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2021 Season

Big 12 Spring Wrap-Up: Longhorns Hoping Sarkisian Can Take Them To A New Level

Texas has big expectations, but what can they expect from their new head coach in Year One?

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Getty Images - Tim Warner

Spring football is drawing to a close throughout the Big 12, and teams have started gaining more clarity as to what their 2021 squads are going to look like. As they head into summer workouts, we’ve gotten into some tentative impressions of all the teams, providing a projection of offensive and defensive starters for the upcoming season (returning starters in bold) as well as some post-spring observations.

For over a decade now, the University of Texas has been trying to climb back into the company of the elite of college football. The heyday of the 2000s was followed up by one of the worst – if not the worst – decades of football in program history. Under former head coach Tom Herman, the program was elevated from struggling for bowl eligibility to competing for a spot in the Big 12 Championship on a relatively regular basis. Despite three AP Top 25 finishes under Herman, however, the once-ballyhooed head coach was let go following what was thought to be a disappointing 7-3 campaign where Texas fell short of getting a title shot.

Former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian takes over the job at a time when the Longhorns have painstakingly built a small bit of momentum, but are looking to once again become a team that plays at an top level week-in and week-out. Texas has certainly recruited well enough to suggest they can do that, but it’s been a while since recruiting rankings have translated into on-field results. Sarkisian is hoping to have that type of impact immediately, and we offer some thoughts on his prospective chances below.

Projected 2021 Texas

Depth Chart

OFFENSEDEFENSE
LTChristian Jones (Jr.)OLBRay Thornton (Sr.)
LGDenzel Okafor (Sr.)DLKeondre Coburn (Jr.)
CJake Majors (So.)DLMoro Ojomo (Jr.)
RGJunior Angilau (Jr.)OLBJacoby Jones (Sr.)
RTDerek Kerstetter (Sr.)LBDavid Gbenda (So.)
TECade Brewer (Sr.)LBDeMarvion Overshown (Sr.)
QBCasey Thompson (Jr.)DBD’Shawn Jamison (Jr.)
RBBijan Robinson (So.)DBBrenden Schooler (Sr.)
WRJake Smith (Jr.)DBJerrin Thompson (So.)
WRJoshua Moore (Jr.)DBJosh Thompson (Sr.)
WRTroy Omeire (Fr.)DBChris Adimora (Jr.)

The Offense Should Be Able To Produce

It’s no secret that Sarkisian, considered one of the better offensive minds in the country, came to Texas with the expectation that his teams will be able to score points. In that respect, there doesn’t appear to be much of a rebuild that’s needed. The Longhorns averaged 42.7 points per game last season, which was seventh best in the nation. A bigger challenge for the new offensive staff might actually be to make sure that Texas can maintain that level of point production.

Finding a new starter at quarterback will be the biggest obstacle there. According to the staff, no one’s won the job as of yet, but the more seasoned Casey Thompson took the majority of reps with the first string in the spring game. Thompson’s primary competition is heralded redshirt freshman Hudson Card, but whoever gets the start come September will do so for the first time in their college careers. Sarkisian has a good track record with quarterbacks, but there’s definitely a question about how fast he can get that position rolling.

The good news is that sophomore Bijan Robinson, who will have four of five offensive line starters back in front of him in 2021, looks like he could be one of the best backs that Texas has had since joining the Big 12. If the Longhorns can produce a passing game that is as productive as a ground game that averaged 180.2 yards per game against Big 12 defenses last year, the offense should be a top unit nationally once again.

“Coach K” Has Some Work Cut Out For Him

After a 2020 in which the Texas defense gave up an average of 406.6 yards per game, this seems like the side of the ball with the most room for improvement. This unit was up and down last season, but defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski didn’t exactly inherit a bare cupboard. Defensive linemen Keondre Coburn and Moro Ojomo are expected to have a strong season up the middle, and senior DeMarvion Overshown has grown into the role of linebacker since moving down from the secondary. Add to that some transfers and a position switch for senior Brenden Schooler from wideout to defensive back, and there are pieces there for the staff to work with.

Not to mention, this was a defense that held up fairly well against the run, holding opponents to 140 yards per game, and the Longhorns also tallied 14 takeaways in Big 12 play. The key tasks for Kwiatkowski are helping Texas generate a pass rush and developing a secondary that can hold up in coverage more consistently. Realistically, the Longhorns should anticipate getting better with an entire offseason under the new staff.

One is left to wonder how long might it take – or even if it will happen – for “Coach K” to get similar results at Texas that he had with some of those stingy Washington defenses, who gave up on average less than 20 points per game in five of seven seasons with the Huskies. It makes sense for there to be optimism in Austin about that coming to fruition eventually, but to expect too much in Year One seems like a big ask.

We’ll Find Out If Sarkisian Has The Answers

Because of the high expectations at Texas, it is easy to forget that the program has improved over the course of the past few years, albeit incrementally. It feels like there is a piece of the puzzle here that’s still needs solving for the Longhorns to once again be the elite program they once were, and perhaps Steve Sarkisian can be the guy who finally gets Texas “back.” Nothing about his track record suggests that’s necessarily true, however, so only time will tell.

As far as 2021 goes, though, it is fair to expect Texas to continue to be one of the better teams in the Big 12 Conference. Sarkisian was not given a roster that he’s going to have to completely rework, but there aren’t enough big names coming back on either side of the ball to say this team will compete for the conference title this upcoming season. Still, one of the toughest years to project is usually a head coach’s first at his new gig, so it is definitely possible for a Sarkisian-led Longhorns squad to surprise come the fall.

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