There’s no quarterback controversy on the Forty Acres. Just ask the head coach.
Steve Sarkisian is not concerned about the looming battle between Quinn Ewers and Arch Manning. That might not be the real contest, anyway. A fight for the starting spot is taking shape between Ewers and redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy. Those were the coach’s words during the second week of Spring practice.
“It was great to have Maalik back out there,” Sarkisian said. “Open competition is really healthy for everybody.”
Murphy suffered a foot injury prior to Spring camp and has worked his way back into contention. The team adhered to a “conservative” approach in his rehab in order to get him healthy again.
“Can Maalik push Quinn?” the coach asked rhetorically. “Of course he can, you know? How far can he take it? Quinn’s job is to keep raising his level of play so he can’t catch him. And that should be at every position across the board.”
Perhaps Sarkisian is playing mind games with his quarterback room. None of the aforementioned signal-callers is an upperclassman. Ewers is the most experienced and he’s only a sophomore. No matter how you interpret the coach’s comments, there’s no room for resting on your laurels in the Longhorns’ Spring camp.
“You can’t get complacent as a player, regardless of who you were a year ago,” Sarkisian said.
Spring Ball: No Complacency at Texas
Was Complacency a Problem in the Past?
Not according to the head coach. Texas fans hope Sarkisian has Texas pointed in the direction of a Big 12 title. It’s conference championship or bust before heading off to the SEC next year.
The quarterback position is an example of how Sarkisian is approaching the upcoming season. The Longhorns had a week of practice before Spring break. Nobody has a position on the team based on past performance, he said as the players returned from a week off.
“Whether you were an all-American, an all-conference, a starter, you can’t just say hey, that’s where I am and this is where I’m supposed to be. You have to continue to strive and work for more and not fall into the same habits,” he said.
Developing players is the key to improving on last season’s 8-5 campaign, he added. Each of Texas’ losses in 2022 was by a touchdown or less.
“Grow as a program? The only way you can do that is growing individually as players, so that will be something we focus on as we continue to move forward.”
Running Back by Committee
Jonathon Brooks continues to rehab from knee surgery. Spring practice came around just as he was going from a rehab regimen to being ready to practice.
“He looks strong,” Sarkisian said of his third-year back. “You can see his body’s changing.”
Texas still has time to find a featured running back. It has a slew of prospects to sift through. The backfield is stocked with Brooks as well as Keilan Robinson, Jaydon Blue, Savion Red, and CJ Baxter. “That room’s got great competition as well,” Sarkisian said. “We know there’s gonna be a new face or two or whatever it looks like compared to what it looked a year ago, so to have Jonathon back is a real positive for us.”
Like the quarterback position, none of the running backs have landed a starting spot.
“I can’t tell a guy right now, hey, whatever position it is, he’s the starter,” Sarkisian said.
New Face on the Offensive Line
Cameron Williams is a big offensive lineman who has caught the attention of many at Spring practice. Not just because of his size at 6-5 and 360 lbs. The freshman vying for playing time has impressed the coaching staff with his speed and agility. “He’s got really good feet,” Sarkisian said. “He’s got a really high football IQ.”
Williams lost weight and gained strength under Longhorns’ Director of Football Performance Torre Becton. The freshman’s rise up the depth chart could earn him playing time as early as this season. Texas returns its entire offensive line from last year, although Sarkisian said he and Offensive Coordinator Kyle Flood are moving players around this Spring.
“He’s (Williams) pushing for a spot on that five, and like we tell the lineman all the time, and Coach Flood and I have believed this at all three of our stops that we’ve been together, we want to play the best five guys,” Sarkisian said.
Update on Edge Rushers
The Longhorns have a solid defensive line heading into the 2023 season. Most of the damage comes from the interior linemen, which means Texas is looking for a few good edge rushers.
In keeping with Sarkisian’s philosophy, let’s assume last year’s sack leader (5.5), Barryn Sorrell, along with Justice Finkley, have not nailed down starting positions. A pair of ends showing “flashes,” as Coach Sarkisian put it, have been Ethan Burke and J’Mond Tapp. Another player on the edge is Jaray Bledsoe, who has the athletic ability to provide the Longhorns with “position flexibility,” he added. The coaches have already been impressed with the camp performance of true freshman Colton Vasek.
“We’ve got a long way to go with that spot,” Sarkisian said.
The ‘linebacker thing’
When asked about the linebacking corps, the coach sounded upbeat. The development of Jaylan Ford, Jett Bush, and Morice Blackwell helps take the sting out of losing DeMarvion Overshown to the NFL. The departure of Overshown, who also led the Longhorns on special teams, resulted in what Sarkisian called the “linebacker thing.”
The biggest leap may have been made by David Gbenda. “David Gbenda has had the best off-season he’s had since we’ve been here,” said Sarkisian.
Huge strides were also taken in the off-season by Blackwell. “He’s a heck of a player,” his coach said. “He plays violently. He plays tough. I think he plays the way we want to play football.”
Also in the mix are true freshmen Anthony Hill and Liona Lefau, the 2022 MaxPreps Hawaii Player of the Year. The linebacker position is stocked with young talent, who show up every day and put in the work.
What happened last year no longer matters. Whether a player was a starter last season or on the scout team, 2023 is a new year on the Forty Acres.
“I just don’t want them to feel like hey this is where I’m at, I was a reserve player last year that’s what I’m going to be this year,” the coach said. “Everybody has an opportunity to grow and to get better. I just don’t want anyone to settle in to think well, this is what I am.”
Life at DBU
While LSU may protest, Texas stakes its claim as Defensive Back U. Keeping the tradition going will be a group of seasoned cornerbacks. “It’s a great competition. We’ve got a lot of good players, a lot of good-looking athletes.”
Locking down the corners will come down to a group headlined by Ryan Watts and which includes Gavin Holmes, Terrance Brooks, X’Zavion Brice, Malik Muhammad, Jahdae Barron, and Austin Jordan. Having so many capable athletes helps the Longhorns when it comes to selecting personnel for its nickel package as well as on special teams. “We’re just trying to create depth,” Sarkisian said, and added, “I think we’ve got much better depth.”
The Texas secondary might get its first test in the season opener on Sept. 2 at home against Rice. The Owls are led by West Virginia transfer JT Daniels, who threw for 253 yards and a touchdown last season in a 38-20 loss against Texas.
The Longhorns have to get through Spring practice before they can get a shot at Daniels and the Owls. “There’s more for everybody to do and to do it at a higher level,” Sarkisian said.