In late January, the Texas Longhorns accomplished one of the program’s biggest NCAA transfer portal recruiting coups of its offseason by flipping Wyoming Cowboys transfer wide receiver Isaiah Neyor from the Tennessee Volunteers.
After accounting for 878 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 44 receptions, Neyor was one of the most coveted pass catchers on the transfer market thanks to his catch radius and deep-threat ability. Throughout the offseason, Neyor was a standout, clearly announcing his ability to translate his production to the Power Five level.
But with Neyor suffering a season-ending ACL injury during Saturday’s scrimmage, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian will have to find other ways to replace Neyor’s expected production at wide receiver.
“The goal is to feel really comfortable with six guys that can go in that game, and regardless of the situation in the game, feel good about what they can do. But we definitely need those first three to be ready to go play and play at a really high level,” Sarkisian said on Monday.
Here are Sarkisian’s options ranked in order of likelihood.
Use a position-less brand of WR
One hallmark of Sarkisian’s offense is teaching his wide receivers to play each of the three primary positions — X, H, and Z. Former head coach Tom Herman preferred big-bodied wide receivers at the X position often split out to the boundary, smaller, quicker receivers in the H slot position to the field, and a speedy deep threat at the Z position out wide to the field.
Sarkisian has a much different philosophy.
“I think, in general in our offense, you have to have the ability to conceptually learn,” Sarkisian said last August. “We don’t teach our receivers to play one spot in only one spot on the field — we like to move people around, put them in different positions, and then as we get into game planning for our opponents, then we can start to kind of create some of the matchups and put people in positions that we want, so one of the keys to our system is these guys really learning conceptually, especially early on.”
At this point in preseason camp, the wide receivers most comfortable playing anywhere on the field are sophomore Xavier Worthy and redshirt junior Jordan Whittington.
“That’s very comforting knowing your two most experienced guys are the most comfortable going anywhere, playing any spot,” Sarkisian said.
Count Iowa State super senior transfer Tarique Milton as a third player developing that ability.
“His experiences helped him learn to where he feels very comfortable going anywhere,” Sarkisian said of the veteran pass catcher who totaled 99 receptions for 1,519 yards and seven touchdowns during his career in Ames, including 35 catches for 722 yards and three touchdowns in 2019.
“Tarique is a very mature young man — you see why he had the role that he had at Iowa State,” Sarkisian said at the start of preseason camp. “He definitely has real speed. He’s got a really mature approach to the game. He’s prepared. He’s organized. He’s got his life in order, and it shows on the field. He knows what he’s doing. So glad to have him for sure.”
The fourth player Sarkisian mentioned is redshirt freshman Casey Cain — “he’s been a really pleasant surprise to me,” the Texas head coach said on Monday. A 6’3, 195-pounder, Cain is more in the mold of a traditional X wide receiver. Along with his modest ranking as the No. 846 player nationally and the No. 125 wide receiver in the 2021 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite, that makes Cain the most surprising inclusion in this group, but he did certainly flash his catch radius at times during the spring.
“Great natural body control,” Herman said when Cain signed in 2020. “Really, really superb hands, goes up and attacks the football. Doesn’t talk a whole lot — Casey’s kind of a man of few words — but certainly lets his play do the talking and we are extremely excited about his potential in the red zone as a big target down there.”
So, with at least three players ready to contribute at any position, Sarkisian doesn’t have to replace Neyor with a wide receiver of a similar build.
Use more 12 personnel
Even when Neyor was healthy, one of the foremost decisions Sarkisian was faced with making was how to use a deep and talented group of tight ends that includes Alabama senior transfer Jahleel Billingsley, an athletic pass-catching threat, sophomore Gunnar Helm, the team’s best in-line blocker, and sophomore Ja’Tavion Sanders, a former consensus five-star prospect with elite athleticism.
So using more 12 personnel with two tight ends on the field at the same time may be one solution for Sarkisian.
At 6’4, 219 pounds, Billingsley has a similar build to the 6’3, 216-pound Neyor, but is most comfortable lining up as a flex tight end to exploit mismatches against slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs, often by running deep crossing routes that are capable of beating man or zone coverage.
Although there are some question marks about Billingsley’s work ethic and his hands after dropping 22.2 percent of his targets last season, the Illinois product does have 35 receptions for 543 yards and six touchdowns over the last two seasons for the nation’s most dominant program.
Helm enrolled early and quickly impressed his coaches with his ability to retain information and has some upside as a pass catcher thanks to the fluidity he developed as a basketball player growing up.
And Sanders has tremendous NFL upside as he continues efforts to improve his blocking after enrolling last summer following a high school career at Denton Ryan spent mostly lined up as a wide receiver and a situational pass rusher.
“The first five days of spring ball this year, we were encouraged, but he wasn’t there yet,” tight ends coach Jeff Banks said at the start of preseason camp. “And we were still upset a little bit about his lack of physicality, quite frankly. He took that challenge and exceeded our expectations. The next 10 practices, I don’t think he dropped the ball, and he was moving defenders and holding his own in the C area (outside the tackles), which is what we need.”
Since Billingsley doesn’t have the size to serve as an in-line blocker, the improvement from Sanders could allow Sarkisian to use Sanders and Helm on the line of scrimmage at the same time.
“So J.T. (Sanders) and then next to him Gunner provide us some much needed in-line blocking at their 245-to-255 weight,” Banks said. “So that makes me go to bed and sleep better at night knowing we have two kids that were in this program last year that developed, and we think they can hold their own against the best teams we’re gonna play.”
No matter which combination of tight ends Sarkisian uses, he has three talented and diverse skill sets at his disposal, in addition to sophomore Juan Davis, who dealt with injury issues during the spring.
Use more 21 personnel
Even with the short-term injury to senior running back Roschon Johnson, which Sarkisian doesn’t expect to keep the team leader out of the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, the Longhorns have one of the deepest and most talented running back rooms in the country.
As junior running back Bijan Robinson works to improve his pass blocking, his subsequent improvement as a run blocker could make using two runnings backs a more viable strategy for Sarkisian. Johnson is certainly already a strong enough blocker that there was a 21-personnel sub package last season.
In addition, junior running back Keilan Robinson has put on some muscle in an attempt to run more effectively inside and should remain a dangerous threat on the perimeter when Sarkisian wants to threaten defenses with jet sweeps.
Throw in the talent of sophomore Jonathon Brooks and freshman Jaydon Blue and the Longhorns have plenty of options for Sarkisian to use at times if he decides that the fourth, fifth, and six wide receivers aren’t as good as the third, fourth, and fifth running backs.
Bijan Robinson has even shown some aptitude for lining up as a wide receiver and creating separation with his releases.
Substitute same for same
The emergence of Cain could allow Sarkisian to keep a big-bodied X receiver on the field, especially in the red zone where Cain’s height, length, and leaping ability could help the Longhorns replace the threat Neyor posed on jump balls.
The other option on the roster with similar size is redshirt sophomore Troy Omeire, who has missed the last two seasons after suffering ACL injuries in preseason camp.
“As I touched on, we’re starting to see some steps in Troy Omeire,” Sarkisian said.
As an athlete, Omeire is the closet comparison to Neyor on the roster and was particularly impressive in 2020 as a true freshman before his first knee injury, drawing enough buzz to tentatively project him as the team’s potential No. 1 receiver that season.
Key for Omeire is regaining his conditioning and confidence in his twice-surgically repaired knee.
“Good to have him back out there,” Sarkisian said at the start of camp. “Faded a little towards the end — I think just naturally of first day back out really on the field practicing in a year, but it was good to have him hopefully tomorrow we get in a little longer... You saw glimpses of what we thought of Troy a year ago.”
Since Texas has only three wide receivers with a catch in a college game — Milton, Whittington, and Worthy — to get to six reliable contributors, the Horns need players to emerge. Beyond Cain and Omeire, the coaches are trying to get freshman wide receivers Brenen Thompson and Savion Red up to speed, two players for whom Sarkisian said the coaches have “high expectations.”
“Like we do every training camp in our system, we put a lot on the receivers about the first eight, nine days, and then now from here to the first ball game, it’s a lot of fine tuning, a lot of detailed work that they’re getting now,” Sarkisian said.
With Thompson and Red arriving during the summer, the goal over the rest of preseason camp is improving each player’s consistency.
“The first challenge to be counted on to play is, one you have to know what to do,” Sarkisian said. “The second one is you need to know how to do it. I don’t really care if they know why they’re doing it that way right now, but they need to know what to do and how to do it and then they need to use their skill set and skill set and go play fast.”
Thompson is known for his elite track speed, but is also trying to transition from playing 3A high school football in the Texas panhandle. Red, on the other hand, drew praise from Whittington last week in comparing Red to San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuels.
“He’s just super explosive,” Whittington said. “And I found a guy who’s kind of like me in the way he’s a bigger guy who runs with the ball like a running back. It’s like I have a twin out there.”
Red also flashed his leaping ability in a clip from practice.
Developing depth during the offseason was such a key goal for Sarkisian and his staff to better withstand injuries this season after the loss of Whittington, in particular, had a huge impact on the offense. The injury to Neyor and the suspension of Alabama transfer Agiye Hall has sapped some of that depth, but Texas still has Billingsley and Milton available with Hall’s return still an option.
So while Neyor’s loss is significant, Sarkisian has plenty of options at his disposal, scheme continuity heading into his second season on the Forty Acres, and the offensive aptitude and willingness to use a host of personnel packages and personnel to ensure the Longhorns have a dangerous offensive attack.