It’s a new era in Austin, as Texas opens its 2021 spring practice under new coach Steve Sarkisian. The Longhorns won 32 games in four years under Tom Herman but only made one appearance in the Big 12 title game. Expectations are high in Austin, and Sarkisian knows how to handle those after working under Nick Saban as the Alabama offensive coordinator for the last two seasons.
Sarkisian is going to be busy with both sides of the ball this offseason. Offensively, Sarkisian has to implement his scheme and sort through a quarterback battle that’s expected to last into the fall. And on defense, Texas has room to improve on the stat sheet, as well as filling out the secondary and improving the pass rush. With 15 returning starters, the Longhorns have the experience returning to contend for a finish in the top 25. This spring is the first chance for Sarkisian to get an extended look at his new squad.
5 Storylines to Watch During Texas' Spring Practices
1. The Quarterback Battle
With Sam Ehlinger off to the NFL, Texas has one of the most intriguing quarterback battles in college football. Casey Thompson – a four-star recruit in the 2018 signing class – will battle Hudson Card for the No. 1 spot, with the outcome not expected to be decided until the fall. Thompson impressed as Ehlinger’s backup last season and delivered a standout performance in the second half of the Alamo Bowl by connecting on eight of 10 passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns. However, he’s far from settled as the No. 1 quarterback. Card ranked higher (No. 59) coming out of high school in the 2020 signing class and attempted three passes last fall. Sarkisian has two options he should feel good about going into ’21. Which quarterback will make a strong first impression?
2. Sort Out the Receiving Corps
Texas has talent here, but there’s work to do in sorting out the depth chart after Brennan Eagles (28 catches) and Tarik Black (10) departed Austin. Joshua Moore (30 rec.) and Jordan Whittington (21) return, and there’s a lot of optimism in Austin surrounding Troy Omeire, who missed all of 2020 due to an ACL tear. Brenden Schooler caught 12 passes last fall but will shift to safety for ’21. This unit already suffered a setback in the first spring workout, as Jake Smith (23 catches in ‘20) suffered a foot injury and is out indefinitely. This unit isn’t a question mark, but this spring is the first opportunity for Sarkisian to evaluate his options, help the players learn the new scheme, and sift through a pecking order on the outside.
3. The Right Five Up Front
Bijan Robinson is poised to rank as one of the nation’s top running backs in 2021, but who will block for him and what positions last year’s starters hold could be up for grabs. Left tackle Samuel Cosmi departed to the NFL, leaving guards Junior Angilau and Denzel Okafor, along with center Derek Kerstetter and right tackle Christian Jones as the key returnees up front. Kerstetter will miss spring due to injury, but he could shift back to tackle after anchoring the interior in 2020. Jake Majors and Andrej Karic are two promising players who will get an extended opportunity to develop under line coach Kyle Flood this spring. The overall play has room to improve here, but the spring isn’t likely to provide a ton of answers with Kerstetter out. Just getting reps and learning the new scheme and assignments will be a good foundation for Sarkisian and Flood to build over the next month.
4. Secondary Concerns
Texas finished the 2020 season ranked fourth in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and allowed just three completions of 40-plus yards. However, new defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and assistant coaches Blake Gideon and Terry Joseph have work to do this spring. Safeties Caden Sterns and Chris Brown departed, and cornerback Jalen Green transferred to Mississippi State. D’Shawn Jamison and Josh Thompson are a proven duo on the outside, while B.J. Foster is expected to start at one safety spot. Chris Adimora is back after playing the nickel role last fall, while there’s depth in the secondary in the form of Anthony Cook (18 tackles), Jerrin Thompson (14), and Kitan Crawford (seven). McNeese transfer Darion Dunn and incoming freshman J.D. Coffey are two other names to watch at this position. Figuring out the early order at cornerback and safety, along with continuing to find improvement tops the priorities here this spring.
5. Spark the Pass Rush
The Longhorns ranked eighth in the Big 12 with 17 sacks generated last fall, so even if the entire depth chart returned, Kwiatkowski would have to work on improving the pass rush this spring. However, with Joseph Ossai (five sacks) and Ta’Quon Graham (two) off to the NFL, the challenge of sparking the pass rush is even tougher. Moro Ojomo (two sacks) and Jacoby Jones (two) are the top statistical returners here, but two transfers – Ovie Oghoufo (Notre Dame – not on campus yet) and Ray Thornton (LSU) could provide some pop off the edge. The defensive front is also counting on a big year from rising star tackle Alfred Collins.
(Screengrab courtesy of @TexasFootball)