On Saturday, head coach Jeff Traylor and the UTSA Roadrunners will make the trip up I-35 to face the No. 21 Texas Longhorns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium for the first time. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network.
Traylor is a former Texas assistant who spent two years on the Forty Acres under Charlie Strong, becoming a fan favorite for his recruiting ability. So when the Tom Herman era was cratering two years ago, Traylor was seen by some as a potential replacement for Herman even though he was in his first season as a head coach.
Now Traylor will have a chance to face off against the program he coached for looking for the biggest upset in school history. Last week, a host of upsets across the college football landscape defined the weekend, but the Roadrunners are too good to ignore, according to the Texas head coach.
“The easy thing for us is we got a great deal of respect for UTSA,” Steve Sarkisian said on Monday. “I can’t speak for the other schools that that stubbed their toes and those ballgames, but you turn on the tape of UTSA and they get your attention quickly with their schemes, with their personnel, and the way they play the game.”
A simple look at last season’s record would suffice, as well — UTSA went 12-2, winning the Conference USA Championship game over Western Kentucky and making the Frisco Bowl. The breakout season in Traylor’s second year leading the Roadrunners made him one of the hottest names on the market, but Traylor opted to sign a contract extension through 2031 to remain in San Antonio
“Coach Traylor’s done a heck of a job, they’ve got really good players, they’re well coached,” Sarkisian said. “As I touched on to the team, these guys play really hard. They play really hard in all three phases.”
UTSA enters the game 1-1 after an overtime loss to Houston in the opener and an overtime win over Army last week.
Local Schertz Clemens product Frank Harris is the sixth-year quarterback for UTSA and the backbone of the program Traylor has built since arriving in San Antonio in 2020. At 6’0, 205 pounds, Harris is an undersized left hander who will go over 6,000 career passing yards on Saturday and has also thrown 48 career touchdown passes. He’s off to a hot start this season, too, throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener against Houston and then racking up 359 passing yards and three more touchdowns, earning Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week honors for both performances.
“He’s a dual threat, he can he can get the ball out quickly in a lot of their RPO game, he does a really nice job of giving his receivers an opportunity to make plays on the ball down the field with a lot of the fades and different things, inside fades, but then he can use his legs, he can hurt you with his legs,” Sarkisian said.
In the fourth quarter against Alabama, Texas struggled to contain quarterback Bryce Young, in part by losing the integrity of their pass-rush lanes, so a major point of emphasis this week will be to keep Harris contained.
“Also, we’ve got to play sticky coverage because he will make you pay, especially on the advantage throws, the RPO throws,” Sarkisian said.
In the backfield, Harris lost his longtime running mate, Sincere McCormick, a bowling ball of a running back who ran for almost 4,000 yards and 34 touchdowns in his career with the Roadrunners. To replace McComick, Traylor brought in Trelon Smith, an Arizona State signee in 2017 who had two productive seasons at Arkansas before entering the NCAA transfer portal and landing back in his home state. Smith got off to a slow start against Houston, averaging only 2.6 yards per carry on 13 attempts, but was more productive in fewer opportunities against Army, gaining 48 yards on eight carries.
The lack of production from Smith is less about his talent than about issues along the offensive line. Right tackle Makai Hart, a three-year starter who was second-team All-Conference USA last season, suffered a leg injury in the season opener. Hart’s replacement, Ernesta Almaraz, is also banged up and wasn’t able to finish the game against Houston, forcing UTSA to use walk-on Frankie Martinez. On the other side, the suspension of Demetris Allen and another injury led to guard Venly Tatafu moving outside to left tackle.
“It’s just kind of affected us up front right now — we’re not as clean as we’d like to be in our targets,” Traylor said on the Horns247 Flagship podcast.
Consequently, pass protection has been an issue for the Roadrunners with seven sacks allowed through two games, tied for 116th nationally. The Cougars were also able to disrupt Harris at times — pressure helped force a key interception in the fourth quarter when the Roadrunners were clinging to a seven-point lead. One play later, Houston tied the game with a 20-yard touchdown pass.
After the success against the Alabama offensive line last week, Texas should be able to control the line of scrimmage and create pressure on Harris off the edge, forcing UTSA to rely on run-pass options and the quick passing game to move the football.
The Roadrunners returned their top three receivers from last season — Zakhari Franklin (81 catches for 1,027 yards and 12 touchdowns), Joshua Cephus (71 catches for 819 yards and six touchdowns), and De’Corian Clark (52 catches for 755 yards and seven touchdowns), so this is an experienced group of senior pass catchers who have a deep familiarity and comfort level with Harris.
Like Harris, the leader of the defense, safety Rashad Wisdom, is also a local product, hailing from Converse Judson. A four-year starter, Widsom plays the boundary position for defensive coordinator Jason Rollins and recorded 95 tackles, four interceptions, and two forced fumbles in 2020, his most productive season.
“He’s been a leader that defense... He’s a very physical player, but yet he can run. You definitely see he’s the quarterback of that defense and with his leadership, the guys definitely feed off of him,” Sarkisian said.
UTSA had to replace plenty of playmaking ability in the defensive front after losing six of the top eight players in tackles for loss last season, including outside linebackers Clarence Hicks (16.5 TFLs) and Charles Wiley (nine TFLs). Hicks also led the team with 10.5 sacks.
But the game against Houston featured some positive developments in that area as UTSA produced four sacks and eight tackles for loss. And it wasn’t just one player, either — five different players were credited with solo tackles for loss and eight players assisted on a tackle for loss. Nose tackle Brandon Brown had 1.5 sacks in that game and five other players produced a half sack.
“That’s where we’re the most improved and I know that it’s hard to believe because we were so good on defense, but we’re really deep on defense,” Traylor said. “We rotate a lot of players. Really, really pleased with how hard those kids are playing.”
In the opener against Houston, the UTSA run defense played well, allowing only 3.2 yards per carry on 44 attempts as the Cougars were unable to create explosive plays beyond two 15-yard runs. However, the Roadrunners have allowed five passing touchdowns already this season, including two by the Black Knights last week, who threw for 304 yards as Traylor’s defense sold out to stop the run.
“I know we got torn up in the air against Army, but that was a conscious decision made by the head coach that we were going to do everything in our power to stop the trap, the dive, the quarterback, and the pitch, and we did that,” Traylor said. “I think we held them to 170-something yards rushing. Yeah, granted, nobody likes to give up 300 in the air, but if I’m gonna go down to Army, that’s the way I’m doing it.”
Last season, the Roadrunners allowed 27 passing touchdowns on 8.3 yards per attempt, but were able to upgrade the secondary with Mountaineers transfer cornerback Nicktroy Fortune and return the three other starts, including Wisdom. Against Houston, UTSA held quarterback Clayton Tune to 206 passing yards on 6.4 yards per attempt.
Traylor brought in South Florida transfer Jared Sackett to handle place-kicking duties this season. But while Sackett is solid out to 40 yards, he hasn’t made a field goal of more than 40 yards since 2018, including two misses this year, and only has one attempt from more than 50 yards.
Punter Lucas Dean is a four-year starter who averaged 45.2 yards per attempt last season and already has two punts downed inside the 20-yard line this year, more than he had in 2021.
On kickoff returns, outside linebacker Dadrian Taylor was an honorable mention All-Conference USA performer last season. Cephus serves as the punt returner.
Traylor was the special teams coordinator when he was at Texas, so that’s an area of expertise for the UTSA head coach and his teams are known for solid play in that phase, but the Roadrunners did have some trouble covering kickoff returns last season, finishing 108th nationally as opponents averaged 23.4 yards per return.
UTSA is a good Group of Five program with plenty of experience and a good head coach, but Texas has too much talent and is playing at a high level to start the season despite the current injuries, so the Longhorns should be able to beat the Roadrunners comfortably.
Texas is currently favored by 12.5 points, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.