On Thursday, Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian met with the media via Zoom, an availability during which he answered questions about players recovering from injuries and discussed Saturday’s matchup with the Houston Cougars at TDECU Stadium.
Some players will be game-time decisions — The bye week provided a handful of players the chance to rehabilitate injuries suffered during or before the loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, including junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders, junior center Jake Majors, sophomore right guard Cole Hutson, senior cornerback Ryan Watts, and senior safety Jalen Catalon.
The good news is that the injured players practiced this week, but that doesn’t mean that they will all be available against the Cougars.
“Everybody practiced,” said Sarkisian. “A couple of those guys I think will be game-time decisions, but everybody practiced all week. My decision as a coach, ultimately — all the guys we’re talking about — is it in the best interest of the team to put them out there? Do they put us in the best position to be successful? And then we have to look at each individual, is it in their best interest to put them out there to compete?”
“But I will give them all a lot of credit. They all came to work this week and worked hard and they’ve continued to do the rehab and I’m probably more pleased with where we are at this week than maybe a little bit of what I was anticipating, so that’s a positive. Massive credit to our training staff and to those guys individually of putting in the work to get themselves in position to to be where they’re at today.”
On the team always practicing well — Sarkisian generally starts his Thursday availabilities by praising his team’s practice habits during the week, to the extent that it strains credulity, prompting a question this week about whether the team ever practices poorly. The Texas head coach admitted his teams have had poor practices in the past, but this group’s maturity sets it apart.
“We have guest officials that come and it was a two-hour practice. Wednesdays are traditionally tough practices for us and we always do a good-on-good team period at the end. On Wednesdays we do third downs and our guys were more excited for that period of practice after a hard practice than I can remember,” said Sarkisian.
”I looked at the official and I said, ‘Man, our guys love to practice, like they really love being out here’ and that’s a great sign that they’re not just surviving practice, they’re attacking it, they’re having they’re having fun doing it, they’re competing at a high level. So to your point, I do think that takes a lot of maturity. But I also think you have to have players on your team that love the game.”
On Houston quarterback Donovan Smith — The former Texas Tech signal caller gave the Texas defense problems in last year’s upset in Lubbock and could be difficult to stop on Saturday in another Air Raid system.
“it is a different system I would say, but I would also say schematically, there’s a lot of similarities, right? It’s a little bit more of an open offense — there’s three and four wide receivers on the field, they spread the field, and by doing that, it creates running lanes for the quarterback. What I think I’ve seen out of Donovan, his comfort level throwing the ball this year coming into this game as opposed to last year early in the season when we faced him, he’s throwing the ball on a high level, he’s very comfortable, they’ve got a good receiving corps and he does a really good job,” said Sarkisian.
“When we run RPOs, we RPO with the runner and then the receivers on the perimeter and/or tight ends. They RPO with the quarterback run with advantage throws and RPO-type throws. His decision making I think is at a high level. They’re running quarterback counter with an RPO and he’s making that decision to throw it or to run it.
“And then he’s such a big physical guy. It’s not so much of the elite speed of the mobile quarterback, but the fact of how big he is and that he falls forward and then he can run so physical like we learned that last year on a couple short-yardage runs, a fourth-down run was a critical play that he breaks a tackle to get a first down so I think it’s really important with him that we tackle really well and then we try to kind of shrink the running lanes in there for him, especially on the designed quarterback runs.”
The team has responded to the Oklahoma loss — Coming out an emotional defeat, teams often tend to trend in starkly positive or negative directions depending on the group’s maturity. Sarkisian believes the Longhorns have responded well.
“I feel like I’ve got a team right now that’s pissed off and that’s okay that they’re angry and they want to get back on the field. They want to play. I know that a lot of them wanted the rest last week and they all want to get out there and play again next Saturday to kind of get that taste out of their mouth. And so that’s kind of how practice has felt — it’s been very intense because I think that these guys feel like we’re a good football team and we’ve got something to prove. As a coach, the fact that it’s coming internally, that it’s coming from them in the locker room, that’s a great sign. And so, again, we need to make sure that we execute at a high level, but the intent with which we’re going about it throughout practice and I think the intent that we’ll play with Saturday, and then every Saturday moving forward, I think is the right one,” said Sarkisian.
Houston wide receiver Matthew Golden is a dangerous return man — A consensus four-star prospect out of Klein Cain in the 2022 recruiting class, Golden was a Texas target who opted to play for his hometown university. Golden leads the team with four touchdown receptions to go along with 295 receiving yards, but he’s also dangerous on kickoff returns with a 100-yard touchdown return in the first quarter last week against the Mountaineers.
“I think first of all as a wideout he’s been a really productive player at receiver and then naturally in the kickoff return game it is something that they’ve excelled at this year and I think he’s a lot of the reason why. When you have big kickoff returns, I think naturally everybody thinks you just block everything perfectly, but what he’s done a good job of is making one guy miss or breaking one tackle and then creating that explosive return and he’s got the strength to do that. And then obviously, he has the speed to take it the distance and so a huge coaching point for us in this game is corralling him in the kickoff coverage game. We take a lot of pride in our kick coverage unit. Clearly, they take a lot of pride in their kickoff return game, but I think he’s a big reason for that. He was always in recruiting a highly-competitive young man, had a high football IQ and you see it, you see it in the way he plays not only on special teams, but on offense as well,” said Sarkisian.
The question with Golden is his health — he missed most of the second half against West Virginia with a groin injury before returning to practice on Monday.