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Steve Sarkisian reveals early practice standouts for Texas

Freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook is on track to play a key role for the Longhorns this season.

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

After starting preseason camp last Wednesday, the Texas Longhorns have completed what head coach Steve Sarkisian refers to as the first block — two practices in helmets and shorts and two practices in pads — as well as what Sarkisian deemed the “most difficult practice” of camp on Monday after a day off on Sunday.

“Really across the board a lot of guys have made substantial improvement and continue to make improvement from one practice to the next and so I commended the team on that,” Sarkisian said during a Monday availability.

Sarkisian and his staff are now devoting time to situational football, introducing red zone work on Monday after previously incorporating third downs. The Texas head coach also named a handful of players standing out in practice.

“Alfred Collins has had a really good camp so far,” Sarkisian said. “I think Vernon Broughton showed up. AD Mitchell has really showed up. Definitely see the improvement in Johntay Cook.”

Cook’s name in particular has come up regularly from players when asked about which newcomers have a chance to make an impact this season. During the portion of Friday’s practice open to the media, Cook was taking second-team reps at the Z position behind Xavier Worthy and ahead of Isaiah Neyor, but Sarkisian said that Cook is also comfortable playing inside in the slot.

“What I’ve loved about Johntay right now is how coachable he is,” Sarkisian said. “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 tries to do it better the next time.”

After enrolling early out of DeSoto, where Sarkisian said Cook received good coaching, the nation’s No. 7 wide receiver is adjusting quickly to the Texas offense.

“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,” Sarkisian said.

So not only does Cook profile as a contributor as a true freshman, he’s pushing to become the fourth wide receiver in the rotation.

“When you’re playing fast and you have an idea of knowing what to do and you’re coachable and you’re not making the same mistakes twice, you give yourself an opportunity to be successful in this system, and that’s what showing up,” Sarkisian said.

Another standout in practice is Arkansas safety transfer Jalen Catalon, who missed spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery. The staff is taking a careful approach with Catalon, avoiding back-to-back days of contact by putting him a green jersey every other practice. But one thing the coaches are careful to avoid with Catalon is trying to change his physical approach to the game.

“His style of play is innate to him and I’m remiss for leaving him out because he’s had a real impact on our team, definitely defensively, and in the secondary,” Sarkisian said. “He’s very intentional with his work, he’s got a high level of intensity and mental focus, he communicates on a really high level. When he knows, he goes, and that’s a great trait not just for him, but for other guys to see of a style of play in the secondary.”

Even though the staff is currently limiting Catalon’s contact in practice, once the season starts, he’ll be turned loose on opponents.

“I’m not concerned about Jalen Catalon hitting somebody come Week One — I think that’s in his DNA,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve just got to manage it as we get ourselves to the season, but I don’t want to take his stinger from him, so we will manage it on our own. When we give him the green light to go play, we want him to play the way he’s accustomed to.”

One newcomer who could benefit from seeing Catalon’s style of play is freshman safety Derek Williams, who drew a comparison to left tackle Kelvin Banks as a summer enrollee for his ability to adjust quickly.

“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.

“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.”