On Tuesday, for the first time since starting preseason camp last week, the Texas Longhorns will be in full pads during the sixth practice after spending three practices in shoulder pads and helmets. Saturday marks the first scrimmage during camp, a critical moment for players to create separation in position battles during the most game-like environment since the Orange-White game three and a half months ago.
“I like the physicality of camp right now,” Sarkisian said after the fifth practice on Monday. “I think the guys are working extremely hard. You can definitely feel the depth on our team, which I think is very positive that we’re able to roll a few more guys in than we had a year ago. And I think it’s really competitive — I think not only offense versus defense, but I think there’s a lot of really good and healthy competition at a lot of position groups, which is good. I think it’s bringing out the best in everybody.”
With temperatures over 100 degrees until Saturday’s practice, the Longhorns have been battling the heat as players try to find the consistency necessary to earn trust from the coaching staff.
“We’re pushing for that consistency across the board, whether it’s offense, defense, special teams, whether it’s a position group, whether it’s individual players, that’s what we’re striving for,” Sarkisian said. “That’s what we’re looking for, regardless of the circumstances, whether it’s the heat, whether it’s the end of practice, whether you’re going against the frontline starter or maybe a backup, whatever that looks like, that level of consistency and demanding of what’s acceptable and what’s the standard.”
For the freshman, four straight days of installation provided a significant challenge — Sarkisian said that some of them hit the wall physically and benefitted from Sunday’s day off to recover. Others are still learning the systems on both sides of the ball and require pre-snap coaching on calls or signals.
Running back Jaydon Blue and safety BJ Allen were both singled out by Sarkisian as players who improved since spring practice in their physicality and how fast they’re playing, as well as offensive lineman Cole Huston, the sole early enrollee among the seven signees at that position group. Three other young linemen also drew praise — left tackle Kelvin Banks, guard DJ Campbell, and right tackle Cam Williams.
“Those guys look really comfortable doing it already early on, now they’re not perfect by any means, but they look comfortable — they look the part, they definitely look like they belong early on,” Sarkisian said.
As a head coach who runs a program that prides itself on physicality, Sarkisian has to strike the balance of ramping up tackling in practice without putting players at risk or sacrificing efforts to ensure players know how to practice.
“What naturally can happen to some guys though, is it’s a little bit of the anxiousness of the anxiety — we’re in full pads — and next thing you know, they start making the mental errors to go along with the physical side of the game,” Sarkisian said. “And so hopefully, I’m just putting on pants, my style of play, my pad level, my hand placement, my footwork, my reads, how I cover the guy, how I run the route, that stuff really shouldn’t change, but those are things that I’m looking for of who can’t make transitions as we move ourselves through it from helmets to helmets and shoulder pads to full pads to scrimmages and then ultimately to games.”
The tackling element does provide a significant transition — it puts into stark relief which players can get people on the ground or force fumbles and which players can run through arm tackles or make contested catches.
So the next phase of preseason camp, including Saturday’s scrimmage, will prove crucial in critical position battles, including Hudson Card and Quinn Ewers at quarterback, along the offensive line, and at the safety position, where Kitan Crawford is trying to come on against Jerrin Thompson.