AUSTIN — With the Texas Longhorns preparing for the start of preseason camp on Wednesday, Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian, offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Kyle Flood, defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks all met with the media.
As Flood noted when asked about which running back will jog out with the first-team offense on Wednesday as practice starts, it’s a question better suited for two weeks from now when Sarkisian won’t let him speak to reporters.
So the insight from the coordinators was not only rare — they only have one media availability all season — it was also largely more granular than the availability with Sarkisian that tended to focus on macro views of the program.
Here’s some insight from all four coaches.
Sarkisian believes in the value of staff continuity
As Sarkisian enters his third season leading the Longhorns, his staff features only two positions with turnover — running back and wide receiver, where Chris Jackson is now the third coach in three seasons.
How Sarkisian built that initial staff was rather unorthodox. Days after arriving in Austin, Sarkisian hired former Texas safety Blake Gideon from Ole Miss, then defensive line coach Bo Davis from the Detroit Lions, then safeties coach Terry Joseph from Notre Dame. The addition of defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski from Washington came later in January before Montana State head coach Jeff Choate left Bozeman to coach the linebackers under Kwiatkowski.
Only Kwiatkowski and Choate, who were both at Boise State from 2006 to 2011, had previous experience working together.
“Not only did they have to get accustomed to PK’s scheme and philosophy, but then formulating ideas, there’s a lot of great expertise amongst those guys, and so there was definitely a learning curve feeling out process for them in some growing pains that we went through, especially in year one, but as we grew together, and as we started to develop the players that we had and then recruit the type of players that we want at their position, it all started growing together,” Sarkisian said.
“And so I do think that staff continuity was critical going into year three now where these guys are very comfortable with one another. They’re speaking the same language. There’s an expectation from the players of what’s expected of them and how they’re going to get coached. Inevitably, there’s a level of comfort of what we’re going to try to do and what we’re going to try to go accomplish.”
The wide receiver rotation may deepen
Texas doesn’t just have a former NFL wide receiver coach on his staff now, he’s brought an NFL-style approach to his rotation, often choosing to use four or five wide receivers in a game. Last season, the rotation contracted following the preseason knee injury to Wyoming transfer Isaiah Neyor with Sarkisian often employing 12 personnel sets with Jordan Whittington on the outside instead of in the slot.
This year, Sarkisian may use a deeper rotation in a room that features only eight scholarship players with Neyor back from injury, AD Mitchell in from Georgia, and three talented freshmen from the 2023 recruiting class — Johntay Cook, DeAndre Moore Jr., and Ryan Niblett.
“Our job is to put the best players on the field to give us the best chance to be successful and that may change from week to week, that may depend on the game plan, that may depend on what what’s the personnel packages for that week that we feel most comfortable with. But going into it, my plan is to play probably a few more than we have in the past,” Sarkisian said.
Count that as good news for redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers.
Gary Patterson is not currently with the program
Texas is set to have three special assistants to the head coach this season — former Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst on offense, Desert Swarm acolyte Payam Saadat, and longtime former NFL special teams coach Joe DeCamilis. But former TCU head coach Gary Patterson is not currently among that group despite recent buzz after leaving the program in the spring to spend more time with his family.
“Gary was a tremendous asset for us a year ago,” Sarkisian said. “He did a really good job with the program, stepped away at the end of the season. As of right now, he’s not part of the program. We’ll see where it goes from here.”
Patterson was instrumental last season in helping the Horns successfully transition to match-quarters coverage in the secondary.
All about connections
Sarkisian takes pride in his ability to self-evaluate his programs in the offseason, serving as his own harshest critic and annually seeking ways to tweak his offense to stay up with current trends around the sport.
This year, however, Sarkisian limited his summer vacation to the week of the Fourth of July in order to foster a deeper connection with his team.
“I wanted to be at the workouts, I wanted to be at the everything I could be at with them and stay connected to him,” Sarkisian said of his players. “That was probably the best thing I did outside of getting away sometimes it’s getting closer and so I I tried to get as close as I could with them on a daily basis.”
It’s an area where Flood believes that Sarkisian excels.
“I will say what I’m most impressed with him is I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with somebody who has a connection to the players the way he does,” Flood said. “I feel that every day — I see the way the players interact with him and having sat in that chair, I know how hard that is to create. So I would say instead of going in the direction of what’s his biggest improvement, I think our program has improved because of his connection to those players on a daily basis.”
Kyle Flood believes he has eight quality offensive lineman
A major reason Texas enters the 2023 season with serious optimism is the return of all five starting offensive linemen, as well as late-season starter DJ Campbell. On Tuesday, Flood said he can only remember one other time in his career that he returns six players with starting experience.
Entering preseason camp, the rotation is currently eight deep — Kelvin Banks, Hayden Conner, Jake Majors, Cole Hutson, Christian Jones, Neto Omeozulu, Cam Williams, and Campbell.
Flood would like to get to 10 players capable of contributing, and Connor Robertson is coming on after his offseason wrist surgery, but the Texas offensive line coach said it’s rare to hit that ideal number and his position group has a lot of work to do in order to reach it.
“We’re not close to having 10. We’ve got eight. Those other guys have a lot to show. So they’ve got a lot to prove as we get into training camp,” Flood said.
Missed opportunities on defense
Kwiatkowski noted that while Texas only forced 14 turnovers last season, tied for 104th nationally and ninth in the Big 12, the Longhorns also had 21 missed opportunities to force turnovers. With 27 sacks, Texas was tied for 71st nationally and fifth in the conference, but missed roughly 13 sacks.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of finishing and taking advantage of those opportunities when they arise,” Kwiatkowski said.
The hope is that if the Texas defense can start generating turnovers, it will jumpstart a positive feedback loop.
“The good teams that I’ve been around that have gotten turnovers, it’s just like a feeding frenzy — it sort of feeds off itself and then the whole group gets that synergy going on and they just they come in bunches,” Kwiatkowski said. “So I don’t think there’s any magic pill or call or anything, it’s just keep working at it and have better awareness.”
The staff is developing a plan for Anthony Hill
One of the biggest recruiting coups for Texas in the 2023 class was landing former Texas A&M pledge Anthony Hill, a top-20 prospect and the nation’s No. 1 linebacker, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Hill arrived during the spring and quickly impressed, especially with his ability coming downhill.
“He had a really good spring. He’s got a nose for the ball, does not know what he’s doing all the time, but when he when he makes mistakes, he makes them 100 percent, full speed, and he just has a knack for finding the ball,” Kwiatkowski said.
Since Hill has some good players in front of him at linebacker, in Kwiatkowski’s estimation, the staff can work to find blitzes or pass-rushing situations that take advantage of what Hill does well without exposing him to more difficult assignments at the second level.
Derek Williams impressing early
The highest-rated summer enrollee for the Longhorns is Louisiana safety Derek Williams, the nation’s No. 4 player at his position. In his first few weeks on campus, he’s already on the radar as a potential special teams standout who could force the defensive coaches to find ways to get him on the field.
“He’s coming along nicely and he’s got range and he’s got the nastiness, he’s a violent player, throws his body around, and I think he’s another guy [who’s] gonna be on [special] teams a lot and then find and pick and choose our spots to get him in on defense.”
Terrance Brooks is one of the team’s most improved players
A key flip from Ohio State on Early Signing Day in 2021, Brooks flashed in the loss to Washington in the Alamo Bowl before turning in a strong offseason.
“Terrance arguably might be the most improved guy from last year to this year,” Kwiatkowski said. “He’s got a tremendous amount of ability and he’s now maturing and gotten to the point where he understands the level of urgency and detail it takes to be an excellent football player. I think he’s on the cusp. Obviously, he’s got to go out and do it, but his spring and summer was outstanding, so with him, it all comes back to coming from high school to college and just that transition, the level of intensity and urgency that you need to have in everything you do, and he’s starting to figure it out.”
Brooks will compete with Wake Forest junior transfer Gavin Holmes and freshman Malik Muhammad for the starting job at field corner opposite senior Ryan Watts in the boundary.
Why Xavier Worthy took over as punt returner in 2022
In last year’s season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, one of the biggest surprises was D’Shawn Jamison blocking a punt after the staff moved him out of his longtime role as the team’s punt returner in favor of Xavier Worthy. On Tuesday, Banks finally addressed the reason for that decision.
“The major issue we saw from the year before was fieldable balls — catching the ball when it was fieldable,” Banks said. “So possession’s number one, but the more balls you catch, the better chance you have of not only having successful returns, but saving yards from going backwards and it rolling 20-30 yards. And so when we charted those things, those first two years we were here we were losing a ton of yardage in the open field from letting the ball hit the ground.”
Since Worthy is known as a highly-coachable player, Banks moved him into the return role on a unit ultimately featured more pressure looks than any Banks has previously coached in his career.
“That probably took away from Xavier’s opportunities to return the ball, but I’m excited to kind of see where he goes [this season],” Banks said.
Will Stone is the most improved special teams player
The Austin Regents product lost the place-kicker competition to Bert Auburn in preseason camp last year, struggling in that phase and at times as a kickoff specialist because he was driving the ball instead of lift on it. Between spring practice and summer conditioning, Banks sent Stone to trainers to work on his launch trajectory before the strength staff challenged him during the summer, a period during which Stone made major strides in the weight room.
Now Banks expects Stone to compete with Auburn for the role of handling long field goals and to potentially double the 26 touchdbacks he had in 2022, though Banks prefers kicks outside the end zone so his strong coverage unit can gain field position other than game situations in which Banks wants to avoid a return altogether.
Gunnar Helm has a chip on his shoulder
Texas projects as heavily reliant on first-team All-Big 12 tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders this season, but junior Gunnar Helm has lost weight, gained strength, and improved his quickness, according to Banks, all while approaching practices and workouts with a chip on his shoulder and elevated intensity.
In 2022, Helm came on as a physical blocker over the last four games, a role the Longhorns will need him to fill once again this year, leading Banks to believe that the Colorado product is primed for “a great season.”