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Improved depth at WR will bolster Texas passing game

After last season’s offense revolved around Bijan Robinson, expect a more wide-open attack in 2023.

Texas football

Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian prides himself on reinventing his offense every offseason, studying other attacks around the country to pick up new ideas and adjusting to his personnel.

“I’m always hunting for ways to be better because ultimately, change is inevitable,” Sarkisian said last week. “You either get better or you get worse in this game, as a coach, as a player, whatever that is. We always hunt for those types of things —schematics are schematics, I never tried to sit still, I never say, ‘Hey, this is our system and we’re never going to do anything different.’ We’re always hunting for those things to do better.”

Following a knee injury to Wyoming transfer wide receiver Isaiah Neyor in preseason camp last season, an offense built around running back Bijan Robinson turned its focus even more heavily towards the eventual first-round draft pick, often using offensive tackle Andrej Karic as a jumbo tight end and tightening a wide receiver rotation that lacked depth without Neyor.

The results were decidedly mixed — Robinson shined, along with backup Roschon Johnson, and tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders had a breakout season as the team’s third-leading receiver, but the one-dimensional deep passing game struggled as Xavier Worthy battled through a broken hand. By the end of the season, the struggles of first-starter Quinn Ewers at quarterback forced the Longhorns to turn to the running game as the offense’s primary weapon.

“Very rarely have I gotten into moments where we’ve just abandoned one side of the style of play that we have,” Sarkisian said. “There were times last year where we borderline abandoned the pass game and ran the football because that was the best thing for us.”

Worthy ultimately caught fewer passes for fewer yards and fewer touchdowns than this freshman season, Jordan Whittington played outsider rather than in the slot, his more natural position, and no other wide receiver caught more than six passes after Casey Cain fell out of the rotation early in conference play, ultimately going eight games and more than three months without a catch.

Now, with Robinson off to the NFL and Karic competing for a starting tackle job at Tennessee, expect more 11 personnel usage with question marks at running back and much improved depth at receiver thanks to Neyor’s return from injury, the addition of AD Mitchell from Georgia, and three talented freshmen in Johntay Cook, DeAndre Moore Jr., and Ryan Niblett.

“There’s going to be plenty of moments where we’re gonna probably throw the ball more and better than we did a year ago or even our first two years here,” Sarkisian said.

That’s because at the skill positions, the strength of the offense has shifted from a running back room without a clear starter to the much-improved wide receiver room that could expand from the NFL-style rotation of four or five players typically employed by Sarkisian.

“I really like that room,” Sarkisian said on Late Kick with Josh Pate. “At the end of the day, I think we’ve put a lot on Xavier Worthy for two years. When he came in as a true freshman there was a lot on his plate — he handled it and he took it and he had to know everywhere and move everywhere. There was a lot and he played a lot of snaps and a lot of reps and Jordan Whittington as well.”

So the newfound depth will help expand the rotation to keep players fresh and threaten more parts of the field, forcing defenses to make more difficult choices than simply committing a safety over the top of Worthy to take away the downfield passing game.

“We’ve got a really talented room, I think one where we can spread the field a little bit more, one where guys aren’t feeling like I have to be the one to make the play, and Xavier’s got to beat double coverage every play, because AD Mitchell’s a good player, Jordan Whittington is a good player, Isaiah Neyor is a good player, Johntay Cook can be a player, not to mention, how are you going to defend JT Sanders?”

The addition of Mitchell in particular changes the offensive dynamic — the Texas native caught touchdown passes in all four College Football Playoff games in which he appeared, including the go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute remaining in last year’s semifinal against Ohio State. At 6’4, Mitchell has the prototypical height and length of an outside receiver while still possessing high-level twitchiness and change of direction at 194 pounds.

In the Orange-White game, Mitchell flashed his game-changing ability, coming down with a one-handed touchdown catch from Ewers, arguably the most standout play of the scrimmage.

Mitchell’s presence reduces the pressure on both Worthy and Neyor, providing another potential depth threat to complement Worthy and reducing the pressure on Neyor to contribute early in the season roughly a year removed from his knee injury.

Meanwhile, Sarkisian named Cook as one of the standout players from the first five practices in preseason camp with the DeSoto product drawing praise for his coachability and comfort level schematically.

“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.

For all three freshmen receivers, the emphasis for Sarkisian and new position coach Chris Jackson is to identify ways in which they can contribute, especially in non-conference games against Rice and Wyoming that will help determine how many snaps they receive once Big 12 play begins.

“Everybody’s journeys a little different to become the player that they can be,” Sarkisian said. “We try to push them as far as we can. We try to figure out the things that they’re really good at. We try to get a baseline knowledge of where they’re at schematically so that when the games come around, we’re putting them on the field to do the things that they have shown us to do well in practice, so that they can build confidence like ‘Okay, this is where I’m supposed to be.’”

Under Sarkisian, the unquestioned gold standard at wide receiver in recent years was the 2019 Crimson Tide room that featured four future first-round draft picks, including 2020 Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. Texas still has more potential than production as a wide receiver corps, but this group should look more like the offenses fielded by Sarkisian at Alabama.

“Historically, for me when we’ve had our best offense is when we’ve been able to deploy people across the field that make it difficult for you to kind of pin down and hone in on and in turn, the ball can get spread out when the quarterback knows where to go with the ball. Guys can make plays in space because they’re getting those one-on-one matchups,” Sarkisian said.

Having some versatility in the group will help Sarkisian move his wide receivers around to exploit mismatches, like he did against Washington in the Alamo Bowl when Worthy ran past a linebacker in coverage before dropping a would-be touchdown pass.

“I’m very comfortable with more than two out there right now on our team and obviously Xavier, we know what he is. Sometimes I think he’s almost better in the slot than he is outside. I mean, he’s a very versatile player,” Sarkisian said. “I would add that Isaiah Neyor is very unique with length and their ability to make contested catches. I think Johntay sometimes falls into the mold of a day where he’s kind of a complement inside and or outside and then Jordan kind of being very comfortable in the slot.”

The ultimately goal is to achieve the balance that every offensive coordinator wants and then use Sarkisian’s schematic ability to get his pass catchers into space.

“If we can deploy five people onto the field, you can’t double everybody and load the box and stop the run. And so I think that that’s something that we’ve been trying to build towards on our roster. We feel like we kind of got it right this year,” Sarkisian said.

“And now the quarterback understanding distributing ball and getting those guys the ball in space, because all those guys —JT included and all those runners — they’re hard tackles in space. They’re hard people to get on the ground in space. So if we can deploy people right on the field and we can get the ball to them in a timely fashion and accurately, not only should we get completions, I think we can create some run after the catch better than we have in the last couple of seasons.”