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Steve Sarkisian on Texas coaching staff continuity, additions of Johnny Nansen and Kenny Baker

The Longhorns had to replace two assistant coaches after the Sugar Bowl, but nearly every coach on the staff was offered other jobs, according to Sarkisian.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Texas at Washington John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — In the aftermath of the program’s Big 12 title since 2009 and first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoffs, head coach Steve Sarkisian had to deal with a good and novel problem.

His assistants were in demand around the country.

Addressing the decisions his player faced following the season about declaring for the NFL Draft, entering the NCAA transfer portal, or remaining at Texas, Sarkisian revealed on National Signing Day the interest the Longhorns staff received in the wake of the Sugar Bowl.

“Just about every coach on our coaching staff got offered a job this offseason. Legitimately. And so managing those guys through that, of what’s in the best interest for them, their families, the commitment they made to us, and grateful for those guys for all that they’ve done,” said Sarkisian.

It’s the predictable outcome from the on-field results for Texas in Sarkisian’s third season and stands in stark contrast to how the program and the coaches working for it were perceived after the Horns went 5-7 in 2021 to start Sarkisian’s tenure.

“That comes with success, right? When you play well, you’re gonna have more players thinking about going to the NFL, when you play well, you’re gonna have other schools or the NFL coming and trying to hire the coaches off your staff,” said Sarkisian.

“That’s a good thing, right? Those are problems that, man, I would have loved to have had year one. I wasn’t quite so fortunate in year one, but now to have those problems, man, those are the good problems and so you just try to make sure that you’re there for them on every level that you can be.”

The Longhorns staff did have a small amount of previous turnover as running backs coach Stan Drayton earned the Temple head coaching job in 2021 with some help from his connections to Arthur Johnson, the former Texas administrator who took over as the athletics director for the Owls. And wide receivers coach Brennan Marion, who replaced the other holdover from Tom Herman’s staff, Andre Johnson, took the offensive coordinator job at UNLV last season.

Staff continuity allows Sarkisian to enter his fourth season on the Forty Acres with all three coordinators intact — offensive coordinator Kyle Flood, defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks, as well as strength and conditioning coach Torre Becton. To deal with the heavy demands on a college head coach, Sarkisian’s ability to trust his assistants is paramount.

“If I can’t be at a meeting that day, I know that meeting is gonna get ran the right way and things are gonna get accomplished,” said Sarkisian.

But not every assistant with other opportunities chose to remain at Texas — co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Choate is a head coach again, landing his first chance to lead an FBS program in taking over at Nevada, and defensive line coach Bo Davis returned to LSU, his alma mater.

To replace Choate, who left a talented position room on the Forty Acres thanks to his efforts in the 2023 recruiting class, Sarkisian turned to an old colleague, hiring Arizona defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen, who held multiple roles under Sarkisian at Washington and USC before leading a defensive renaissance in Tucson over the last two seasons.

“Naturally, we’re trying to find the best coaches that fit us culturally, but also that can develop players, that have proven to develop players, and that can recruit at a high level. So to bring in Johnny Nansen from Arizona, who was their defensive coordinator at Arizona and a heck of a turnaround that they had last season. A guy that has worked with me in the past at Washington and USC is a huge addition for us,” said Sarkisian.

For Nansen, the chance to coach at a prestigious program like the Longhorns for his longtime friend was worth giving up his role leading the defense for the Wildcats.

“When Coach Sark called it was an easy decision. It’s a dream come true to work at a place like Texas — with all its rich history and tradition — and reuniting with Sark is a big part of it, too,” Nansen said in a statement released by the school when his hire was announced.

Nansen has a history as a high-level recruiter, serving as the primary recruiter for five-star linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV in 2018 and as the secondary assistant when USC landed five-star cornerback Adoree’ Jackson in 2014 and top-50 prospect Ronald Jones in 2015, a Texas target out of McKinney North. In Nansen’s career as an assistant, he’s credited as the primary recruiter for 14 other four-star prospects.

Arizona credited Nansen with helping to land the No. 2 class in the Pac-12 in 2022, a group that included Rivals five-star wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan, the first five-star prospect signed in school history. In 2023, the Wildcats landed former five-star linebacker Justin Flowe from the Ducks.

The deep ties that Nansen has to recruiting California will take pressure off of Sarkisian to spend his limited coaching visits in the spring on the West Coast. Texas currently has offers out to 16 California prospects, including Jordon Davison, the top target at the running back position, and wide receiver Marcus Harris, both Mater Dei prospects. In the 20224 cycle, the Longhorns signed the No. 3 offensive tackle in the class, Brandon Baker, also from Mater Dei, as well as speedy Calabasas wide receiver Aaron Butler.

“I think historically for me, having a lot of the ties in California has been beneficial. The idea that we could go to California last year and get a Brandon Baker and continue to build upon that and the idea that that footprint in California now is moving east with some of those schools now moving to the Big Ten, into the ACC, that now pretty much every kid in that state is going to be willing to go out of state,” said Sarkisian. “And so Coach Nansen and I have a great history together. I know that he is an ace recruiter on the West Coast and in California. I know we just touched on my time is getting pulled a little thinner that I can just get to California, so to get someone with a strong footprint in California was big for me.”

Born in Samoa, Nansen’s ties to the Polynesian community have already paid off for Texas with the addition of Arizona defensive tackle transfer Tia Savea, who was recruited by Nansen to UCLA out of high school in Las Vegas before following him to Tucson and then to Austin.

If Nansen is the no-doubt, home-run hire for the Horns, the addition of Miami Dolphins assistant defensive line coach Kenny Baker represents a more calculated risk — before spending one season in the NFL, Baker spent just three seasons at the FBS level and has never coached for a Power Five program.

But Sarkisian said that Baker came highly recommended when the Longhorns seemingly missed on the top target, Texas alum Rodrique Wright, who may move from assistant defensive line coach to the defensive line coach of the Houston Texas, though head coach DeMeco Ryans has not yet made that promotion official.

“A guy that every person I called to ask about can’t rave enough about the quality of coach that he is, the way he can relate to the players and be demanding, but yet still relate to them so that they can continue to grow,” said Sarkisian.

While vetting Baker, the rave reviews that Sarkisian received about Baker came from Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel and general manager Chris Grier, among other respected sources in the profession.

“Couldn’t be more excited to have Kenny on board for for what I think he’s gonna bring to us not only on the field, but also from a recruiting ranks,” said Sarkisian.

The Texas head coach is betting that Baker’s ability to relate to players will translate to recruiting, especially in his home state of Georgia, where he also spent five seasons as the defensive line coach at Mercer. Though Sarkisian was quick to reinforce his commitment to recruiting the state of Texas, the Longhorns are also months away from making the move to the SEC, expanding the program’s recruiting base into the Southeast.

“We’re adjusting and we’re moving out of the Big 12 where the majority of the teams are in the state of Texas. We’re moving east and we’re going to Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia that’s now becoming a little bit more of our footprint and so having Tashard Choice in the work that he’s been doing in Georgia and Florida, now we’re adding Coach Baker with his ties growing up in Georgia and starting his coaching career in Georgia, but also having worked with the Dolphins,” said Sarkisian.

After Davis struggled to land elite interior defensive line prospects in the 2022, 2023, and 2024 classes, there’s an immediacy to the need for Baker to develop the big bodies already on campus and to land the type of elite talent and program depth required to compete in the SEC trenches.

Sarkisian has a strong track record of hiring assistant coaches and the continuity on defense will benefit Baker, but it’s arguable that Sarkisian’s new defensive line coach is his biggest gamble.

One important point of data, though? Chris Jackson, the wide receivers coach hired last year to replace Marion, had only spent one season as an on-field assistant at the NFL level and lacked any previous college experience, but still rewarded Sarkisian’s confidence by helping to land four high-level high school wide receivers, including Ryan Wingo, who was considered a consensus five-star prospect through much of the recruiting cycle, and four productive transfers.

Baker’s task is now to replicate Jackson’s success, armed with the recruiting pitch of helping turn the Dolphins defensive line into one of the NFL’s best.