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What Steve Sarkisian wants to see when Texas plays Rice

The Longhorns head coach is looking for a clean game in the season opener against an overmatched opponent.

NCAA Football: Rice at Texas John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN — “Why does Rice play Texas?”

The famous line from President John F. Kennedy 61 years ago had a simple answer at the time — the Rice Owls and Texas Longhorns were both members of the Southwest Conference.

Now the answer is that the non-conference matchup pays the Owls well while the Longhorns get a tuneup in the season opener, in this case preparation for next week’s high-profile matchup in Tuscaloosa against the Crimson Tide.

As Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian receives his first opportunity to gauge his 2023 team in a game environment, the goal isn’t just to beat an overmatched opponent against whom the Longhorns are favored by a full five touchdowns, it’s to execute at a high level and turn in a clean performance.

During a Monday media availability, Sarkisian laid out several areas he’ll focus on during Saturday’s game.

Pre-snap penalties

Issues like substitutions and pre-snap penalties often loom large early in the season as new players integrate and returning players find a rhythm. In 2022, Texas committed eight offensive pre-snap penalties in the first two games, including five false starts, two illegal formations, and one delay of game.

Some of those issues resurfaced in the first scrimmage despite the return of all five starting offensive linemen.

“For us, pre-snap penalties we need to improve — we were not clean. Pre snap, as you guys know, we like to motion and shift and do different things before the ball is snapped and too many just false starts, illegal procedure stuff that we can clean up,” Sarkisian said.

Struggling to avoid pre-snap penalties at home in the season opener would be a poor sign with a night game at Bryant-Denny Stadium looming.


Texas has held two scrimmages and a mock game during preseason camp, but even with particularly physical practices featuring more tackling than in the past under Sarkisian’s staff, there’s nothing like a true game environment to reveal whether or not a team can consistently get opponents to the ground.

For the Longhorns, the two scrimmages produced some mixed results.

“One thing you always are concerned about going into a first scrimmage is a tackling and I felt like we tackled pretty good for our first scrimmage,” Sarkisian said earlier this month. “I feel like we got people on the ground. Obviously in the open field, we have some pretty elusive guys that can create some explosive plays, but it wasn’t just an enormous amount of missed tackles.”

The second scrimmage was less promising in applying fundamentals and techniques from practice drills to live tackling situations.

“We had some opportunities which I showed the team this morning where we have to apply the drill work that we do early in practice when we work on tackling — you guys have seen some of that when you’re there early in practice — we have to apply those drills in games when it’s a sideline tackle, when it’s a two on one vice tackle, when it’s a cut tackle opportunity, we have to apply those things and I think we missed some of those Saturday, so that’s something that we definitely can improve upon,” Sarkisian said last week.

Coverage units

Texas has to replace several core special teams players, including Roschon Johnson and DeMarvion Overshown, on coverage units that ranked No. 11 nationally in opposing punt returns at 3.1 yards per return and 27th in opposing kickoff returns at 17.2 yards per return.

Changes on those units, including the integration of new players, and the possibility of early-season difficulties have given Sarkisian some cause for concern, especially after seeing USC and Vanderbilt both returned kickoffs for touchdowns in Week Zero.

So even though sophomore Will Stone has improved his leg strength and has the ability to kick for touchbacks on a high percentage of kickoffs, special teams coordinator Jeff Banks is aggressive trying to gain a field-position advantage by keeping the ball in play and holding opponents to short returns. Fortunately, the Longhorns are merely trying to maintain a high level of play in that phase.

“I think our kick coverage has been tremendous for the last couple years and the goal is that we stay that way, and that’s a mentality,” Sarkisian said this month.

On punt coverage, senior running back Keilan Robinson and senior safety Kitan Crawford are the two best gunners in the country, according to Sarkisian, and return to stabilize the punt coverage unit that performed so well last season.

“Inevitably, I want to see us execute and all of that is kind of encompassed into that, whether it’s pre snap or post snap, our ability to execute, communicate really well, being on the same page, and then playing our style of football,” Sarkisian said.