AUSTIN, Texas — Within days after the NCAA transfer window opened in December, Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian faced a pressing problem.
And it wasn’t just how to scheme up a way to beat the Washington Huskies in the Sugar Bowl as the Longhorns made the program’s first appearance in the College Football Playoffs — he was on the verge of returning three scholarship wide receivers.
Backups Isaiah Neyor and Casey Cain had just entered the NCAA transfer portal and standouts Xavier Worthy and AD Mitchell were virtual locks to enter the NFL Draft a year early. Fifth-year senior Jordan Whittington was about to exhaust his eligibility.
The wide receivers coming back, all 2023 signees didn’t feature much experience, either — Johntay Cook appeared in all 14 games, playing 125 snaps and catching eight passes fo 136 yards, DeAndre Moore Jr. did not catch a pass in 58 snaps over six games, and Ryan Niblett saw the field for five snaps over three games.
As buzz mounted that quarterback Quinn Ewers was leaning towards returning for his third season on the Forty Acres, the question became — who is Ewers going to throw to in the SEC?
Early in the transfer window, Texas was linked to South Carolina transfer Juice Wells and Purdue transfer Deion Burks, but it was ultimately coaching changes that shaped how the Longhorns rebuilt the wide receiver room through the portal.
Just before Thanksgiving, Houston fired Dana Holgorsen. Days after the portal opened, news emerged that standout Cougars wide receiver Matthew Golden was set to enter, immediately making him an obvious target for the Longhorns program.
The former Klein Cain star was offered by Texas late in the 2022 cycle following his decommitment from TCU, but at that point Houston had been recruiting him for about 15 months and the hometown school won out.
The evaluation from former Longhorns wide receivers coach Andre Coleman was late, the type of mistake that caused Sarkisian to fire Coleman a year after retaining his services from the previous staff.
With a chance to correct the recruiting mistake, Golden quickly became the clear top target for the Longhorns because of his proven production and fit in Sarkisian’s offense as a receiver with the top-end speed to threaten a defense over the top and the dynamic ability after the catch to feature on run-pass options and the screen game.
Days after entering the portal, Golden committed on an official visit to the Forty Acres, bringing with him two years of eligibility and career totals of 76 catches for 988 yards and 13 touchdowns, as well as two kickoff return touchdowns in 2023.
Fallout from Nick Saban’s retirement at Alabama helped Texas land an elite slot receiver in Isaiah Bond, whose recruitment after entering the portal was about as simple as that of Golden — the Longhorns were an obvious landing spot, buzz built, and the Georgia product committed on his visit.
“Just like the business world, you make the best decision for your company,” Bond told ESPN after pledging to Texas. “My company right now is my draft stock. I feel like I’m putting myself in position to increase that and have better draft stock.”
As with Golden, the staff had a previous relationship with Bond built when Texas targeted the nation’s No. 52 prospect in the 2022 class out of high school.
“Isaiah Bond is here from Alabama, an electric receiver for us, a guy that we recruited hard out of high school, Buford High School in Georgia, went to Alabama, really had a tremendous year for them this year,” said Sarkisian. “Great deep-ball player, deep threat, elite speed. We think there’s more to his game than just that, so we’re looking forward to work with him.”
During Bond’s breakout sophomore season with the Crimson Tide, he recorded 48 catches for 668 yards and four touchdowns, but catching passes from Ewers was an appealing proposition, especially when combined with an experienced offensive line.
“He’s a great big-time pocket-passer quarterback. He’s a top pick in the draft next year. I’m also going to be a top pick. It’s going to be a good duo,” said Bond.
Texas finished the portal class at wide receiver with Oregon State transfer Silas Bolden, who departed Corvallis weeks after head coach Jonathan Smith and saw his visit plans drastically impact by the fallout from Saban’s decision — Arizona and Washington were scheduled to receive visits from Bolden after his trip to Austin, but as the coaching carousel turned, the California product shut down his recruitment.
“Silas Bolden is the other one who is still at Oregon State. He’s going to end up being a grad transfer. He’s going to graduate this semester at Oregon State and then he’ll join us in June. Another elite speed receiver for us, veteran player had a great year last year at Oregon State,” said Sarkisian.
Bolden capped his career with the Beavers with 54 catches for 746 yards and six touchdowns in 2023 while providing value as a return man with a 59-yard kickoff return and a 65-yard punt return touchdown.
“What the portal does for a school like us, it can help you fill the voids when the voids happen,” said Sarkisian.
When new wide receivers coach Chris Jackson arrived in Austin in late January, he was behind other recruiters establishing relationships with top prospects and faced with the difficult task of convincing Texas Tech legacy Micah Hudson not to sign with the Red Raiders. The Longhorns ultimately missed on Hudson and some other top in-state prospects, but landed two high three-star prospects during the summer in Lucas Lovejoy’s Parker Livingstone and Smithson Valley Freddie Dubose.
“Parker Livingstone, again, coming from a really good program at Lovejoy, I went and saw him play in person a year ago against Melissa and was extremely impressed, myself and Coach [Kyle] Flood watched the game,” said Sarkisian. “He’s got great length. He has great ball skills. But the thing where he surprises you is he will run away from you in a hurry and he’s got a very high football IQ. So I think we’re getting a very good player there.”
Dubose is raw, but has the upside of a higher-ranked prospect.
“I think we all can see Freddie’s competitiveness, playmaking ability, one-on-one playmaking ability, so we’re excited about what he brings,” said Sarkisian.
The huge coup at wide receiver in the 2024 recruiting class was landing St. Louis product Ryan Wingo in October over home-state Missouri, which made a late surge before Early Signing Day before Wingo signed with the Longhorns. A consensus five-star prospect through most of the cycle, Wingo possesses high-level attributes.
“We’re getting your prototypical, if you could go in the lab, how you would want to make a receiver — 6’2, 205, great length, he has elite speed, great long speed. Again, unbelievable young man comes from a great family. Really good high school program. Brother played in the NFL. So we’re getting a football player that I think is going to fit in well to our system,” said Sarkisian.
The Longhorns closed the high school class by adding more speed late in the early signing period when Calabasas product Aaron Butler committed to Texas over Arizona and Washington without visiting Austin, a fortuitous decision thanks to the coaching changes that followed.
So in a matter of weeks, the Longhorns went from facing a serious issue in depth and talent at wide receiver to completely rebuilding the room with high-level contributors from the portal and upside from high school.
“We lost two receivers that declared early for the NFL draft in Xavier Worthy and AD Mitchell. We had a few other receivers decide to transfer on their own. All sudden after that Sugar Bowl, I looked up and I had three scholarship receivers on our roster. Okay,” said Sarkisian.
“We had three receivers committed out of high school, that left us with six, so we signed one more high school kid in Aaron Butler to get us to seven, and then we went and took three transfers that got us to the to the number 10 at the receiver position, which is more of an ideal number to have on your roster. So that was really helpful and beneficial for us.”
Taking three receivers from the portal raised questions about whether Texas recruited over the 2023 recruiting class. Beyond the fact that Golden and Bond are in Austin with the hopes of making the same jump that Mitchell and Worthy did and Bolden is a one-year addition regardless, Sarkisian maintains his confidence in those young returning pass catchers.
“We’re always trying to field the best team we can field. Again, every player we recruit onto our roster here, we have an expectation that they’re going to contribute to our team and to our team success. How far they take it remains to be seen. But the three guys that are coming back in in Johntay Cook, DeAndre Moore and Ryan Niblett, they’re all very, very talented young players or we wouldn’t have recruited them. They’ve got size, they’ve got speed, they’ve got ball skills, and their future is very bright.”
And the fact remains that Sarkisian fundamentally didn’t have a choice.
“To think I was gonna go into a season with three scholarship receivers, that would have been malpractice, so I’ve got to I’ve got to try to fill our roster with enough depth at that room,” said Sarkisian.
With nine scholarship players on campus for spring practice and Bolden arriving in the summer, Sarkisian and his staff, including quarterbacks coach AJ Milwee, have time to integrate the new players and start determining a rotation.
“I think that whole group, that room is going to be really solid. We’ve just got to find that right group of guys by the time September rolls around. Coach Jackson, myself, Coach Millwee, we know that we’re the three primary guys that work with that group of identifying strengths, working on weaknesses, and then fielding a unit that can play at a really high level that I think they’re capable of.”