The honeymoon barely began before adversity struck Steve Sarkisian in his first season coaching the Texas Longhorns. An embarrassing loss at Arkansas in Week 2 was followed by a six-game losing streak during Big 12 play. Texas fired Tom Herman after a 7-3 record in 2020. Sarkisian’s Longhorns went 5-7 last season.
The added knowledge of an upcoming move to the SEC puts Texas in an interesting spot. The Longhorns clearly can’t compete for an SEC title if they fail to consistently challenge for Big 12 glory. The problems plaguing the Longhorns for more than a decade will only be magnified with a jump up in competition. Sarkisian’s crew has one or two seasons to prepare for the move. Alabama visits Austin in Week 2 to provide the Longhorns, and their fans, a glimpse into the upcoming challenges.
To put an end to a Texas-sized slump inside the football program, the players are taking charge. The upperclassmen realized the secret to success wasn’t as simple as switching coaches. The onus is on them to bring pride back to the Forty Acres.
“The only way this team improves is by being a player-led team,” linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said. “We’ve had different coaches and different nutritionists and strength coaches, but at the end of the day, the players play. We need everybody taking that approach to every workout.”
Sarkisian witnessed positive steps taken by his program from last year to 2022. The schemes on both sides of the football remained the same. Most of the coaching staff returns. The offense retained stars such as running back Bijan Robinson and wide receiver Xavier Worthy. The defense brings back a deep experienced line to pair with Overshown’s leadership. Baylor went from 2-7 in 2020 to Big 12 champions in 2021. The Longhorns plan to make the same type of move up the rankings in 2022.
“We’re getting closer, and if we weren’t, I’d be worried,” Sarkisian said. “In this game, you either deal with the pain of discipline or the pain of disappointment. I’d much rather go through the pain of discipline, and we had to learn that the hard way a year ago.”
The Longhorns led at halftime in their first four Big 12 losses last season. Texas was up 38-20 in the Red River Rivalry. The team also led Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Iowa State at the break before suffering second-half collapses like the one against the Sooners. Those defeats crushed any remaining optimism in the locker room, which snowballed into defeats against Kansas and West Virginia.
Texas knows a successful 2022 requires the ability to close. The Longhorns motto in the offseason was “Finish.” Nearly every aspect of the program was built around the idea that 60 minutes of all-in football is a must for Texas to rebound and compete for a conference championship.
“Our record doesn’t tell you the team we were last year,” Overshown said. “We had those games in the bag, but little plays here and there cost us. Our hardest part of practice is at the end because we know that’s what got us beat last year.”
Sarkisian believes the familiarity and continuity of his program in 2022 is the difference between disappointment and success. Talent also helps. The Longhorns added pieces on both sides starting with Ohio State transfer quarterback Quinn Ewers. The former five-star from Southlake Carrol exited spring practice in a position battle alongside Hudson Card. Texas also added wide receiver Isaiah Neyor (Wyoming), tight end Jahleel Billingsley (Alabama), and cornerback Ryan Watts (Ohio State) through the transfer portal.
“Football teams take on the personality of its head coach, and I like to think of myself as a competitive guy,” Sarkisian said. “In the end, we need to be fighters. Football is about fighting through adversity and having the discipline to do it the right way.”
The Longhorns also added the fifth-best recruiting class in the 2022 cycle, per 247Sports’ composite rankings. The group is headlined by a seven-man offensive line class considered the best in the nation. Frisco’s Cole Hutson is already on campus. The other six arrived early in the summer.
The Longhorns upset Alabama and return to the top of the Big 12 thanks to improved play in the trenches and at quarterback.
Big losses to Alabama and Oklahoma prove Texas isn’t quite ready for the SEC and pressure mounts on Steve Sarkisian.
Game of the Year
Alabama at Texas — September 10
The Longhorns, from the players to the coaches to the fans inside DKR Stadium, receive an early showing of future life in the SEC when the Alabama Crimson Tide and Nick Saban visit Austin. Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian was the offensive coordinator at Alabama during a national title season in 2020. Is Texas ready?
The success of Texas’ offense in 2022 is determined by the quality of its running back room, even if the quarterback battle between Quinn Ewers and Hudson Card dominate headlines until Week 1 of the season. The long-storied running back position at Texas is in capable legs with the return of Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson.
Robinson, a former five-star prospect who is likely in his last season at Texas despite being a junior, led the team with 1,127 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in 2021. He was also tied for second on the team with 26 catches. Johnson, a former quarterback, ran for 569 yards and five touchdowns. He topped the 100-yard mark in Texas’ final two games with Robinson out due to injury and averaged .1 yard more a run than Robinson.
“It’s a blessing to be part of the running back fraternity at Texas,” Johnson said. “To see the guys who’ve come through here at the position is humbling. We must uphold that standard every time we step on the field.”
The wide receiver and tight end position are improved for whichever quarterback wins the race. Xavier Worthy was fabulous as a true freshman in 2021, catching 62 passes for 981 yards and 12 scores. Jordan Whittington was second on the team with 26 catches for 377 yards. The Longhorns added Wyoming wide receiver transfer Isaiah Neyor and Alabama tight end Jahleel Billingsley through the transfer portal.
“The development with our skill position players was encouraging during the spring,” Sarkisian said. “We added more athleticism to our skill position spots while also getting bigger.”
The offensive line remains an area of concern. Sarkisian did praise center Jake Majors, who is entering his third year on campus. The staff also feels good about veteran guard Junior Angilau. The success of the Longhorns in 2022 might depend on the maturation of offensive linemen such as Hayden Conner, Christian Jones, and Andrej Karic. Texas signed the best offensive line class in the 2022 cycle, headlined by five-star prospects Devon Campbell and Kelvin Banks.
Offensive MVP: Bijan Robinson
Robinson, likely in his last collegiate season, is a future first-round NFL draft pick and one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy entering the 2022 season.
Offensive Name to Know: Ja’Tavion Sanders
Sanders spent his first year at Texas playing primarily on special teams with the field goal unit. More is normally expected from a five-star recruit. The Texas staff believes 2022 is the year that Sanders becomes a difference maker for the Longhorns. He’s settled in at the tight end position. Sanders was known for his one-handed grabs in high school. His 260-pound frame makes him a solid blocker.
The Longhorns possess plenty of upside and talent at quarterback with Quinn Ewers and Hudson Card battling for the starting spot. Both lack extensive college experience.
RUNNING BACKS: A+
The unquestioned strength of the Texas offense is the backfield duo of Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson. The duo is the best 1-2 punch in Texas.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: B+
Xavier Worthy is a star. The Longhorns hope slot receiver Jordan Whittington and others add diversity to the passing attack.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
The Longhorns signed a great offensive line class in the 2022 recruiting cycle to add to a group that improved in the second half of last season.
The Texas defense was historically bad in 2021. The unit allowed 31.08 points per game and six yards per play on the season. Opponents gained 426.6 yards per game. The entire defense accounted for 14 turnovers and 20 sacks during a 12-game season. The lack of success was all too familiar for a defensive unit that’s undergone numerous changes over the last few seasons.
“At this level, it is hard to constantly be put in new systems and expect to go out there and play like you did on your high school tape,” starting linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said. “You play slow when you don’t know the ins and outs of a scheme. We know those now and that should help us play faster and with more confidence.”
The strength of the Longhorns defense should be in the interior of their defensive line. Not many programs in the Big 12 can match a four-man rotation of Keondre Coburn, Moro Ojomo, Byron Murphy, and T’Vondre Sweat. The edge is a different story. No returning player on the Longhorns roster recorded more than two sacks in 2021. Head coach Steve Sarkisian was high on Ovie Oghoufo after spring practices.
Overshown leads the linebacker room. The former safety missed spring practices in 2021. He said that missing those physical reps in a new system, and at a new position, hurt him in the fall. Jaylan Ford, a junior from Frisco, emerged as the expected starter next to Overshown. Building depth on the defense remains the next step in Texas’ evolution back to contention.
“We’ve been preaching urgency to everybody because we’re going to play young guys,” Overshown said. “This is the University of Texas; we feel like everybody should be able to step up if somebody goes down.”
The secondary is home to many new faces. The Longhorns added Ryan Watts from Ohio State and Terrance Brooks from the 2022 recruiting class. D’Shawn Jamison and Anthony Cook are the veterans of the bunch. Sarkisian mentioned Jahdae Barron and Kitan Crawford as players who impressed him during spring ball. Baron emerged at nickel back, while Crawford moved to safety.
Defensive MVP: DeMarvion Overshown
The former safety found a home at linebacker, and he’s one of the most electric and athletic second-level defenders in college football, when healthy.
Defensive Name to Know: Byron Murphy
The DeSoto product was named honorable mention Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year after a solid 2021 campaign. The 6-1, 302-pound interior lineman started one game and appeared in all 12 for the Longhorns as a true freshman. Murphy ended the year with 15 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and two sacks. His role should increase even more as a sophomore. Depth in the interior of Texas’ defensive line is a team strength.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Texas should be strong in the trenches with veterans Keondre Coburn and Moro Ojomo flanked by young talents such as Byron Murphy and Alfred Collins.
Someone needs to step up next to DeMarvion Overshown to improve the two-man linebacker pairing preferred by the Longhorns. Jaylan Ford might be that guy.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: C
A mix of experienced players and highly recruited youngsters are hopeful to reclaim DBU for the Texas defense after years of underperforming in the secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
The now departed Cameron Dicker did it all for Texas’ special teams in 2021 as the place kicker, kickoff specialist, and punter. D’Shawn Jamison provides big-play ability as a returner.
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