Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian orchestrated a historic offense last season as the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive coordinator, and he did so with a former three-star prospect in Mac Jones behind center, developing him into a first-round draft pick along the way.
Such an effort ultimately earned Sarkisian a head coaching gig in Austin and serves as a key point of confidence in his ability to develop Casey Thompson and Hudson Card as worthy successors to Sam Ehlinger. But the Texas offense excelling in Sarkisian’s debut season isn’t as cut and dry as quality quarterback development.
Just as Jones was surrounded by pure playmakers at Bama — namely, two top-10 draft picks at receiver in Jaylen Waddle (No. 6) and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith (No. 10) — the next Texas QB1 will quite simply need playmaking options to emerge at receiver to mimic some of the success Jones enjoyed during his first season as a starter.
As is, the Texas roster doesn’t feature that definite, proven playmaker at receiver. A variety of injuries to Jordan Whittington, Jake Smith and Troy Omiere, as well as an off-field incident that led to a season-long suspension for Joshua Moore, have considerably limited opportunities and minimized key development time, which, of course, isn’t ideal.
But to be sure, this isn’t a talent problem for Texas as the staff looks to identify and develop playmakers to showcase in Sarkisian’s offense.
A direct result of the injuries, attrition, and general inexperience is that the Texas receivers have collectively totaled just 135 receptions for 1,543 yards and 22 touchdowns throughout their entire careers. For perspective, DeVonta Smith singlehandedly surpassed that effort last season with 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. Of that modest returning production, the bulk belongs to just three Longhorns — Moore, Smith and Whittington, who have combined for 108 receptions for 1,316 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Unsurprisingly, each of them are expected to begin emerging in 2021, and as they adjust to a new quarterback and scheme, a finally-healthy Whittington is the furthest along in that regard.
“I think he’s a guy who’s really learned our system well, he’s probably the furthest along understanding (the offense),” Sarkisian said of Whittington. “He’s been a playmaker so far throughout the beginning of the spring ball and he’s been a real asset on special teams.”
A former five-star prospect, Whittington was a walking highlight in high school as he led Cuero to a state title, but health hasn’t been in his favor in Austin. In his two seasons at Texas, he’s had to overcome two sports hernia surgeries, a knee surgery, and a hip flexor strain that limited him to just five games and 206 yards last season.
Can Whittington’s third season be the charm?
All of the ingredients are there, and it seems his development and grasp of the college game is beginning to follow suit. All that remains is to remain healthy and translate his talent to the field on Saturdays.
“I think this offense is going to be amazing,” Whittington said. “He (Sarkisian) will put you in position to win one-on-one battles. I just gotta win those.”
Given his previous production, Moore may be the one with the most pressure to emerge as a consistent playmaker next season.
After serving what amounted to a season-long suspension in 2019 as he faced charges for unlawful carrying of a weapon, Moore headlined the Texas receiving corps in 2020, leading the team with 30 catches for 472 yards and nine touchdowns, despite minor injuries limiting him to just eight games.
Moore flashes elite speed to beat defenses over the top or break free after the catch and a notable ability to win one-on-one jump balls. That much was evident at times last season, especially to begin and end the season against UTEP and Colorado, respectively, when he hauled in 11 catches for 213 yards and three scores. But then there were stretches like when Moore had only six total catches and was largely non-existent against Baylor, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and TCU.
Of course, the play calling often didn’t do much to benefit the Texas playmakers last season, and Moore suffered as a result. But that isn’t expected to be an issue under Sarkisian’s direction, and if that proves to be true, it’s on Moore to make the most of it.
The 2021 season will mark Moore’s fourth season in the program, so it’s not entirely now or never for him, but it’s close.
Smith has dealt with similar struggles since arriving in Austin.
After flashing as a freshman, Smith looked the part of a star in the making in the slot, but a preseason hamstring injury sidelined him out of the gates in 2020 and ultimately lingered throughout the season, significantly limiting his impact and ultimately, his development as a young prospect. Then, with a clean slate and fresh bill of health entering the spring, Smith suffered another setback with a broken foot during the first spring practice, forcing him to the sidelines for the rest of the spring.
Fortunately for Smith, Texas doesn’t feature a wealth of proven options at receiver, and if he can return to preseason camp and showcase the talent that earned him honors as the Gatorade National Player of the Year not too long ago, Smith should be able to become the kind of speedy, shifty playmaker in the slot that his quarterback will need.
Interestingly enough, despite the potential of a healthy and involved Whittington, Moore or Smith, it’s Omeire who may actually have the best odds to become a breakout receiver for the Horns in 2021, and he’s yet to even play a game.
With an NFL-ready frame at 6’3, 227 pounds, Omeire wasted no time turning heads in preseason camp as a true freshman last year — so much so that there was legitimate buzz that he’d beat out junior Brennan Eagles, who’s now with the Dallas Cowboys, to become the starting X receiver.
Of course, that was until Omeire tore his ACL in fall camp and missed the entire 2020 season. Yet, his raw talent is notable enough that despite spending the spring in a non-contact jersey when he was available, Omeire has now earned the nod as the starting X receiver coming out of spring practice.
It obviously remains to be seen what a healthy Omeire can do in a non-controlled game setting, but again, all of the tools to become a truly special player are there — the frame, the speed, the hands and the catch radius. For Omeire, it seems the only question is whether or not he can refine his raw talent going forward and gain a necessary grasp of the scheme and how to maximize his talent within it.
Elsewhere, Marcus Washington ended the 2020 season on a high note with seven catches for 89 yards and a touchdown in the Alamo Bowl, and hauled in another score from Hudson Card in the spring game, while speedy redshirt freshman Kelvontay Dixon could prove to be a factor if he can make a habit of explosive plays like his 73-yard touchdown against Colorado. And they’ll soon be joined by former Michigan signee Xavier Worthy, the No. 8 receiver in the 2021 class who boasts track speed and could push for reps at the least, or even a starting job as a freshman.
So, Texas isn’t without options — some notably talented options — but to this point, the potential of those options outweighs the proven production. That quite simply has to change as Texas introduces a new starter at quarterback.
Fortunately for the receivers vying for those opportunities, they won’t essentially be locked into a single position as an X, Y or Z receiver and stuck to the sidelines if they finish second — something that became a bit of a theme under Tom Herman with rigid alignments.
In fact, Sarkisian plans to implement the opposite and simply play the best playmakers.
“We don’t operate like that at all. We play the best players, the guys that give us the best chance to be successful,” Sarkisian said of playing receivers almost exclusively as an X, Y or Z receiver. “So we’ve got two receivers on the field, hopefully they’re the two best. And the two guys behind them are the next two best, and so on and so forth,” Sarkisian added. “If we’ve got three on the field, they’re the three best and when I say best meaning, yes, explosive, but also accountable, guys you can trust.”
“And we do label our receivers. But in essence, we really teach conceptually. And so all the guys should be able to learn our concepts, regardless of its X, Z, H, shouldn’t really matter. Because we can move anybody around to any different spot. I think that’s one of the beauties of the system is that we can do that.”
“And that’s how, hopefully, when you’ve ever watched us call offensive football, guys are lined up in different spots on the field. They’re not necessarily playing a different position, we just automatically move them around to get them in position to have success.”
The scheme, in theory, is in place. The talent is in place. Now, Texas simply needs guys to start separating themselves as playmakers, and if they can, as Whittington said, the offense can be amazing and playmakers will be in position to do what they do best.
If not, an offensive breaking in an inexperienced, first-time starting quarterback may quickly become fairly one-dimensional. Regardless of how mature and prepared Thompson might be or how noteworthy Card’s raw talent and upside is, Ehlinger left some sizable shoes to fill and the reality is Texas will likely see some semblance of a regression at the position.
That is unless the Texas receivers can turn their potential into productivity in an offense that’s designed for them to do exactly that.