ARLINGTON, TX – Steve Sarkisian showed his Texas players two PowerPoint slides before they left for the Big 12 Media Days at AT&T Stadium on Wednesday. On the first slide were all the headlines crowning the Longhorns as the most talented team in the conference. The second slide contained news grabs predicting Texas once again wouldn't be able to live up to the hype.
The message? Preseason accolades don't matter. Sarkisian's group is comfortable shouldering the pressure of being picked to win the Big 12 for the first time since 2009.
"We all chose to come to the University of Texas," Sarkisian said. "With that comes responsibility of understanding there’s a standard and expectation to compete for championships year in and year out. Just because people think that’s who we are, doesn’t mean anything. Ultimately, we’re going to be defined by the way we actually play.”
And Texas has finished with a lower conference standing than predicted in seven of the previous nine seasons because they have fell short on the field. Sarkisian's 13–12 record thus far hasn't been an exception to the underachieving theme.
But Wednesday, he said this year's team was different. After two complete recruiting cycles, he believes he's morphed the Longhorns' roster to that of the loaded Alabama teams he served as offensive coordinator for.
"Going into Year 3, I think we’ve gotten really quality competitive depth on our roster across the board," Sarkisian said. "Our players know when they go to practice every day the guy in the same line as them, whether he’s behind them or in front of them, is probably equally as talented as him if not better.”
Texas retained their top three receivers from last year and added Georgia transfer Adonai Mitchell and five-star Johntay Cook II to the room. Jaylan Ford, the preseason Defensive Player of the Year, will line up alongside five-star Anthony Hill Jr. Former All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon joined a defensive backfield with established starters Jahdae Barron, Ryan Watts and Jerrin Thompson.
And former five-star, No.1-overall recruit Quinn Ewers prevailed in a healthy competition with five-star, No.1-overall recruit Arch Manning.
There were moments last season when Ewers looked like a top 10 NFL Draft pick, such as when he picked apart Alabama's defense before sustaining a shoulder injury and returned from the absence to pilot a 49-0 romp over Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry. Then, there were glimpses where he looked like a redshirt freshman who hadn't played a meaningful snap of football in two years, like when he completed 38 percent of his pass attempts in a loss to Oklahoma State or the offense put up three points against TCU.
For the first time in his football career, Ewers had moments where he appeared mortal. He said it motivated him to attack the offseason focusing on the areas he could improve instead of relying on the many aspects of his game he does well. He posed with other Texas quarterbacks to show off a startling physical transformation. Wide receiver Xavier Worthy said he took the next step as a leader and is now the "head of the snake."
"I never really had a season like I did last year, in my entire life," Ewers said. "Going through those ups and downs was a little bit tough for me. But at the end of the day, I learned a whole lot that I’m able to take with me this year and apply that.”
Sarkisian credited Ewers for not wavering in the face of adversity. The quarterback displayed accountability whether he was throwing for 289 yards and four touchdowns against Oklahoma or going through some freshman lumps.
"You go read about the quotes he had after that game, all he did was praise his teammates for how well they played," Sarkisian said. "And then you look at him after we don’t play great against Oklahoma State and we suffer a loss, and he took all the blame. I think right then, you found out the type of leader that he is.”
He'll have plenty of weapons at his disposal. Worthy, who's currently third in school history with 21 touchdown receptions through two seasons, was the only unanimous selection on the preseason All-Conference team. Jordan Whittington gave the offense a boost when he elected to return for a fifth season. Tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders broke out last year with 54 receptions for 613 receiving yards. The only problem, there's only one football to share.
"As long as there’s enough balls to win the game, there’s enough balls to keep us happy," Whittington said. "If one person eats, we all eat.”
But for years, Texas has had a talented quarterback and a bevy of options at wide receiver. Since 2010, the Longhorns have signed 30 four and five-star wide receivers. Over the past decade, Texas faltered as a program because of lagging offensive lines. Seven Texas linemen were selected in the NFL Draft from 2000 to 2010, compared to just two from 2011 to present. Former head coach Tom Herman signed 10 four-star linemen in five recruiting classes. Sarkisian has signed eight in his first two cycles.
The Longhorns return all five starters on the offensive line, headlined by freshman All-American Kelvin Banks Jr. at left tackle. While the young prospects from Sarkisian's recruiting are intriguing, established veterans Jake Majors and Christian Jones provide leadership.
"We’ve recruited the position well over the last two years, and it’s a highly competitive room," Sarkisian said. "We have guys vying for starting spots right now that didn’t start a year ago, and that’s exactly what we want.”
The move to the SEC is imminent, but it must wait one more year. Texas opened its tenure in the Big 12 with a conference championship in 1996, and they plan to exit the same way. The Longhorns have their most talented team in a decade, and most of the leaders will depart after this season before they get a chance to play in the SEC. So all that matters right now is ending the season hoisting the trophy at AT&T Stadium.
"We’ve got a roster full of players who, quite frankly, came to the University of Texas to try to win a Big 12 Championship," Sarkisian said. "We’ve got one more opportunity to do that.”
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