For the Texas Longhorns, preseason camp started in early August with head coach Steve Sarkisian concerned about three major question marks on his team — the offensive line, the secondary, and the kicking game.
With camp now complete, Sarkisian said on Thursday that he believes the Longhorns are “closer” to answer those questions with the season opener now eight days away.
Not only did the offensive line struggle at times last season, it lost a key starter in the versatile Derek Kerstetter, as well as two contributors in Denzel Okafor and Tope Imade, and then went through spring practice without a two deep of scholarship players.
During the summer, reinforcements arrived in the form of six large and highly-rated offensive lineman from the 2022 recruiting class, including consensus five-star prospects in tackle Kelvin Banks and guard DJ Campbell.
“I think the emergence of Kelvin [Banks] has been helpful at left tackle. I think that’s given us a lot of flexibility with Andrej [Karic] and utilizing him,” Sarkisian said. “I think Cole Hutson has done a nice job emerging as well. So I feel I feel comfortable up front.”
Banks, who is known for his physical and mental maturity, has already stepped in as the starter at left tackle, allowing Karic to serve as the swing tackle off the bench — Texas will likely need him at some point in the season. Meanwhile, Campbell is working with the ones at right guard in a competition with Hutson, who missed time with a minor injury suffered in the first scrimmage.
The news hasn’t all been positive with the season-ending injury suffered by redshirt senior guard Junior Angilau, the team’s most experienced lineman, but sophomore Hayden Conner appears poised for a breakout season replacing Angilau. And the freshmen have lived up to the high expectations that accompanied them to campus.
Like the offensive line, the secondary struggled last season and featured multiple departures, including the transfer of BJ Foster, forcing multiple position changes as nickel back Anthony Cook and cornerback Kitan Crawford moved to safety and Jahdae Barron moved to nickel back from cornerback. Texas also added Ohio State transfer Ryan Watts at boundary cornerback in an effort to play more press man coverage on the outside.
“In the secondary. I feel really good about our ability to understand our coverages and to communicate,” Sarkisian said. “We’re communicating at a really high level, comparatively, especially to where we were a year ago and even in spring. And then, we’re making plays on the ball, which is a real positive.”
So Texas should have fewer coverage busts and record more than the seven interceptions they notched last season with senior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison leading the way in becoming a more consistent contributor with his ball skills and also accepting a challenge from the coaching staff to become a more physical player on the perimeter.
Replacing Cameron Dicker in all three phases of the kicking game might not go as smoothly. Redshirt freshman punter Isaac Pearson is talented and known as a hard worker, so the Longhorns should be fine in that phase, and one of the three place kickers surely has enough leg strength to regularly secure touchbacks on kickoffs. But place kicking could be an adventure with the ongoing competition between redshirt freshman Bert Auburn and freshman Will Stone.
“In the kicking game, I’ve seen a lot of growth in three weeks,” Sarkisian said. “It’s not just the kicker, but I think inevitably our coverage units or return units, all those things are really starting to come together, which is an underrated aspect of the game, and it takes time to find that rhythm in your kicking game on special teams.”
Improving in practice is one thing — translating that improvement to the field on Saturdays will present another challenge for the Longhorns. And a key for the Texas season is continuing to get better as it progresses.
“So, in general, I feel better today than I felt three weeks ago about those things, but we’re not a finished product either in any one of those three categories,” Sarkisian said.