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College Football Preview 2021: 22. Texas Longhorns

Bijan Robinson, Texas

 22. Texas Longhorns

Big 12 Title contention is too much to ask of Sarkisian's debut, but Robinson will keep them in the hunt

2020 Review
With record-setting quarterback Sam Ehlinger back in the fold and Tom Herman entering his fourth year as head man, expectations were unsurprisingly extremely high in Austin entering 2020. After surviving an overtime scare from Texas Tech in late September, the Longhorns dropped a heartbreaker to TCU a week later. They'd lose a chaotic thriller to Oklahoma the next week to drop to .500, and although they recovered enough to go 7-3, it still felt like a disappointment. In mid-December, AD Chris Del Conte announced Herman would be retained for 2021, but then just a month later he was unceremoniously dumped for Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian. "Sark" has previously been head coach at Washington and USC and becomes the third coach UT has hired to take over the program since Mack Brown was forced out in 2013.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Ehlinger wraps up his Longhorn career No. 2 on most major Texas records, including all-time yards and touchdowns, coming in just behind Colt McCoy. Although he never got the Longhorns quite over the top like he infamously promised, he was often the heart and soul of the offense through the Herman years. With his departure, UT must start anew at the quarterback position.

Casey Thompson came on in relief of an injured Ehlinger in the Alamo Bowl and threw for four touchdowns. That performance gives him the upper hand over redshirt freshman Hudson Card, but that showing was in front of a completely different coaching staff. Don't be surprised if Card comes out and takes the starting job; the Austin native has more upside in the long-term than Thompson.

The good news is that no matter what happens with QB, Texas has a budding superstar in sophomore tailback Bijan Robinson. Robinson set a school record by averaging 8.2 yards per carry last fall and likely would've been a 1,000-yard rusher, except for the fact he wasn't used as much as most Longhorn fans would've liked. He finished off the season averaging under nine attempts per game and nearly completely split carries with backup Roschon Johnson. Although Johnson remains, expect Robinson to get even more chances to show his stuff. He has Heisman-level talent, and most of the staff believes he may be the best Texas has had at the position since Ricky Williams was in town.

There's experience at receiver, but it will be interesting to see whether a true "alpha" is able to step up and lead the aerial attack. Junior Joshua Moore led the team in every major receiving category a season ago and has the talent to do it, but will have to build a connection with a fresh signal-caller. I had previously projected a massive breakout for fellow junior Jake Smith in 2020 and although his numbers were decent (23 catches, 294 yards, 3 TD), I would have liked to see more. It didn't help that Smith battled through injuries in the early portion of the 2020 campaign and then broke his foot in the spring. He has since been cleared to go for summer practice and his potential as a deep threat is real. Converted running back Jordan Whittington is another name to watch out wide, as are youngsters Troy Omeire and Xavier Worthy. Omeire was receiving a lot of attention during a superb spring last year but tore his ACL before the season began, while Worthy is one of the gems of the 2021 Class.

Herman and his staff did do a great job improving the offensive line, which has been regularly bad under the prior Charlie Strong administration. Expect that growth to continue, as Sarkisian brought in Kyle Flood to be the offensive coordinator and OL coach, following a great stint in Tuscaloosca. The only notable piece gone is Samuel Cosmi, who opted out of the 2020 season with a few games remaining. Outside of that, four starters are returning, which includes a pair of All-League talents in Denzel Okafor and Christian Jones. 

Even before his run at Alabama, Steve Sarkisian earned a reputation as an elite offensive mind, which he hopes will continue in Austin. He'll call plays for the Longhorns, and there's enough pieces to feel really good about this unit, which was second in the Big 12 in scoring last season, averaging nearly 43 PPG.

Defense: Tom Herman fired coordinator Todd Orlando after a frustrating 2019 season and replaced him with former Rutgers head coach Chris Ash. Ash had an extremely difficult job, rebuilding a defense in the middle of a global pandemic. The results were mixed, as they finished about middle-of-the-pack in the league in total defense, but were the nation's 19th-ranked unit in terms of yardage.

Ash was not retained by Sarkisian who instead made an intriguing hire by bringing in former Washington co-DC Pete Kwiatkowski. Kwiatkowski, who paired with current UW head coach Jimmy Lake, led some really stellar Husky defenses over the years, but UT is a different challenge altogether.

The front seven will really miss their top pass rusher, linebacker Joseph Ossai, who led the team with five sacks. However, the defensive line is still in good shape as junior Keondre Coburn is a proven piece at nose tackle, and sophomore Alfred Collins is ready to become a star. Collins, who was a prized recruit a year ago, was absolutely dominant in the Alamo Bowl and may be the most talented defender on this entire roster.

Linebacker is a concern that will need to be addressed if Texas wants to once again have one of the conference's better rush defenses. In addition to Ossai leaving, Juwan Mitchell also transferred out after leading the team with 62 tackles. Weakside LB DeMarvion Overshown is still around and now becomes the unquestioned leader of the unit after a tremendous 2020 in which he tallied 60 tackles and picked off two passes. It's unclear who will join him in Ossai and Mitchell's departed spots; former LSU transfer Ray Thornton is the favorite to start on the outside "JACK" position, but middle linebacker is a real problem.

There's also reason to be somewhat concerned about the secondary, after the Longhorns finished among the nation's worst pass defense teams in 2020. There's a healthy amount of experience back, particularly at corner, so there's reason to be excited about potential improvement. Seniors D'Shawn Jamison and Josh Thompson are the slated starting corners. while sophomore Kitan Crawford is a name to watch.

Safety is at a really interesting spot, as Texas loses an NFL talent in Caden Sterns but still has some nice pieces. Senior B.J. Foster is a former five-star recruit still looking to fulfill his vast potential. He has played in 31 games during his Longhorn career and started 16, so at least there's experience. The other starting spot is up for grabs between sophomore Jerrin Thompson and "supersenior" Brenden Schooler. Schooler, who began his career at Oregon, played wide out for the Longhorns last year but moved to defensive back over the off-season.

Special Teams: Cameron Dicker is a major return at kicker, as he was twice earned All-Big 12 recognition and hit 15-21 on field goals a season ago. Punter is also in fairly good hands, as senior Ryan Bujcevski looks to recover from an ACL injury that cost him the final few games of last year. 

Bottom Line: There's even more optimism than usual in Austin these days, following what Sarkisian did as Alabama OC in 2020 and how he rounded out his staff. Sarkisian will have an easier job than his predecessor as a nice foundation is in place on both sides of the ball. That doesn't mean that Year One won't be without challenges for the new head coach. How does he handle the distinct cultural and social challenges that hampered Herman throughout the end of his tenure? How does he handle a difficult schedule that not only includes the neutral site game with Oklahoma and road trips to TCU and Iowa State, but also non-conference games against Arkansas and Louisiana-Lafayette? There's enough talent here to push towards a double-digit win debut, but anything more than that is too much to expect, even at a place like Texas.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (6-3 Big 12)
Offensive MVP: RB Bijan Robinson
Defensive MVP: LB DeMarvion Overshown
Breakout Player of the Year: DT Alfred Collins
Impact Freshman: WR Xavier Worthy

Recruiting Breakdown
Due to the entirely new staff and odd timing of the Sarkisian hire, Texas and their 2021 Class were lower than usual, finishing at No. 15 in the country. That doesn't mean there isn't the usual collection of future NFL talent, assuming it's developed right. Five-star athlete Ja'Tavion Sanders is the big name and can play either side of the football. The staff went out on and landed Xavier Worthy from California and then went into Florida and stole Jaden Alexis, the son of former NFL veteran Rich. They also seemed to place a real emphasis on the secondary, with several highly touted defensive backs, including Dallas product Ishmael Ibraheem.

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