What are Sarkisian's top personnel priorities for next season?
New Texas coach Steve Sarkisian inherits a program that isn't in need of drastic repair after a 7-3 finish in 2020. Under former coach Tom Herman, the Longhorns went 32-18 and never won fewer than seven games in a season. However, while the foundation is set and plenty of talent remains in place, Sarkisian still has a lot of work to do this offseason and going forward to return to the top of the Big 12 and elevate this program into consideration for the national title. Sarkisian is one of the best minds on offense in college football and his top priorities this spring come on this side of the ball. Texas must settle its quarterback battle and find ways to get running back Bijan Robinson the ball more in 2021. Additionally, while there were some positive signs on defense in 2020, the Longhorns are still far from where they need to be.
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here’s an early look at five personnel question marks for Sarkisian to address in 2021:
5 Priorities for New Texas Coach Steve Sarkisian in 2021
1. Develop Casey Thompson (or Hudson Card)
Sarkisian was instrumental in the development of Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones at Alabama. With Sam Ehlinger off to the NFL, Casey Thompson is expected to be the frontrunner to win the starting job in 2021. The Oklahoma native ranked as a four-star recruit in the ’18 signing class and attempted 12 passes in his first two years on campus. However, Thompson assumed the backup role in 2020 and impressed in limited time, connecting on 8 of 10 throws for 170 yards and four touchdowns in the Alamo Bowl against Colorado. Fellow four-star recruit Hudson Card played in two games and attempted two passes in his first year on campus. Thompson will be pushed by Card for the starting job in spring practice, but Texas has to feel optimistic about the development of both players with Sarkisian calling the shots on offense.
2. Feed Bijan Robinson
Sarkisian should find plenty of ways to unleash Robinson’s talent in 2021. As a true freshman in ’20, Robinson managed 703 yards and four touchdowns on just 86 attempts and caught 15 passes for 196 yards and two scores. The Arizona native didn’t have a game over 16 carries and managed 355 of his 703 yards over his final two contests. With a full workload in 2021, Robinson has all of the tools to be among the top running backs in the nation.
3. Develop the Offensive Line
Losing left tackle Sam Cosmi early to the NFL is a blow, but Texas will return the bulk of its offensive line in 2021. Senior Denzel Okafor opted to use the extra year of eligibility, and Derek Kerstetter could choose the same path. If both players return, the Longhorns will have four full-time starters back. New line coach Kyle Flood may shuffle the starting positions some, and a few young players – Jake Majors and Andrej Karic – are poised to push for snaps.
4. Find Ways to Get to the QB
Texas managed only 17 sacks in 10 games, and Sarkisian’s new defensive staff has to replace two of the team’s better pass rushers. Joseph Ossai (five) and Ta’Quon Graham (two) are off to the NFL. Moro Ojomo (two) and Jacoby Jones (two) are the top statistical options in terms of returning leaders in sacks. LSU transfer Ray Thornton could play a role in this department. The scheme and how varied the defense will be in terms of fronts used may shuffle some players around, but it’s crucial the Longhorns find a few defenders to create havoc off the edge.
5. Continue the Defensive Improvement and Secondary Tweaks
Texas improved on defense in 2020 after a rocky ’19 campaign. The new staff is likely to tweak the scheme and will have the advantage of a full offseason (and plenty of talent) to find the right mix. Tied into the concerns about the pass rush will be how the defense improves in the secondary after finishing sixth in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense last year. The Longhorns allowed quarterbacks to complete 64.4 percent of their passes. Safeties Caden Sterns and Chris Brown are off to the NFL, and cornerback Jalen Green entered the transfer portal. There’s talent here, but the new defensive staff needs to find the right mix with matchups against Louisiana and Arkansas out of the gate in 2021.
How is the Texas offense going to change under Steve Sarkisian?— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) January 18, 2021
Here's a few areas where the Texas and Alabama offensive game plans were significantly different in 2020 pic.twitter.com/kdDeW83lPf
(Screengrab courtesy of texassports.com)