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Texas depth and versatility buoying Longhorns amidst injuries

The ability to overcome setbacks this year not only highlights the potential for Steve Sarkisian program to win in the Big 12, but compete in the SEC as well.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Texas Ricardo B. Brazziell-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 season for the Texas Longhorns has been a unique one for college football. Losing your starting quarterback for two games, falling short in the Red River Rivalry, injuries at key positions, the list goes on. Any one of those in most cases would certainly derail a program’s confidence, and ultimately the season. Yet somehow the Longhorns have managed to remain 8–1 through 10 weeks? How?

From the beginning of the year we talked about the talent on this Longhorns roster and the culture that head coach Steve Sarkisian was trying to develop. Since training camp, Sarkisian has instead often preached the importance of this team’s versatility.

“The one thing I talked about to the team in our first team meeting when we came back to start training camp is that we’re very versatile,” Sarkisian said back in September. “We are not one-dimensional, where we have to win certain games in a particular way.”

This versatility of the Longhorns has been able to dig them out of many holes, as it almost feels like we see a different team every week. In Week Two against Alabama, quarterback Quinn Ewers threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns on 38 attempts while running back Jonathon Brooks had only 14 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown. The next week, Ewers struggled against Wyoming, so Sarkisian changed the game plan — Ewers threw for 131 yards, 44 of which came from a bubble screen to Xavier Worthy, while Brooks carried the ball 21 times for 164 yards to a 31–10 win that didn’t feature separation until the second half.

The versatility continued to show its importance after the loss of Ewers against Houston. In Maalik Murphy’s his first collegiate start the young quarterback played fine, but the defense and special teams won that game. Worthy broke the game open with a 71-yard punt return in the first quarter and the defense only allowed six points and 292 yards of total offense by BYU. Two sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and a 35–6 win over a two-loss team.

The defense stepped up once again for the inexperienced Murphy against K-State, forcing six consecutive punts and only allowing 21 yards of total offense on their first six drives. The mistakes that the Texas offense had in the second half with the Brooks fumble and Murphy interception on their own side of the field caused the Wildcats to creep back into that game. However, that cushion fueled by the defense is the reason Texas squeaked out a narrow victory over the then-No. 23 team in the nation.

These are only a few examples of how this team’s versatility and depth have allowed the Longhorns to maintain the course and continue to win football games.

“We just went and beat a top-25 team that’s the No. 1 defense in our conference and had almost 500 yards of offense and scored 33 points with our backup quarterback,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “With our backup right tackle in the game when our starting left tackle went out and we had to move our starting left guard to left tackle. We didn’t have two safeties last game with (Jalen) Catalan and (Kitan) Crawford out. Ethan Burke’s coming back from an injury. Jahdae (Barron) was down there for a minute. Ryan Watts was out for a minute, but we’ve had enough depth on our team to put guys in position and they can play good football for us to overcome.”

Not to mention other key injuries such as tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders against Kansas and the loss of center Jake Majors to a high ankle sprain against Oklahoma.

Now the Longhorns enter week 11 against a battered and bruised TCU team, now battle tested from the lumps of a long 10 weeks of football. Now the Horns have some key players returning to the starting lineup.

“I’d say this, probably the thing that was the most encouraging thing for me today — everybody practiced,” Sarkisian said. “That was awesome. We’ve gone about a month now or so, where certain guys have been out, certain guys have been limited. The beauty of today’s practice — everybody was back out there.”

Even better news on top of this, Sarkisian announced yesterday that Ewers is back from his shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined against BYU and K-State and will start against TCU on Saturday. As Texas goes down the final stretch of the season, hoping to win out and leave the Big 12 with a conference title, the worst is seemingly behind them.

As strange as it sounds to say, there is a tremendous silver lining to the difficulties that Texas has sustained this season. They have been knocked down and proved that they have the talent, culture, depth, and versatility not only to get back up again but to win eight games while doing so.

Their final three games will be against TCU and Iowa State on the road and Texas Tech on the Forty Acres to close out the season.

Bonds are built in the trenches when times are tough. Culture is not developed when things are easy, but instead when they are difficult. This Texas team has proven that when it faces adversity, the team can rise to the occasion. When one piece isn’t working, they can win another way. These are the hallmarks of a championship team. And what a time for this rhythm to be established, as this is the standard in the SEC.

“You know the first thing when I go back and watch the tape of the game was something I’ve been kind of leaning on since camp that is showing up,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve got a really versatile football team and the idea of it that we can win games a lot of different ways and the fact that we are not one dimensional... our versatility really shined through.”

Texas still has a lot of growth ahead as a program, in this year and in years to come, but this is the trajectory that Texas needs to maintain if they want to win a Big 12 title this year and compete in the SEC in 2024 and beyond.

Many fans and college football experts discounted the eventual move by Texas and OU to the SEC, saying they will never be able to compete, and that they’d end up like A&M, struggling without the luxury of an easier Big 12. However, this season has proved that Sarkisian has this program headed in the right direction, not only from the influx of talent and high-level recruits coming in to wear burnt orange, but from the intangible aspects that separate champions from mediocrity, and frankly the SEC from the Big 12.

“When I took this job I envisioned obviously as being a championship-caliber team and competing for championships year in and year out,” Sarkisian said. “And I envisioned having one of the most intimidating places to have to play in the country. So to have these two things happening in year three, it’s pretty special.”

The depth and versatility of this roster not only prove the ability of Texas to find success in their final Big 12 season, but hopefully serve as a sign that the program is developing something that can regularly compete with the likes of Alabama and Georgia for years to come.

This is all speculation, and of course the sample size is small, but if Sarkisian can continue to instill these values and ideals into the talented recruits that continue to commit to Texas, something special may be brewing in Austin.