June 15, 2024

Steve Sarkisian had one key piece of feedback for athletic director Chris Del Conte when he studied his potential roster while interviewing for the Texas coaching job.

“We need bigger humans in our program, and we need more of them,” he recalled at Big 12 media day in 2022. “The numbers weren’t the way I would’ve liked it and the body structure … there’s just a lot to it.”

Sarkisian’s first year seemed to bear that out. The Longhorns finished 5-7, and he said multiple times there needed to be a lot of new faces on the roster. And there was a reason: The Longhorns’ highly touted recruiting classes in 2018 and 2019 brought in nine offensive linemen. But by Sarkisian’s first year, four were no longer on the roster.

Now, as No. 3 Texas sits at 5-0 heading into the annual Red River Rivalry showdown against No. 12 Oklahoma (noon ET, ABC/ESPN App), it’ll be the biggest test to date of Sarkisian’s project to return Texas to glory.

Last year, Texas won the golden hat for the first time since 2018 in devastatingly dominant fashion, handing Oklahoma its biggest shutout loss in school history (49-0). It was the highest-scoring game for Texas in the 118-game series. But inconsistency plagued the Longhorns the rest of the season, going 4-3 from then on, en route to an 8-5 finish.

So far, those big humans are making their presence felt in Texas’ strong start (its first 5-0 start since making the national title game in 2009). On defense, 6-foot-4, 362-pound T’Vondre Sweat is a run-stopping force who has helped the Longhorns allow just 3.07 yards per carry, their fewest in their first five games since 2010, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On the other side, an offensive line that returns all five starters from a year ago averages just over 6-4 and about 325 pounds. Texas is one of seven teams nationally to average more than 190 rushing yards (191.8) and allow fewer than 95 (94.6) per game.

Sarkisian’s offense has always been the star attraction. It attracts talent, with his first recruiting class headlined by Ja’Tavion Sanders and Xavier Worthy, who instantly became two of Texas’ best and flashiest offensive weapons. He added some strength the next year with DJ Campbell and Kelvin Banks, two of those offensive linemen, who were the most highly rated recruits in the ’22 class, according to ESPN Recruiting.

But the biggest difference in this year’s success over past years has been the defense, which will be tested by a Sooners offense that is No. 3 nationally in scoring (averaging 47.4 points) and No. 7 in passing (352.4 yards).

The Longhorns have added big pieces on that side of the ball. In 2023, linebacker Anthony Hill Jr. was a five-star signee who ranked behind only quarterback Arch Manning in the Texas class. He has already made a big impact with two sacks on third-down plays against Alabama, including on the Tide’s final offensive drive to help Texas seal the win. Senior transfer Jalen Catalon came from Arkansas and has provided a physical presence at free safety, making seven tackles against Alabama and a big hit on Saturday against Kansas that led to a fumble.

Plugging newcomers in alongside stars like Jaylan Ford, the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, has allowed the Longhorns the luxury of newfound depth to rotate heavily.

“I think it’s been huge,” Sarkisian said this week of the defense. “We’ve gone through first halves of games where we played upwards of 30 guys. Sometimes you don’t feel the effect of that rotation in the first half. But naturally, you look at some of these fourth quarters we’ve been having now. … I think we’re more fresh physically. We’re more fresh mentally.”

As a result, the defense is stifling opponents. Compared to their first five games over the past 20 years, the Longhorns are allowing the fewest yards per game since 2010 (290.8). They’re pressuring opposing QBs on 37% of plays, best for the Longhorns since ESPN has been tracking the stat in 2011. Opposing QBs are off target on 18% of their passes and have completed just 53.5% of their passes.

Senior Jahdae Barron said the players can trust that whoever is in the game can get the job done.

“When we look to the left and right of each other, we know that we are all brothers, and we’ve all been through so much throughout the summer, and we know that we are a family,” Barron said. “We’ve built a bond on and off the field so we know how to play for one another and we just keep playing.”

It also has allowed the offense to keep from panicking. On Saturday, the Longhorns led Kansas just 13-7 at halftime. By the end of the game, it was 40-14.

A year ago, it was likely either running back Bijan Robinson or receiver Worthy would be the stars quarterback Quinn Ewers had to lean on in key moments. On Saturday, Georgia transfer Adonai Mitchell had a career day, catching 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown, with Worthy adding seven catches for 93 yards.

Sophomore running back Jonathon Brooks has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in three straight games, including a 218-yard, two-touchdown performance against Kansas. Sanders, who was injured against the Jayhawks, should return and already has two 100-yard receiving games this year as a rare talent at tight end, with five catches for 114 yards against Alabama.

Mitchell was quick to say how much having Worthy on the other side helps him.

“It’s crazy how much attention he gets and how the defense just has to respect who he is,” Mitchell said. But Sarkisian said the presence of Mitchell is a difference-maker for Worthy, too.

“For Xavier to catch seven balls last year, it would take about 14 or 15 attempts in his direction because everybody knew we have to throw it there,” Sarkisian said after the Kansas game. “Now all of a sudden, when you have a complementary receiver on the other side, sooner or later people are going to start paying more attention to No. 5 [Mitchell] and with JT [Sanders] and with Jordan [Whittington] and now the running game with Jonathon the way he’s running, now we’ve got a really good variety of players that the ball can get spread around to.”

Of course, all of that helps Ewers, who has an embarrassment of riches and doesn’t have to do it all. He’s averaging 271 passing yards per game with 10 touchdowns to just one interception. Opponents have gotten pressure on just 24% of his dropbacks, Texas’ lowest rate since 2016.

Ewers also has started to trust his running ability when all those offensive threats attract coverage, rushing for 30- and 29-yard touchdowns in the past two games, two of his four rushing scores this year.

“He’s figured out, ‘Man, maybe I’m a little faster than I thought.'” Sarkisian said.

It’s all part of what Ewers said was a new dedication this offseason to getting in better shape.

“This is where I want to be,” Ewers said. “I think I took a lot of time analyzing myself last year and I want to be able to do stuff like this and I think I really worked on it this offseason. For it to start working out, it’s pretty cool.”

Sarkisian said on Monday he’s preparing for a bit of a chess match against Oklahoma’s Brent Venables, who he said has “been doing it too long at too high of a level to think they weren’t going to get that thing fixed” after last year’s 6-7 meltdown, in which they finished 122nd in total defense, allowing 461 yards per game.

“They’ve got a lot of defense,” Sarkisian said. “They’ve got a lot of coverages. They’ve got a lot of pressure packages. So you know, it’s definitely challenging on that front. Especially when it’s all on the same accord and working well together.”

But Texas has been building for this moment. In the two titans’ final season in the Big 12, they’re both 5-0 for only the third time in the rivalry’s history.

“We know it’s going to be a great challenge,” Sarkisian said. “We’re looking forward to it, looking forward to seeing our fans in Dallas for, in my opinion, the best setting in college football. This is going to be an awesome environment.”

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