Brenden Schooler. To address the needs at safety, super senior Anthony Cook moved from nickel back and junior Kitan Crawford moved from cornerback to take over the first-team roles following all the turnover and the struggles of junior Jerrin Thompson.
“It was a lot of new faces at that position and I thought it went well. I thought today was actually maybe their best day back there from a communication standpoint and being on the same page and from a confidence in making the calls and doing it collectively together,” Sarkisian said.
Beyond safety, improvement across the board defensively was a huge priority for coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski after the group finished No. 99 in scoring defense (31.1 points per game), No. 115 in rushing yards per attempt (5.15), and No. 80 in passer rating (137.83). In particular, the defensive line underachieved and the linebackers struggled with run fits, often forcing the safeties to make touchdown-saving tackles. One major aspect of the defensive line struggles was the inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks as the Longhorns finished tied for 101st nationally with 20 sacks.
Sarkisian saw progress in run defense and in the pass rush.
“Our run defense has been really good all spring and we’ve got some pretty good runners that we’ve got to try to stop,” Sarkisian said. “I thought that’s been really kind of bright spot defensively. I thought kind of the last, I guess it would be three to four practices, I thought our pass rush is really improved.”
The breakout player at inside linebacker has been junior Jaylan Ford, who has taken advantage of the opportunity provided by the ACL injury suffered by last year’s starter Luke Brockermeyer. Like a lot of players, the key for Ford was establishing a more consistent mentality to maximize his ability.
“He’s a big, physical guy who can run, he’s a good tackler, and I thought that he kind of took a step the spring to be that inside linebacker, being comfortable and being a good run stopper,” Sarkisian said. “We saw multiple times in the run game where he was extremely physical taking on guards, taking on tight ends and different things and minimizing the space.”
Early enrollee edge Justice Finkley is another player who has come on in recent practices, according to Sarkisian.
“He’s a young buck,” senior defensive tackle Moro Ojomo said recently. “Powerful. I mean really powerful for a young guy. He’s gonna have to get in his playbook a lot more and know what’s going on, but he can help us. He’s gonna help us.”
Other players mentioned by Sarkisian include sophomore defensive tackle Byron Murphy because of his strength, power, and quickness, as well as major improvements from junior defensive tackle Alfred Collins and junior defensive tackle Vernon Broughton, as well as senior nose tackle T’Vondre Sweat. A change in mindset to become more team-oriented has benefited the 338-pound Sweat, who has become a better pass rusher as he’s been moved around the defensive line with more frequency.
As a group, the line has a better understand of Kwiatkowski’s scheme and ways that he can help manufacture pressure.
“I think also schematically some of the games and different things that we’re doing, the guys, their understanding of those things, the pressures, the games, and the timing of them all have caused some issues and that’s been that’s been a real positive for us as well,” Sarkisian said.
Of course, the lack of depth along the offensive line leaves significant question marks about how much the defense has actually improved — with the ankle injury suffered by sophomore left tackle Andrej Karic, Texas only has nine healthy scholarship offensive linemen this spring, leaving the Longhorns extremely thin until six freshmen arrive this summer.
Those issues have made it difficult for quarterbacks taking reps with the second-team offense, but Sarkisian did express his pleasure with the development at quarterback from redshirt sophomore Hudson Card and redshirt freshman Quinn Ewers.
“I think two things that have stood out to me in both scrimmages that we’ve had thus far,” Sarkisian said. “Both guys have played really well — I mean, I’ve been very impressed with their playmaking ability, their ability to when there’s times to take their shots, they’re taking their shots, and not that everything was perfect, but they’d been really effective on third down. Both guys have used their legs well.”
In Card’s second year learning under Sarkisian and quarterbacks coach AJ Milwee, his game management ability has improved and Ewers has caught on quickly, showing the ability to take coaching points and apply them the next time he takes the field. And both have been able to earn the respect of their teammates, putting the Longhorns in a much better position at quarterback now than where the program was at a year ago.
“I’m really pleased you know, I just think we’re at a place right now where we’re playing very good football at the position. I think at times we need to be a little a little better around them, but that’s that’s all part of the growth,” Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian was likely referring to the offensive line, a position at which sophomore swing man Hayden Conner and early enrollee guard Cole Hutson drew praise from Sarkisian. Due to Karic’s injury, Conner has been playing left tackle with the first-team offense and Hutson replaced Conner at guard.
“I think Hayden Conner’s had a good spring. I think Cole Hudson’s had a really good spring for a guy who just showed up,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a big physical guy, a quick learner. I’ve been impressed with him.”
At wide receiver and tight end, both positions have taken needed steps forward after the wide receiver corps suffered from a lack of depth and inconsistency last year and the tight end room lost both major contributors when Cade Brewer graduated and Jared Wiley transferred to TCU.
Junior wide receiver Jordan Whittington has bounced back from years of injuries by taking care of his body better after he struggled in his return from a broken clavicle last year. Sophomore wide receiver Xavier Worthy drew praise for his tough-mindedness and consistent effort level. Junior wide receiver transfer Isaiah Neyor has acclimated quickly to the new system after arriving in January from Wyoming.
“You see the playmaking ability, he’s a real weapon on deep balls, and in the red area is a big physical guy,” Sarkisian said.
At tight end, the breakout player is sophomore Ja’Tavion Sanders, the former five-star prospect who was buried on the depth chart as a true freshman. Sarkisian made note of the unrealistic expectations that often accompany prospects like Sanders to campus and the subsequent overreaction if they don’t contribute immediately before crediting position coach Jeff Banks with the improvement of Sanders and sophomore Gunnar Helm this spring.
“He is really evolved as a player — I think he’s a much more confident and comfortable blocker, but yet he is definitely a weapon in the passing game,” Sarkisian said.
On special teams, the focus has been on maintaining the ability to block kicks and improving the return game led by super senior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, whose ability is supplemented by Worthy and junior running back Keilan Robinson. Senior deep snapper Zach Edwards, who served as the holder last season, has stepped into the role held by Justin Mader for four years. Replacing Cameron Dicker at punter, redshirt freshman Isaac Pearson has emerged after the five five or so practices.
“He’s been tremendous and both scrimmages he has punted the ball really well for us, which has been a real positive,” Sarkisian said.
Now it’s time to see what improvement Texas can show publicly in the Orange-White game.