Looking back to last spring, it’s almost difficult to imagine the extent to which playing offense still seemed like a questionable decision for Texas Longhorns tight Ja’Tavion Sanders given his lack of impact as a true freshman and the glaring need for an impact edge rusher.
Fast forward a year later and Sanders is coming off a breakout 2022 season that ranked as one of the best in school history and now has a chance to position himself as one of the top tight ends in the country. There’s a hard ceiling there with Brock Bowers the clear choice as the nation’s best tight end, but it’s not hard to envision Sanders slotting right behind Bowers and perhaps even pushing him as Georgia breaks in a new quarterback.
Beyond Sanders, there’s not much depth this spring. Offensive tackle Andrej Karic, who played the jumbo tight end role last season, transferred to Tennessee. Alabama transfer Jahleel Billingsley left the team in late November after failing to make an impact even after he served his six-game suspension. Brayden Liebrock took a medical retirement after dealing with multiple shoulder surgeries. And both 2023 signees — Spencer Shannon and Will Randle — are both summer enrollees. Randle is also rehabbing from a knee injury that ended his senior season at Isidore Newman.
So there will be plenty of reps to go around for rising junior Gunnar Helm and rising redshirt sophomore Juan Davis, in addition to walk-on Myles Hill, who is no longer facing competition from Nathan Hatter and Patrick Bayouth, both of whom exhausted their eligibility.
Sanders arrived in Austin as the nation’s consensus No. 1 athlete in the 2021 recruiting class with high expectation. As a summer enrollee who opted for offense over defense despite playing wide receiver in high school, there was a step learning curve as a blocker that resulted in some hard coaching from position coach Jeff Banks. While Sanders appeared in all 12 games, it was mostly as a member of the field goal unit, setting up an important offseason during which even his family wondered if playing on the edge might be a better idea.
Instead, Sanders embraced the challenge of becoming a better, more physical blocker and started to make an impression during the spring before emerging as the starter and turning in a sensational season, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors and finishing as a John Mackey Award semifinalist after catching 54 passes for 613 yards and five touchdowns. The 54 receptions set the program record for a tight end and his 613 receiving yards ranked second in school history at the position.
Strong hands and a large catch radius made him a favored target of quarterback Quinn Ewers, including on three fourth-down conversions over the season.
As well as Sanders played, however, he still has another level to reach after catching four passes for nine yards against Alabama and UTSA and one pass for one yard against Kansas — expect to see him more consistently targeted in 2023. And while Sanders made major strides as a blocker, there were times when he struggled to make key blocks, including missing the defender who forced Bijan Robinson’s fumble to open overtime at Texas Tech. Expect to see fewer mistakes like that this season.
The use of Karic at tight end limited the snaps for Helm, who did see his playing time increase at the end of the season. The Colorado product finished with five catches for 44 yards and doesn’t have the upside of Sanders in the passing game, but he’s the likely choice to pair with his fellow rising junior when head coach Steve Sarkisian wants to use 12 personnel in 2023 — there’s just not much competition for the role and Helm is a solid blocker.
A quarterback and receiver in high school at Everman, Davis arrived at Texas as a jumbo athlete in the 2021 recruiting class. Sarkisian made some effort to get him on the field and get him the football as a true freshman with one catch for five yards and one carry for three yards in five games. In 2022, however, Davis was banged up during spring practice and played mostly on special teams after Sanders took over the starting tight end role from Cade Brewer.
So it’s an important spring for the 6’4, 219-pounder, who profile as a flex tight end who could present matchup problems for slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs. If Davis is going to emerge as a contributor for the Longhorns, he needs to make an impact in this 15 upcoming practices with increased competition at wide receiver making 12 personnel packages less appealing to Sarkisian.
Quality depth is a concern at the position with only three scholarship players on campus this spring, but the ability of Sanders as one of the nation’s best tight ends balances that out. With another offseason of work under Banks, it’s exciting to consider what the next step looks like for the 6’4, 242-pounder who is also coming into his own as one of the team’s most important leaders.