Spring practice has been a crash course for some of the newest players on the Texas Longhorns football team.
“It’s not easy,” coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We take the training wheels off day one, and you’ve got to learn how to ride this bike.”
For all the hype showered on blue-chip prospects, the time comes to place the accolades aside and put on the uniform. Some take to the college game like a fish to water, while others develop more slowly.
All the early enrollees are fully immersed in the program at this point. As individuals, Sarkisian and his staff are working to find out how to push the right buttons to get the youngest Longhorns to reach their full potential. Across the board, the freshmen are making progress, the coach said.
“The key to the drill is trying to find ways where they can continue to build their confidence because if we just throw it all on them and throw them out there, they’ll never have any success. That can ultimately start to affect the psyche,” Sarkisian said this week.
A Shining Example
This season’s bumper crop of highly regarded freshmen can look to offensive lineman Kelvin Banks as a prime example of where the ceiling is at Texas. Banks started all 13 games as a true freshman last year and was named second-team All-Big 12. It just goes to show what’s possible when you show up ready to play, the coach explained.
“Kelvin has always been a really mature young man. He’s very serious about what he does, whether it’s on the field or off the field, and this spring has been no different,” Sarkisian said of his lineman. “He brings a workmanlike mentality. He strives to get better. He’s a highly competitive young guy that when it doesn’t go right, for whatever the reason is, he wants to get it fixed and compete even at a higher level. He obviously had a heck of a year last year as a true freshman to do what he did at left tackle.”
Banks has new goals that he set with Kyle Flood, the Longhorns’ offensive coordinator, and offensive line coach. Still a young player as a sophomore, he gives this year’s class of freshmen an example of the Texas work ethic under Sarkisian and his staff.
“He’s not satisfied. That’s one of the beautiful things about Kelvin is that he’s hungry. He wants to be special. He wants to be great, and he works at it every day,” Sarkisian said.
New Kids On The Block
Who are the early enrollees making the most noise at Texas this Spring? The group that has separated itself is made up of running back CJ Baxter, linebackers Anthony Hill and Liona Lefau, receivers DeAndre Moore and Johntay Cook, defensive back Malik Muhammad, defensive lineman Sydir Mitchell, and quarterback Arch Manning.
“I think they’ve all done well. I think this group came in, as a whole, with a really competitive mindset.,” Sarkisian said.
What makes this group so special? Many of them arrived in Austin well-coached and highly motivated, having come from powerhouse high school programs. This group has the type of pedigree that Longhorns fans have come to expect. The youngsters are already showing flashes of talent every day at practice.
“They expect to win,” Sarkisian said. “They want to compete and they want to do it at a high level. All of them, to some degree, have flashed in some way, shape or form.”
Time to ‘Cut It Loose’
The Longhorns stayed with the fundamentals when camp opened in early March. The foundation was laid in the opening days, leaving plenty of time to get to the fun stuff. Sarkisian said it was time to “Cut it loose and let guys play,” as the halfway point of camp arrived. He spoke to the media after the eighth of fifteen practice sessions. Spring camp wraps up with the April 15 scrimmage.
Texas continues to focus on its immediate future. “Are we getting better from one practice to the next?” the coach said.
The coaches have been working with the team on game situations, with continued emphasis on effort and fundamental techniques, Sarkisian added. From the early enrollees to the most grizzled seniors on the roster, nothing about that changes on the forty acres. “I like the progress that we’re making. I think that things are moving in a positive direction for us.”
Quarterback Of The Now
Among the most conspicuous storylines of the Spring football season has been the lack of controversy at quarterback. Sarkisian has had nothing but good things to say about sophomore Quinn Ewers during camp. That leaves Maalik Murphy and Manning waiting in the wings.
Ewers put in a solid off-season of winter conditioning and is “growing” into year two, his coach said. “He definitely feels more comfortable. Almost a sense of he’s throwing the ball very naturally, very comfortably. From a decision-making standpoint, the reads are just happening that much quicker, that much more decisive.”
“I don’t expect him to be perfect right now,” the coach added. “He was very intentional this off-season of getting himself in a really good space, physically and mentally, and I think it’s showing.”
DL Collins Has ‘Taken Another Step’
To hear Sarkisian describe it, he’s always been an Alfred Collins guy.
“A year ago, it wasn’t about the talent, it was about the consistency in the play and his style of play,” the coach explained.
Now a senior, the defensive lineman is earning glowing praise for his standout performance at spring practice.
“And when Alfred plays that way, which he’s doing right now, where he’s consistent at the point of attack, he can use his length, he has great athleticism, he can close on the ball, and when he plays really violent like he’s doing right now, he’s a real problem. And I think that we’ve seen that here in the first half of spring from him.”
When asked to identify players pushing for additional playing time, the first name from the coach’s mouth was Kitan Crawford at safety. Crawford was a stalwart at special teams last season, which is a surefire way to get Texas coaches to notice you.
Crawford is a senior who is making impact plays in his bid for a starting role this fall. “He’s playing really well at safety for us right now,” Sarkisian said. “He’s communicating at a high level, he’s making plays on the ball, he’s playing fast, (and) he’s definitely maturing so he’s one guy that definitely stands out to me.”
Crawford joins what the coach called “core players” on special teams. The elite roster includes defensive back Jerrin Thompson, linebacker Morice Blackwell, and running back Keilan Robinson. This is the group that sets the tone for what is expected on special teams, Sarkisian said.
Some of the youngest Longhorns can be found on special teams, where they can earn their way onto the field. That was how it went for Crawford.
Sarkisian said he feels, “A lot better about the depth on the offensive line,” after having signed 12 linemen in the last two years.
Everybody by now knows the storyline for the Longhorns’ line this season. All five starters return, and expectations are high. The O-line, a concern heading into last season, took its lumps and returns as an experienced, but a still young, unit.
“It’s a talented group. They’re obviously big, but the one thing they’re going through is the growing pains of being young players and learning the fundamentals and techniques to go along with the scheme, and then trying to block good players on the other side of the ball,” Sarkisian noted. “As they’re working themselves through it, you take the small victories and try to build off those small victories and keep getting better.”
The Running Backs
Limited by injuries to Robinson and Jonathon Brooks, the Texas backfield has been less crowded this spring.
In a world where the glass is half full, it provides a chance for young, up-and-coming players to get added reps. Managing the health of the team and finding out which young players can play remains a never-ending process for every coach.
“One of the challenges at running back that makes it difficult is we can’t go live every day. We won’t make it as a team,” Sarkisian said.
“But the runners probably need the most live reps,” he added, “so that we can gather enough information as far as can they take care of the football, can they pass protect, can they create explosive runs, can they break tackles?”
The anticipated return of Robinson and Brooks helps ease the concern at running back. It’s easier to keep things in perspective during the spring, the coach said.
“We’ve got a whole summer conditioning program to go through, so I’m not as pressed for somebody to take the bull by the horns right this second. Ultimately, by the time the games roll around, somebody’s got to be the first guy to jog off the sideline when we break the huddle, but we’ll figure that out. We have time for that.”
Big Play Offense
The Longhorns need more big plays on offense, the coach said. Texas should be able to generate more of them with its returning offensive line and a stacked receiving corps.
“Our offense doesn’t quite work that way it’s supposed to work if we don’t hit some of those plays. I don’t expect us to be a hundred percent. Any time you throw a ball beyond fifteen, twenty yards, the percentage is naturally going to drop, but we try to create those opportunities down the field.”
Sarkisian said producing big plays was a “huge point of emphasis” during spring camp and that he was “starting to see the benefits.”
Photo courtesy: Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK