AUSTIN, Texas — For head coach Steve Sarkisian and the No. 7 Texas Longhorns, the attention of the coaching staff and players is locked in on Saturday’s Big 12 Championship game against the No. 20 Oklahoma State Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington ahead of Monday’s transfer window opening.
“First of all, our focus is on Saturday — I love the idea that I can compartmentalize some stuff, but this needs all of our undivided attention here going into the ballgame Saturday,” said Sarkisian on Monday.
For Director of Player Personnel Billy Glassclock and his support, focus is already turning to the NCAA transfer portal, which officially opens a transfer window on Dec. 4 for 30 days — a critical period as Texas looks to fill roster holes with impact players.
“We have a personnel department that will be monitoring the portal as guys enter,” said Sarkisian.
With 20 commits in a 2024 recruiting class that ranks No. 9 nationally and several targets still remaining on the board ahead of the early signing period next month, Texas will once again build its roster primarily through high school recruiting as Sarkisian prefers.
“We are going to continue to build our roster from the ground up — that’s why high school recruiting is so important to us, that’s why this event is so important to us. I think this year we took five transfers and 25 high school kids. Ultimately, yes, we’re going to take a few transfers, but high school recruiting is where it’s at for us and our style of what we like to do,” said Sarkisian at the THSCA convention last summer.
“I know this whole era of NIL and transfer portal, the reality of it is, if I can, I want to recruit another high school kid. Now, there may be times where we can’t. I have to have another corner or I have to have another defensive tackle, then you go into the portal and you make that work. But the reality of it is, for us, I would much prefer recruiting high school guys.”
However, there are needs to fill through the NCAA transfer portal every year with Sarkisian and his staff taking six transfers in 2021, seven transfers in 2022 and five transfers in 2023. And the Longhorns player personnel department is already aware of what those needs are set to look like this year.
“I think we have a pretty good idea of understanding of where we were going to potentially have some depth concerns at a couple positions that we’ll monitor and if a player goes in, then we’ll start the evaluation process,” said Sarkisian.
Texas looks at three key areas in that evaluation process — physical ability, scheme fit, and character fit to Sarkisian’s culture.
“You’ve always got to remember, whoever’s in the portal is in the portal for a reason and we’ve got to figure out why they’re in the portal, right? They’re not all good fits for the University of Texas, so we’ve got to make sure that they fit who we are schematically, that they fit physically in the physical stature at each position of what we’re looking for, and then probably most importantly, that they fit culturally, because the last thing I want to do is bring in anybody that that doesn’t fit what we do and how we do it and why we do it.”
Some of the most successful portal additions by Sarkisian have been players who wanted to return to the state of Texas. Cornerback Ryan Watts left Ohio State after two seasons because being so far from his family was having an impact on his mental health. Quarterback Quinn Ewers only made it one semester in Columbus before making a similar decision. And wide receiver AD Mitchell departed Georgia after winning two national championships so he could be closer to his young daughter, who lives with his parents in the Houston area.
But the staff hasn’t always gotten their evaluations right — Alabama transfer wide receiver Agiye Hall, who was recruited by Sarkisian, and Alabama transfer tight end Jahleel Billingsley, who played for Sarkisian and tight ends coach Jeff Banks, were both busts. Hall was suspended during preseason camp in 2022 for criminal mischief, entered the transfer portal for a second time after the season, and now appears to be out of football entirely. Billingsley was suspended for the first six games of last season and then left the program before the regular season ended.
So the hope is to find players more like Watts, Ewers, and Mitchell than Hall and Billingsley at the positions of need like wide receiver, defensive line, and linebacker.
Positions of need
Chris Jackson’s position room projects as the most significant need for the Longhorns this offseason with Mitchell and fellow junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy both expected to declare for the 2024 NFL Draft. Along with senior Jordan Whittington exhausting his eligibility, Texas could only return players who have totaled nine catches for 151 yards this season. Freshman Johnny Cook looks like a future star and senior Isaiah Neyor could finally become a contributor two years removed from his knee injury after declining to receive recognition on Senior Night, but the Horns may need to add two players at the position.
Fortunately, wide receiver is typically a deep position in the transfer portal with multiple proven impact players, a group that could include Texas A&M’s Evan Stewart and Houston’s Matthew Golden due to coaching changes. One name to watch already in the portal is USC’s Raleek Brown, a former Texas target who could play a hybrid role similar to that of Keilan Robinson.
With Ja’Tavion Sanders projected as the No. 2 tight end if he declares for the 2024 NFL Draft, Texas could have a need at the position. Junior Gunnar Helm is a steady blocker who has improved as a pass catcher this season with 12 receptions for 175 yards, but there aren’t any other proven options on the roster. Junior Juan Davis has battled injuries in his career and hasn’t made a reception since 2021 and true freshman Spencer Shannon is considered a developmental prospect.
Tight end is typically a more difficult position to address in the portal than wide receiver and the multitude of demands on tight ends in Sarkisian’s offense could make it difficult to find the right fit.
Texas looks set to lose two of the best interior defensive linemen in the country with senior T’Vondre Sweat exhausting his eligibility and junior Byron Murphy accepting an invitation to the Senior Bowl. Redshirt junior Vernon Broughton still has remaining eligibility and senior Alfred Collins could opt to return in the hopes of elevating his draft stock like Sweat did this season, but Texas is expected to look in the portal for an impact player along the interior defensive line.
However, there aren’t typically many defensive linemen that fit that description in the portal and the competition is fierce for the few players who do. The top available defensive lineman is 6’2, 320-pound Harvard transfer Thor Griffith, who has already picked ups handful of Power Five offers, including Cal, Louisville, Stanford, and UCLA.
Freshman Anthony Hill Jr. looks ready to step into a full-time starting role after gaining more and more playing time as the season progressed, but Texas set to lose senior Jaylan Ford after two standout seasons. Redshirt senior David Gbenda lost playing time to Hill after beginning the season as the starter, but he’s a steady contributor the staff may want to bring back for a sixth season as a proven leader of a position room with plenty of talent but almost entirely comprised of freshmen.
Linebacker tends to be one of the deeper positions in the portal and Texas strength and conditioning coach Torre Becton is currently following Princeton transfer Ozzie Nicholas, On3’s top-ranked available linebacker.
The potential for senior cornerback Ryan Watts to return for a COVID season increased after dealing with hamstring and back injuries for more than half the regular season, but even if Watts declares for the 2024 NFL Draft, Texas has two emerging stars in sophomore Terrance Brooks and freshman Malik Muhammad, along with a proven, steady contributor in junior Gavin Holmes.
To increase depth chart, the Horns could move sophomore Austin Jordan back outside from nickel and current commit Wardell Mack profiles as a player who could see snaps as a true freshman. Add in the possibility of landing consensus four-star cornerback Kobe Black in the coming weeks and there’s cause for optimism surrounding the position, but the potential of adding Black’s older brother Korie from Oklahoma State for one season is intriguing and the Longhorns could otherwise look to add depth at the position.
Priority: Low to medium
While seniors Jerrin Thompson and Kitan Crawford both received recognition on Senior Night, they both have COVID years available, as does fifth-year senior Jalen Catalon, who did not walk. So there are some moving pieces at the position for the Texas staff to manage, as well as the lingering injury concerns surrounding Catalon after a third straight year in which he missed significant time.
So the extent to which the Longhorns need to add a safety isn’t clear yet, but it does tend to be a deep position in the portal.
Stanford transfer Ryan Sanborn is out of eligibility following a sensational season on the Forty Acres. Special teams coordinator Jeff Banks does hold a commitment from the nation’s No. 4 punter, Michael Kerns, and added walk-on Ian Ratliff in the 2023 class. Based on how Kerns and Ratliff perform in spring practice, Banks may opt to add a graduate transfer like Sanborn during the May transfer window if necessary to ensure a higher floor at the position.
Priority: Low to medium