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College Football Preview 2023: 14. Texas Longhorns

Quinn Ewers, Texas

14. Texas Longhorns

There are no more excuses this year; it's conference title-or-bust in UT's final Big 12 run

2022 Review
Texas opened up with Louisiana-Monroe last fall, but the season really began when they welcomed Alabama to Austin in Week Two. It was the perfect way for the program to test itself with the move to the SEC looming, and they didn't disappoint. They outplayed the Tide for nearly the entire four quarters but fell just short, 20-19. It was the type of game that you can almost count as a win because of how impressive the Longhorns looked, and they seemed to build on it with a three-touchdown domination of UTSA a week later. Unfortunately, the same old demons resurfaced at Texas Tech, as the 21st-ranked 'Horns lost an overtime thriller, 37-34. They recovered with a three-game win streak that was halted on the road in Stillwater and after beating Kansas State, watched their offense falter against TCU. A pair of victories to end the regular season offered a bright spot but in their third Alamo Bowl in four years, they came up short against Washington. All in all, an 8-5 record marked solid progress for Steve Sarkisian and staff but per usual, left Texas fans thirsting for more. As they prepare for their final season in the Big 12, there's more pressure than ever in what feels like a make-or-break campaign.

2023 Outlook
Offense: After an inconsistent offensive showing in 2021, the Texas offense seemed to find their footing last fall. Sarkisian seemed to have a better understanding of the personnel on the roster and seemed more comfortable as a play-caller, resulting in a group that averaged 34.5 points per game. There's reason to believe Year Three will be even better, as the 'Horns are absolutely loaded with weapons on this side of the ball.

It's Quinn Ewers team now, as the nation's former No. 1 recruit enters his second season as starting quarterback. Ewers flashed superstar potential over the course of 2022 but dealt with injuries and the normal growing pains of being a first-time starter. The result was a 2,177-yard, 15 TD performance that could set the stage for a true breakthrough this fall. Ewers seems to have embraced the pressure, cleaning up his image and going through the offseason with a renewed focus. He has Heisman-level talent, but as is always the case at Texas, putting it together for an entire season is the goal.

The health of Ewers will be particularly vital, as backup Hudson Card transferred to Purdue. Texas did bring in one of the most hyped football prospects in recent memory in Arch Manning and redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy remains on the roster, but neither have seen any live game action at this level.

The biggest question on the entire roster is likely at running back, as Bijan Robinson moves on after three impressive seasons in Austin. Robinson was finally 100 percent and used to his full potential, resulting in a year in which he ran for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns. His departure will be an obvious storyline, and losing steady backup Roschon Johnson isn't an insignificant loss.

That leaves the Longhorns deciding between an unproven cast of characters at tailback, including junior Keilan Robinson, sophomores Jayon Blue and Jonathan Brooks, and freshman C.J. Baxter. Robinson is the old man in the room, but isn't much more than a special teams weapon, while Brooks is the top returning rusher. The door is open for Baxter, considered one of the nation's top RB recruits, to come in and immediately see carries.

Fortunately, the aerial attack should alleviate most of the pressure on the running game. Ewers is blessed with what is arguably the nation's best receiver corps, one brimming with talent and depth. The headliner is Xavier Worthy, who totaled 760 yards and nine touchdowns in 2022. There were rumors that several programs took a swing on Worthy through NIL incentives, but the junior is committed to the Longhorns.

Aside from Worthy, converted tailback Jordan Whittingon has proven to be extremely reliable when healthy and should make teams think twice about focusing on Worthy. Then there's Georgia transfer Adonai Mitchell and former Wyoming transfer Isaiah Neyor, who would be leading options on just about any other Big 12 roster. Neyor in particular seemed primed for a huge fall a season ago, but tore his ACL before playing a single snap. That could provide an extra bit of motivation for the sure-handed veteran.

With all that talent out wide, it's easy to forget about tight end, but Ja'Tavion Sanders is the type of player that can create headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. At 6'4", 240 pounds with elite athleticism, he's a matchup nightmare who came into his own down the stretch a year ago. He's the top tight end in the league and should be a Mackey Award favorite, particularly in this offense.

Offensive line is the position group that took the biggest jump last season and now, all five starters are back. It's a phenomenon that should set this apart from previous Texas teams, as these blockers should give the 'Horns an edge and ferocity that has been absent for too long.

Sophomore left tackle Kelvin Banks is the star of the line, a former five-star who started all 13 games as a true freshman. He'll pair with a proven veteran, Christian Jones, on the exterior, while Jake Majors, Cole Hutson, and Hayden Conner overwhelm defenders on the inside. All of these five should be in the running for All-Big 12 recognition and combine to form a Joe Moore Award contender.

All the ingredients are in place for this to be a special offensive season in Austin. Ewers is the most talented signal-caller this program has had running the show in some time, the pass-catchers are elite, and the line play will bully opponents. It's hard to see any scenario, with the exception of injuries, where this is not the Big 12's best and one of the best nationally.

Defense: Rebuilding the Texas defense has felt like a never-ending struggle stretching back to the late Mack Brown years, but this group seemed to turn a corner last season. They were overall very consistent and put up numbers across the board. Just as important, they showed up in some of the biggest games on the schedule, even if the offense didn't always match their performance.

Although the defensive line did lose several pieces to the NFL, it still appears to be in fairly good shape. Junior end Barryn Sorrell was a pleasant surprise in 2022 and should cement himself as the team's top pass rusher, while senior tackle T'Vondre Sweat is a proven commodity. The opposite end spot is a weak spot as it stands today but this is Texas, so there's no shortage of talented options.

Sweat is unquestionably the tone-setter on the interior D-Line, but I think there are several players that have potential to emerge. Minnesota transfer DeAngelo "Trill" Carter flashed plenty of upside in the Twin Cities but never quite put it together. He could benefit from having even more talent around him, that will open up opportunities. And, I still believe in junior Alfred Collins, who looked on his way to stardom with an impressive 2020 campaign, before a pair of quiet years. You'll rarely see a player at 315 pounds move the way Collins does, but something has been missing the last few years. It feels like it's now or never entering his fourth year on campus.

The linebacker corps helped the rush defense take major steps forward in 2022, but the architect of that revival, DeMarvion Overshown is gone. The physical linebacker was drafted in the third round of this spring's NFL Draft, leaving a big void in production and leadership. However, middle linebacker Jaylan Ford was the one who actually paced Texas in tackles a year ago and is back in the fold.

Ford will man his position on the inside and at outside linebacker, there's a whirlwind of hype surrounding newcomer Anthony Hill. Hill is the top player at his position in the Class of 2023 and impressed throughout the spring. He's penciled in as a starter already, although he'll still have to earn this job.

There was again solid progress on the back-end in 2022, as the Longhorns improved from one of the worst pass defenses in the Big 12 to about middle-of-the-road. Can they continue on that upwards trajectory? There are some losses, notably D'Shawn Jamison and Anthony Cook, but enough returning experience for the unit to be strength in 2023.

Corner Ryan Watts was one of the Longhorns most consistent defenders after transferring over from Ohio State and should lead the pass defense. The corner spot opposite of him will be an interesting watch now that Cook moves on, as Wake Forest transfer Gavin Holmes is battling several candidates, including sophomore Terrance Brooks and redshirt freshman X'Avion Brice. Holmes brings proven experience to the table, but was never able to quite break through on some leaky Wake Forest defenses.

At safety, junior Jerrin Thompson emerged as a reliable tackler and also proved to be a pest in coverage, batting away seven passes. He's likely to be joined by Arkansas transfer Jalen Catalon, assuming he can stay on the field. Catalon has proven he can be an impact player, but knee injuries have stunted his growth over the last several years.

Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski enters Year Three with what looks to be his best defense yet. Although there will be some new faces, there's a healthy amount of experience throughout and several helpful transfers at need positions. Playing up to their potential has always been a struggle on this side of the ball for Texas, but they look like they should be able to carry over the momentum they earned during the back-half of 2022.

Special Teams: There were significant questions on special teams entering 2022, mainly due to the loss of star kicker Cameron Dicker, but they were a pleasant surprise. This season, the Longhorns bring back Bert Auburn at kicker after he hit 21-26 field goals and at punter, Stanford transfer Ryan Sanborn is a proven commodity. Keilan Robinson has also proven to be a tremendous returner, meaning this unit should be a strength once again.

Bottom Line
If you gave me this exact roster with no indication that it had a Longhorn on the helmet, I may pick it to win the National Title. There's that much talent, that much playmakers, and just an overall positive direction permeating throughout the roster. But, this is Texas. The program has turned in a staggering run of seasons in which they haven't been able to come close to the preseason hype, a run of consistent disappointments. Even last season, a year in which they turned the corner in many ways, they still lost five games through close defeats and bad injury luck. Is this the team that can reverse that trend? I think they certainly can, and there's never been a better time. The Big 12 is wide open and the Longhorns won't get these types of opportunities when they move on to the SEC. But, even putting this team 14th in the national rankings and picking them to win the Big 12 feels difficult for me and I worry that the natural volatility of the league could catch the 'Horns up in the fray. So, in short: I'm endorsing Texas, but in about as lukewarm of a way possible.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Steve Sarkisian has long had a reputation for being a great offensive mind, going all the way back to his time at USC under Pete Carroll. After getting his start as head coach at Washington, Sarkisian returned to USC as head coach, but problems with alcohol led to his dismissal during the 2015 season. Sark's redemption has been an inspirational story, as he won the Broyles Award as Alabama OC in 2020 before taking the Texas job. He still calls plays at Texas, although former Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood holds the offensive coordinator title. On defense, Pete Kwiatkowski enters Year Three as coordinator after a long run under Chris Petersen at both Boise State and Washington. 

Recruiting Breakdown
Recruiting has never been the issue at Texas and the 2023 Class is again one of the best in the country, coming at third in the 247Sports Composite. The Class is headlined by Arch Manning, one of the most hyped recruits in recent college football history and the nephew of Peyton and Eli Manning. At 6'4", 210 pounds, Arch has the looks of an NFL quarterback, but it's likely he'll wait his turn at UT behind Ewers, at least for one year. Manning is one of four five-star prospects in the Class, including linebacker Anthony Hill, tailback C.J. Baxter, and wide receiver Johntay Cook II. Both Hill and Baxter could be in line for significant snaps as true freshmen and both were in Austin for the spring. Another name that could see immediate snaps is corner Malik Muhammed, a four-star from Dallas. Texas kept him away from several other big-time programs, namely Alabama and Texas A&M, and Muhammed's skill-set indicates he should be able to acclimate to the collegiate game quickly.

2023 Schedule Analysis
Although it will be the final year in Big 12 play for Texas, they will get a nice glimpse of what SEC life will be like when they travel to Tuscaloosa on September 9. The Longhorns gave the Tide all they could handle a season ago, but going on the road to Bryant-Denny will be a whole different animal. The rest of the non-conference, which includes Rice and Wyoming, should be a breeze before the Longhorns travel to Baylor to begin conference action. The annual "Red River Showdown" with Oklahoma will take place on October 7th this year before a bye that sets the Longhorns up nicely for the back-half of their schedule. That back-half includes a pivotal three-game stretch that includes Kansas State at home, and road tilts with TCU and Iowa State. It's likely that stretch will determine whether Texas has a chance to play for their first Big 12 Title since 2009.

2023 X-Factor: Quinn Ewers, QB
For all the attention and hype as Arch Manning has received in recent years, it's easy to forget just how much of a superstar Quinn Ewers was coming out of high school. He was the nation's consensus No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2022 before reclassifying and enrolled at Ohio State a year earlier. After transferring to Texas, Ewers flashed that superstar potential with the 'Horns last fall, but with it came some understanding growing pains and an unfortunate rash of injuries. As he prepares for his second season as starter, it feels like Ewers could be on the precipice of something special. He's seemed more focused this offseason and seems to have his sights on lofty goals, but can he handle all the pressure that will come with it? Ewers seems to have his head on straight and it helps that the Longhorns are loaded with talent offensively, but maintaining his play week-to-week and staying on the field will determine what type of season it will be for him. He truly has Heisman talent, but it wouldn't be a complete shock if injuries or inconsistent play capped his ceiling. That's what makes Ewers one of the most compelling players to watch in college football this fall.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big 12, Win Big 12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Quinn Ewers
Defensive MVP: LB Jaydan Ford
Impact Freshman: RB C.J. Baxter
Impact Transfer: S Jalen Catalon
Breakout Player of the Year: CB Terrance Brooks

Five-Year Trend

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