AUSTIN, Texas — Less than 24 hours after the Sugar Bowl loss to the Washington Huskies, Texas Longhorns wide receiver Xavier Worthy announced that he’s foregoing his final season of college eligibility to declare for the 2024 NFL Draft, a trajectory the Fresno product has been on since a sensational freshman season on the Forty Acres.
Worthy’s departure means the Longhorns are losing one of the best Texas wide receivers in program history who ranks sixth in receptions (197), fourth in receiving yards (2,755), third in touchdown receptions (26), and third in consecutive games with a reception (39) despite playing through a broken hand in 2022, a persistent ankle injury in 2023, and dealing with erratic quarterback play as a freshman.
Of the 1,014 receiving yards recorded by Worthy this season, 571 yards came after the catch, an average of 7.6 YAC per reception even though his average depth of target was 10.3 yards with a 60/40 split between lining up out wide and in the slot.
As a punt returner this season, Worthy experienced a breakout with a 74-yard touchdown return against BYU, another score called back in the win over Iowa State on a questionable call, and a season average of 16.9 yards per return, second in school history.
So Texas not only has to replace a capable depth chart and the team’s most dynamic threat after the catch, special teams coordinator Jeff Banks also needs to groom a new punt returner.
Here’s how the Longhorns are planning on replacing Worthy.
Houston transfer Matthew Golden
As one of the key recruiting misses early in Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian’s tenure as he struggled to find the right wide receivers coach, Golden instantly emerged as the obvious No. 1 target at the position in the NCAA transfer portal when he left Houston in December. Sure enough, only days after Golden officially entered the portal, he took a visit to the Forty Acres and committed to the Longhorns.
“When you get to visit with them and talk to them, they’re made of the right stuff and so they fit in pretty seamlessly for us and so that’s the key if we’re gonna go to the portal,” said Sarkisian of Golden and Clemson transfer safety Andrew Mukuba on Early Signing Day in December.
Sarkisian asks three questions of portal transfers. Do they have the skill set to make us better? Can they fill a need? Would they fit our culture with the mindset that they have?
“Those two guys definitely do that.”
When the Longhorns evaluated wide receivers in the portal, Sarkisian wanted two things at the position.
“One, obviously, an experienced playmaker on the outside who was physical enough to play out there, he has good length, he’s really well put together, he made a lot of big plays over two years at Houston. Clearly in our game, catches two touchdowns that were big catches at critical moments of that game.” said Sarkisian.
In two seasons with the Cougars, the No. 150 prospect in the 2022 recruiting class recorded 76 receptions for 988 yards and 13 touchdowns, including seven catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns against Texas in October when Golden helped fuel a comeback from 21-0 deficit early in the second quarter.
Like Worthy, Golden is dangerous after the catch with 221 yards after the catch this season, an average of 5.9 YAC per reception. His hands also became more dependable as the year went on — all five of his drops came in the first three games before catching 26 of his final 33 targets without a drop.
“But on the flip side of that, we wanted to see if we could find some value in special teams and what he was able to do at Houston in the kickoff return game, very impactful there as well and he is more than adequate in the punt return game,” said Sarkisian.
Golden didn’t serve as the punt returner at Houston, but he was electric as a kick returner in 2023 with nine returns for 321 yards and two touchdowns. Golden had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against TCU and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against West Virginia.
Since Golden dealt with injury issues for much of the season, there’s some untapped upside for him as he arrives on the Forty Acres with notable areas for growth in emerged as a more consistent depth threat and in making more contested catches — on nine targets of 20-plus yards in 2023, Golden recorded three catches for 105 yards and a touchdown while coming down with three receptions on 10 contested catch targets.
Where Golden is already a proven commodity is with his perimeter blocking.
“We’re finding more than just a one-tool player, a guy who’s a physical blocker on the perimeter, can play with the ball in his hands, has the ability to take the top off the defense, but also add value in the return game, so it was kind of the perfect fit for us when it came to what he can project to for our program moving forward,” said Sarkisian.
Rising sophomore Johntay Cook
Sarkisian prefers to develop signees out of high school and Cook fits that mold as an elite prospect from the 2023 recruiting class — a consensus five-star prospect ranked as the No. 29 player nationally and the No. 3 wide receiver, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Coming out of high school, Cook possessed a unique combination as a proven big-play threat at Texas high school football powerhouse DeSoto who worked with well-regarded trainer Margin Hooks to develop as a precise route-runner with technique, but was also known as a natural wide receiver thanks to his strong hands and high-level body control. At DeSoto, Cook totaled nearly 3,000 yards and 51 touchdowns.
“I think probably the guy offensively that I’m really excited about is Johntay. I was kicking myself — I probably should’ve played him more,” said Sarkisian after the loss to Oklahoma. “I think that he’s earned it. He’s practiced well, so hope to see more of him.”
In close games, Cook earned sparse playing time in close games despite Sarkisian’s intent to get him on the field more, although he did receive 11 snaps against BYU, 27 snaps against Texas Tech, and nine snaps against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship game, all blowouts that afforded the backups a chance to see increased playing time.
Of course, the experience and production in front of Cook made it difficult for Sarkisian to take Worthy, AD Mitchell, or Jordan Whittington off the field.
Any time you start rotating receivers, you have to ask yourself if that’s what best for the team,” said Sarkisian after beating Alabama. “I would like to rotate guys more, but I have to ask myself is taking Xavier Worthy, AD Mitchell or Jordan Whittington off what’s best for our team? Last week’s game we only ran 52 plays and it was a tight ballgame, it’s not that the guys who aren’t playing can’t excel, but I have a strong knowledge base with the guys who are out there.”
The 6’0, 186-pounder finished the season with eight catches for 136 yards, most notably a 51-yard reception against Baylor that showcased his explosiveness. Of the 126 snaps played by Cook in 2023, 105 snaps came out wide.
“He’s earning the trust of the coaches,” said Sarkisian in October. “He’s earning the trust of the quarterback that he can be a guy that can go out there and function and play good football for us.”
Now Cook enters a crucial offseason that will feature plenty of first-team reps and some pressure on the DeSoto product to emerge as an impact player next season, including as the team’s potential punt returner after serving in a third-team role in 2023.
Considering Worthy’s assault on the record books at Texas, replacing his production likely won’t fall on one player entirely, so landing a productive receiver from the portal to pair with a high-upside talent like Cook means the Longhorns can mitigate any growing pains from Cook with a proven contributor.