Spring practice for the Texas Longhorns comes to a close on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium as head coach Steve Sarkisian ends his third spring on the Forty Acres on Longhorn Network at 1 p.m. Central.
As always, how a number of storylines play out during the scrimmage will help define the narrative throughout the summer as the rest of the 2023 recruiting class arrives on campus and the team prepares for preseason camp and a hugely important 2023 season for Sarkisian and the program.
Unlike last year, when the summer arrival of six of the seven offensive line signees left Kyle Flood’s position group with only a handful of scholarship players, Texas now has enough depth on campus to play more of a traditional spring game with Sarkisian choosing teams.
“We’re going to be able to play it as a game, so it should give everybody a real sense of being able to keep score on what’s going on,” Sarkisian said on Tuesday. “I know we’ve got a lot of young players, that it’s going to be good for them to play in front of a crowd, so we’re looking forward to a great crowd, should be a beautiful day, and a really good environment.”
In the zero-sum game of offensive success marking defensive failure and vice versa, Sarkisian is hoping to limit mistakes from both sides of the ball.
“I think that’s always the hard part when you play yourself, right? That’s always the challenge — who won? Well, you know what I look for is a clean game. I try to look for the mental errors, do we have guys doing the wrong thing guys, lining up incorrectly? I look for physicality, who can play well at the point of attack, whether it’s inside the box or on the perimeter? I look for playmaking ability.” Sarkisian said.
“Those are the types of things I look for, because ultimately, if both sides play really well, it should be pretty evenly matched and it should be a hard fought, offense and/or defense in whichever side of the ball is going. The problem comes when the big plays occur, whether it’s a big touchdown or a turnover or a sack. Generally there’s an error somewhere and so hopefully we can reduce the number of errors that occur in the game. That’s really what I’m looking for.”
How much separation is there at quarterback?
When Sarkisian’s comments about a quarterback competition entering spring practice produced national headlines, it was clear that there was more of a developmental imperative for the program than an actual competition between redshirt sophomore Quinn Ewers and true freshman Arch Manning. And that held during spring practice with Ewers consistently drawing praise from Sarkisian for his improvement after an inconsistent first season at Texas and Manning competing with redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy for second-team reps.
Ewers will have a chance to show off that improvement on Saturday while Manning and Murphy make their debuts in the Orange-White game with their performances determining which player will head into summer conditioning with an edge to become the backup quarterback. And it’s certainly important for Ewers to demonstrate just how firm his control is on the starting job — it should be clear he’s the best quarterback on the field for Texas.
How do reps at running back play out?
When asked about the running back position following the departures of Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson, Sarkisian likes to point out his ability to consistently produce 1,000-yard rushers throughout his career. But there are still major question marks about whether the Longhorns have a lead back capable of that output or will need to take a by-committee approach this season.
The odds-on favorite to earn the starting job is redshirt sophomore Jonathon Brooks, who has flashed in limited opportunities as the third-string running back over his first two seasons on the Forty Acres.
“I think the one thing I’ll credit Jonathan for is every time we’ve put him out there, he’s performed... Every time we put him out there and when he was a true freshman or last year, he made plays, he made things happen,” Sarkisian said. “Even in the bowl game when he was somewhat limited — we knew he had the surgery upcoming — he scores two touchdowns and makes a really big play on the screen and makes people miss and so he’s been doing that for us over two years. And so now to kind of see his workload go up and what that’ll look like, I anticipate it to kind of look the same.”
With Brooks as the only known commodity for position coach Tashard Choice, the staff may opt to limit him on Saturday as he continues to return to full strength following that offseason surgery, allowing more opportunities for sophomore Jaydon Blue, freshman CJ Baxter, and sophomore Savion Red with senior Keilan Robinson out due to a strain that has lingered throughout spring practice.
Blue received only 15 carries last season after opting out of his senior year, but has performed well at times during the spring, showing off his improvement after the long stretch away from football.
“I thought Jaydon Blue had a nice scrimmage, made some plays, especially on the perimeter,” Sarkisian said recently. “He’s a very explosive athlete.”
Sarkisian has also praised the natural ability of Baxter, the nation’s consensus No. 1 running back in the 2023 class. A fumble early in a recent scrimmage was a freshman moment for the Baxter, but his talent started to shine through after he became more comfortable, perhaps an indication of how the Orange-White game could play out for the young runner.
After switching from wide receiver, Red is an intriguing player who has adjusted quickly to his new position.
“From a position change standpoint, Savion Red shows physicality that is really encouraging,” Sarkisian said. “Savion obviously played receiver a year ago and we know he’s gifted as a receiver, but to really start running between the tackles, which is kind of what he did as a Wildcat quarterback in high school, that’s been encouraging.”
Red has been a consistent presence in practice clips, using a stiff arm on edge Justice Finkley, celebrating with Robinson after a touchdown run, and making a one-handed catch in the end zone, consistent evidence that he could have a situational impact while battling Robinson for that role.
Does Cam Williams take advantage of his first-team reps?
Last year’s starter at right guard, sophomore Cole Hutson, is expected to miss the Orange-White game after offseason surgery. Hutson’s backup, sophomore DJ Campbell, is also out. That leaves sophomore Cam Williams as the prospective starter at right guard after cross training there and at right tackle this spring.
In the first spring game for Williams, he’ll have a chance to showcase why Sarkisian has raved about his unique combination of size and mobility while noting that Williams has reshaped his body since arriving on campus, turning some fat into muscle.
How the position plays out during preseason camp is one of the more intriguing pending storylines along an offensive line that returns all five starters and only has one true position battle, but it’s Williams who has the availability advantage to make his case for it on Saturday.
What happens with the pass rush, and does it even matter?
The Longhorns led the nation in pressures last season while struggling to actually sack the quarterback, finishing tied for 71st nationally with SMU, Georgia State, Texas State, North Texas, and Nevada. The 27 sacks were an improvement of seven sacks over the putrid 2021 performance by Texas, but turning those pressures into sacks is one of the biggest offseason priorities for the coaching staff.
Unfortunately, strong spring game performances from the likes of Jett Bush, Prince Dorbah, and Myron Warren in recent years in a no-contact environment hardly heralded future fall success. Context always matters, as beating walk-on offensive lineman doesn’t mean much, but with massively improved depth in that position group, there may be more meaningful opportunities to make plays this year.
There are also two players to watch who stood out in the pass rush during the spring whose potential success on Saturday could actually matter — junior defensive tackle and freshman linebacker Anthony Hill Jr.
“I think one guy that stands out to me that at times I feel like he’s unblockable is Byron Murphy. And that’s internal pressure, but this guy is so active, he’s so strong, he’s so quick, and he’s very smart. He has presented some real issues,” Sarkisian said. “I think Anthony Hill any time that he can present opportunities to rush the passer, he’s an issue that way. Those two guys are the first two that stand out to me that I feel like whenever their number, their opportunity presents itself, they find their way back there.”
Add junior Jack end Barryn Sorrell to the list. After a breakout sophomore season leading the team with 5.5 sacks, Sorrell wants to reach double digits this year and has been disruptive enough this spring that junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders said he hates going against Sorrell because of his strength.
Is David Gbenda good enough to start?
While Hill is presumably making plays rushing the quarterback at the strong-side linebacker position that DeMarvion Overshown occupied last season, one of the upperclassman standing out this spring is senior linebacker David Gbenda, who is competing for the starting weak-side linebacker role that Overshown played when Texas was in its nickel defense.
Sarkisian went as far as to say that Gbenda is playing his best football with the Longhorns. For a player whose production dropped from 27 tackles in 2021 to 12 tackles in 2022 with some notable mistakes, the fifth-year player hasn’t set a high standard for his play under this coaching staff and primarily played on special teams under the previous coaching staff.
So there are still question marks about whether good football from Gbenda is good enough to earn the starting role and keep it as Hill develops.
Can Kitan Crawford play mistake-free football?
One of the other notable upperclassmen who had a strong spring is senior safety Kitan Crawford, a longtime core special teams contributor who changed positions from cornerback last offseason, but wasn’t playable at times in 2022, resulting in some extended snaps for former walk-on Michael Taaffe, a much more assignment-sound player.
Crawford is fast and physical as a tackler, but with the Texas passing game improving, it’s critical that the Tyler John Tyler product can hold up in coverage on Saturday with Arkansas transfer Jalen Catalon out amid continued concerns about whether his shoulder will hold up this season. Though it will only be small sample of how Crawford has performed this spring, any mistakes would loom as a potential sign that he still hasn’t put it all together on the back end.
What are you looking for on Saturday?