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After disappointing season, Texas WR Xavier Worthy is improved, confident, and having fun

Worthy’s career with the Longhorns hit rock bottom in the Alamo Bowl and its aftermath. Now he’s back and better than ever.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Football Media Days Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

A football hitting artificial turf doesn’t make a sound audible to on-field microphones, but the two consecutive passes dropped by Texas Longhorns wide receiver Xavier Worthy in the Alamo Bowl against the Washington Huskies last December were positively thunderous, defining moments in a close loss that capped a disappointing season for the Fresno product sandwiched around speculation about his future in burnt orange and white in the month leading up to the game and a fan-fueled social media firestorm that followed.

With Texas trailing by 10 points more than halfway through the third quarter, Worthy failed to adjust to a 2nd and 11 pass from quarterback Quinn Ewers on a go route down the sideline, sliding to the turf as the ball went through his hands.

On the next play, Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian schemed up an ideal matchup for Worthy in the slot against a hybrid safety dropping into coverage from a feigned blitz at the line of scrimmage. As Worthy streaked open down the middle of the field, Ewers delivered a perfect strike in stride. But instead of a game-changing touchdown, the ball came off of Worthy’s hip and thigh, clattering to the turf once again.

Texas went on to lose by a touchdown as Worthy finished with seven catches for 84 yards on 14 targets that accounted for nearly half of the incompletions thrown by Ewers.

The performance left Worthy’s career at Texas at a remarkable crossroads — one of the most productive receivers in school history was suddenly the subject of derision from a frustrated fanbase and a potential avatar for the mercenary nature of college football stars in the transfer portal era as NIL enticements and rampant tampering have produced a sort of free agency.

Speculation about Worthy’s future and happiness on the Forty Acres began late in the season thanks to the Texas wide receiver’s apparent frustration from his inability to connect with Ewers, especially on deep balls, and as he scrubbed references to the Longhorns from his social media.

“I think the one thing about Xavier is this — he’s a highly competitive young man and from the moment he arrived on our campus, he came to work and he came to work to earn an opportunity to play, came to work to become a starter. He came to work to be the best receiver he could be, whether that was in our conference or in the country,” Sarkisian said in late November.

“So I think the guy’s got a high sense of competitiveness and drive to be the best and he works that way every day. And so sometimes when you don’t get the actual result of it, that can become a sense of frustration. I would much rather have a receiver that’s frustrated that he didn’t contribute more to a win than a guy who’s content to go on the field and playing and the ball not coming his way, because I think he values his ability to get open. I do, too. I get it.”

Worthy hardly took advantage of an opportunity to quell the speculation in a media availability before the Alamo Bowl, falling back on a typical athlete cliche when asked about his future.

“I’m just focused on the game on Thursday,” Worthy replied, in addition to admitting that he didn’t have a timeline for making a decision about the 2023 season.

The lack of certainty surrounding Worthy’s future and his high-profile drops in the Alamo Bowl led to an ugly scene in his Twitter mentions following the loss as Texas fans lost all perspective about Worthy’s contributions to the program. The flurry of criticism was enough to catch the attention of fellow Longhorns wide receiver Casey Cain, Worthy, and his mother.

Worthy quietly returned to the program for winter conditioning before Sarkisian dropped a bombshell during spring practice — the star receiver had played through the second half of the season with a broken hand Worthy and the program kept from becoming public knowledge.

Meanwhile, Worthy got back to work, putting an emphasis on tracking the football better, watching film with Ewers and putting in extra work after practice to improve their rapport, taking on a bigger leadership role with the team, and maturing off the field.

“One of the main things I needed to fix was the overthinking,” Worthy said this week. “I feel like when I got past that, I’m the only one that can stop me.”

The result is one of the most improved offensive players on the team.

“I know a lot has been made of Quinn’s development this offseason, but I think almost right there with him is the development and maturity of Xavier — he’s had a great offseason, he’s really worked his tail off. I think he got himself healthy coming out of last season with the hand, I think he really committed himself to the rapport with Quinn and vice versa,” Sarkisian said on Monday.

And with Sarkisian emphasizing improvement in the downfield passing game throughout the offseason, reinforcements arrived — AD Mitchell transferred in from Georgia, Isaiah Neyor recovered from injury, and Johntay Cook, DeAndre Moore Jr., and Ryan Niblett enrolled as members of the 2023 recruiting class.

Now the Longhorns will be less reliant on Worthy as the sole deep threat in the wide receiver corps thanks to a group that is better suited to making contested catches, an area in which Worthy struggled in 2022.

“AD, Isaiah, Johntay, these guys are really good deep-ball players, they really have the ability to go track the ball and make contested catches. When it’s one-on-one, we believe we have an advantage with those guys,” Sarkisian said earlier this month.

Other deep threats on the team afford Worthy the chance to work in the shallow and intermediate areas where he can take advantage of his post-catch ability.

“So, when you have to pull a safety out of the top to go do that, that creates opportunities for Xavier to not always have to do that to create explosive plays, but a lot of times he can do this and he can catch and run and get out the back door. I think about 2021 against Texas Tech where he catches an in cut and makes a guy miss and then he can go score from a distance.”

But Worthy isn’t just a more mature, improved player — he’s found joy in the game again.

“What I’ve noticed is I really see this guy enjoying being a Texas Longhorn, enjoying his teammates,” Sarkisian said. “I mean, he is smiling now more than maybe since his freshman year and having fun at practice and working hard.”

After the down season for Worthy fueled by the inexperience at quarterback, the lack of depth around him at wide receiver, and the broken hand, expectations are sky high once again for one of college football’s most dynamic pass catchers.

“We talked the other day about what do you know, I think one of the knows is I know Xavier Worthy is going to show up at 2:30 on Saturday,” Sarkisian said. “He’s going to be there. He’s going to play fast like he does. But I think that combination of his rapport with Quinn, I think the confidence that Xavier is playing with right now, the fun that he’s having with his teammates, I think is gonna allow him to play a brand of football that maybe we didn’t see all the time last season.”