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Texas freshmen expected to contribute against Rice

A significant portion of the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class will see the field against the Owls.

NCAA Football: Texas Spring Game Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

One third of the scholarship roster for the Texas Longhorns is made up of signees from the No. 3-ranked 2023 recruiting class headlined by No. 1 prospect Arch Manning. In the season opener against the Rice Owls at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday, a number of players from that highly-touted class are expected to receive significant playing time.

Among those expected contributors are running back CJ Baxter, running back Tre Wisner, wide receiver Johntay Cook, wide receiver DeAndre Moore Jr., linebacker Liona Lefau, linebacker Anthony Hill Jr., cornerback Manny Muhammad, and safety Derek Williams, according to Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian.

“I think we’ve got a good group of guys that are going to contribute on offense and defense. And then if you’re doing that, then surely you’re going to contribute on special teams — we put a lot of pride in special teams and I think these guys are earning their opportunities,” Sarkisian said on Thursday.

“Ultimately, we brought these guys here to play and they earn their time when it’s time for them to play... And so we’re excited for them, and there’s other guys that are working through the process of developing their game.”

With the recent changes to redshirt rules, Texas can play freshmen in as many as four games without using a year of eligibility, affording the Longhorns opportunities to get young players snaps in non-conference games like the season opener and the home game against the Cowboys next month while preserving the ability to play in a bowl game or other late-season games if Texas suffers injuries.

The developmental trajectory of some of those freshmen may look more like tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders than a first-year standout like left tackle Kelvin Banks.

“I always reference back to the JT Sanders conversation from a couple of years ago, and you guys all kept asking me what’s wrong with JT Sanders? Why doesn’t he play or why is he not on defense? He was in a developmental stage of his career. Now we’re reaping the benefits of the development that JT put in,” Sarkisian said.

“So all these freshmen are at different stages, but it’s a good class, it’s a competitive class, it’s a physically gifted class, and I think these are guys that are going to play a lot of football for us, not only this year, but for years to come.”

Here’s a look at the expected contributors.

Running back CJ Baxter

As the nation’s No. 1 running back in the 2023 recruiting class and an early enrollee, Baxter always projected as a contributor this season for the Longhorns following the departures of Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson. So far, Baxter looks like he’s on the right track as the presumptive backup to junior Jonathon Brooks to start the season.

On Monday, Sarkisian was willing to describe them in similar terms.

“I think to a couple of things that those two guys provide is there’s physical stature and a running style of a physical nature,” Sarkisian said. “I think both those guys are not just physical at the point of attack, but they’re elusive in the open field. They’ve got good pass receiving skills, and they’re both very smart and in our system, the running back’s intellect is important and both those guys are smart players.”

Running back Tre Wisner

Likely the fifth or sixth running back on the depth chart, Wisner made his impact for the Longhorns on special teams during preseason camp, a role that is likely to continue into the season for the former DeSoto standout. What role specific role Wisner is going to play on special teams won’t be clear until he gets on the field in the opener, but for a freshman who isn’t expected to play much on offense, it was notable that Sarkisian mentioned his name multiple times in August for his impact on special teams.

Wide receiver Johntay Cook

While Cook has drawn comparisons to junior standout Xavier Worthy, who is serving as a mentor to the former consensus five-star prospect, there’s one notable difference — where Worthy struggled making contested catches last season, Cook is already receiving mention alongside junior wide receiver AD Mitchell and senior wide receiver Isaiah Neyor as the team’s best at winning 50-50 balls.

After benefitting from going through spring practice, Cook has also adjusted quickly to college football after receiving high-level coaching and competing at a high level at state powerhouse DeSoto.

“What I’ve loved about Johntay right now is how coachable he is. I think he’s really trying to do what we’re asking him to do. And then when he doesn’t do it the right way, he acknowledges that and tries to do it better the next time,” Sarkisian said early in preseason camp.

“I just think there’s a level of comfort schematically, I think it’s making sense to him what we’re asking of him, and then he’s making the most of his opportunities in practice.”

Cook’s name came up frequently from fellow players when asked which newcomers will make an impact for the Longhorns this season and was already taking second-team reps by the end of the first week of practice.

WR DeAndre Moore Jr.

An early enrollee after committing to the Longhorns, Moore had five catches for 44 yards in the Orange-White game in addition to dropped pass from quarterback Maalik Murphy to negate a big play. There’s been more buzz around Cook than Moore during preseason camp, but Sarkisian and wide receivers coach Chris Jackson have made it a priority to get the young receivers snaps in non-conference play to help determine how many players will rotate at the position this season — Moore will get opportunities to make an impact against Rice and Wyoming.

LB Liona Lefau

The prospective replacement for senior Jaylan Ford at middle linebacker in 2024, Lefau flashed in the first scrimmage with a fumble recovery. After the second scrimmage, during which Lefau forced a fumble on a tackle, Sarkisian singled out the Hawaiian as an impact player.

“Liona Lefau has really made a lot of strides from spring ball through the first 10 days or so of training camp and had a really good scrimmage Saturday,” Sarkisian said last week.

Now the question is how hard Lefau is pushing senior Jett Bush for the backup role to Ford with the Texas coaching staff intent on rotating players more frequently in the first half of games in an effort to avoid the second-half collapses that have defined Sarkisian’s tenure with the Longhorns.

LB Anthony Hill Jr.

Hill received praise throughout preseason camp for his natural instincts with senior safety Jerrin Thompson noting a near one-handed interception by Hill in practice as evidence of his playmaking ability. With junior linebacker Mo Blackwell out for several weeks due to a knee injury, Hill has a chance to serve as the primary backup to senior David Gbenda at the Will position and take the reps at strong-side linebacker when the Horns play a base defense to allow Hill to play downhill, where he’s currently at his best.

CB Manny Muhammad

According to what Sarkisian said publicly following the first two scrimmages, Muhammad was one of the team’s best playmakers defensively, returning an interception for a touchdown and forcing the fumble recovered by Lefau. Sarkisian also praised Muhammad’s tackling ability, not always a strength of young cover corners.

“Manny Muhammad had two good scrimmages from a tackling perspective, which when we recruited him I don’t know if we thought that was going to be one of his strengths. We knew we were getting along cover corner who did that,” Sarkisian said.

Capable of playing both corner positions, Muhammad projects as the primary backup to senior Ryan Watts at boundary corner while battling with junior transfer Gavin Holmes for playing time behind sophomore Terrance Brooks at field corner.

S Derek Williams

The nation’s No. 4 safety in the 2023 recruiting class out of Louisiana is a player of note when Saturday’s depth chart becomes available — the projection is that he’s already passed redshirt freshman Larry Turner-Gooden at boundary safety, but has Williams also passed former walk on Michael Taaffe?

Regardless, there’s been plenty of buzz surrounding Williams during preseason camp.

“Derek has really come in with a mindset to try to be the best player that he can be. I think football makes sense to him — his natural football IQ is very high and he’s a very versatile player. He’s got great length. He has good speed. He’s not afraid at all of contact,” Sarkisian said early in camp.

“I think he’s got a couple of really cool mentors in Jalen Catalon and Jerrin Thompson, two very experienced players that he’s learning from. So I would anticipate him definitely contributing to this team’s success. To what degree, we don’t know yet.”

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