Early in the second quarter of Saturday’s 31-24 win over the Houston Cougars, the Texas Longhorns were in a familiar position — at the opponent’s 1-yard line needing to punch in a touchdown.
Two weeks before, a 28-yard pass from redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers to senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington moved the Longhorns to the 1-yard line against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl. Head coach Steve Sarkisian opted to use the team’s jumbo package in an effort to power through the Sooners, including calling the same play on first and third down. All three efforts failed before Sarkisian went to’ a more spread look with a screen pass to junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy stopped inches short of the goal line.
Two days later, Sarkisian was blunt about the effectiveness of his play calling in that sequence.
“It sucked. I don’t think it was toughness at all,” Sarkisian said. “The first-down play, their kid makes a really nice play. He shoots the gap and gets into Jonathon Brooks’ legs... If I could do it all over again, I might have changed the third-down call and ran what I ran on fourth down on third down. It wasn’t effective enough.”
With the season’s only bye week to reflect on the short-yardage package and any potential changes, the Texas head coach changed tactics in Houston when freshman running back CJ Baxter took a first-down carry three yards to the goal line.
Instead of sending one or both of his blocking defensive tackles onto the field, Sarkisian instead lined up sophomore running back Savion Red behind center in his Wildcat package with three tight ends and a single wide receiver split out to the boundary.
Sarkisian called a split zone follow with junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders coming across the formation to the field and Red following Baxter into a hole created by a strong block from Sanders, then getting behind his pads to find the end zone, the first touchdown of Red’s college career.
The Savion RED Zone!!!!! pic.twitter.com/YpKFTFh0si— Rocky Osborn (@rockyknowsbest) October 21, 2023
Red had two other carries in the game, his largest workload of the season in the Code Red package — he had a three-yard gain on a 4th and 1 in the third quarter on a drive that ended with a turnover on downs and a five-yard gain on 4th and 2 in the red zone later that quarter on the final drive by Ewers against the Cougars.
It was an expansion of a look that Sarkisian first used against Wyoming and has now produced seven rushes for 34 yards and Saturday’s touchdown in addition to a 35-yard completion to junior tight end Gunnar Helm on a 4th and 1 in the first quarter, Red’s only pass attempt so far.
In two carries on third and short and four carries on fourth down this season, Red has converted first downs on five of those efforts — the only run in those situations that didn’t gain a first down was a nine-yard loss on a 3rd and 3 in the season opener with 75 seconds remaining when backup quarterback Maalik Murphy dropped the exchange and Red picked up the ball and couldn’t make a play.
So the Code Red package is now a perfect 6-of-6 on the season with one touchdown.
Even with 30 percent of Red’s carries coming in the final moments of that comfortable win over the Owls, he leads the conference in first-down percentage on rushing plays.
Big 12 leaders in first down percentage on rushing plays this season.— Hook'em Headlines (@HookemHeadlines) October 22, 2023
1. Savion Red (UT), 66.7%
2. Xavier Townsend (UCF), 63.6%
T-3. Demarkcus Bowman (UCF) 50.0%
T-3. Jordan McDonald (UCF), 50.0%
5. Avery Johnson (K-State), 47.8% pic.twitter.com/3njGBWGaRf
There’s a case to expand the package to more third-and-short situations — in 18 runs on 3rd and 1-3 this season, the Longhorns have only converted six times, with one of those runs coming from Red. Fourth down has gone better, with seven non-Red efforts turning into five first downs.
At 5’10 and 214 pounds, it’s clear that Red is the best short-yardage option in Tashard Choice’s position room with his low center of gravity and ability to fall forward after contact.
The emerging lead back, redshirt sophomore Jonathon Brooks, has a knack for falling forward, too, but he’s two inches taller than Red and listed as seven pounds lighter. Baxter is 6’1 and 218 pounds, the heaviest of the scholarship backs, but is also the tallest and high cut. The other two scholarship running backs, senior Keilan Robinson and redshirt freshman Jaydon Blue, are 188 pounds and 191 pounds, respectively.
“Savion has really grown into this,” Sarkisian said last week. “There’s a lot of talented people in there, but to find a niche for him in some of the short-yardage running that he was able to do, I thought was very effective. And again, hopefully there’s more opportunities for him that present themselves in the second half of the season.”
Although Red is only in his second season on the Forty Acres, he’s already had one of the more remarkable and unlikely journeys on the team.
With former wide receivers coach Andre Coleman struggling to recruit in his first and only cycle under Sarkisian, the staff offered the Grand Prairie product in late November, several days after he decommitted from SMU, and accept his signature several weeks later in the early signing period.
It was either a bold evaluation or an act of desperation after missing on so many other targets at wide receiver. Maybe even both — Red’s only other offers were from Kansas and Mississippi Valley State and he was consensus three-star prospect ranked as the No. 1,414 player nationally and the No. 107 athlete, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Over one hundred players in Texas were ranked between Red and the second-lowest non-specialist in the 2022 class for the Longhorns.
But evaluating Red was complicated since he split time between basketball and football and played wide receiver before taking on a multi-purpose role during his senior season as a running quarterback who also threw passes. And while most projections for Red had him playing wide receiver in college, he’s unquestionably built like a running back.
Red did play wide receiver for Texas in 2022, playing in nine games and recording six receptions for 34 yards, mostly on screen plays that took advantage of his running ability after the catch.
The most notable moment for Red came during preseason camp when Whittington compared him to San Francisco 49ers hybrid playmaker Deebo Samuel.
“He’s like a Deebo Samuel, a bigger guy who runs with the ball like a running back,” Whittington said. “He reminds me of me. It’s like I have a twin out there.”
During the spring, Red moved to what is arguably his best position given his build — running back. The departures of Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson created a void at the position, but the arrival of Baxter made for a crowded room, the type of situation that produces high bust rates.
“It’s always a little difficult when you change positions, right? He was just kind of a high school quarterback, Wildcat quarterback,” said Sarkisian. “We got him his freshman year, he plays wide out, then we transition them to running back and there’s a lot of nuances to playing running back. I think it’s it’s easy just to think, get the ball and run, but understanding blocking schemes, understanding fronts, understanding protections, and all that goes into it.”
Now Red has a role that doesn’t require some of those nuances, especially understanding protections, instead letting him do what he did well in high school — running the ball with the plus-one advantage of having him at quarterback while providing enough of a passing threat to keep defenses honest.
Savion Red will be a stud for a long time at Texas! pic.twitter.com/xGc5Q0CLpF— Hook'em Headlines (@HookemHeadlines) October 22, 2023
It’s a role that the Longhorns need with no other ideal short-yardage options at running back and the difficulties converting those situations with the base offense. And one that’s resonating with his teammates and coach, too.
More accurate Deebo Samuel impressions will have to wait.