Where were you on September 1, 2017?
You may have been on your way to Austin for the first Texas football game under the watch of head coach Tom Herman. Excitement for the new era under a Dave Campbell’s Texas Football cover-coach was rampant. The cake, which had supposedly been baked, was only lacking icing the Urban Meyer acolyte and his staff would provide.
Where were you on September 2, 2017?
In the morning, you were probably nursing… okay, gulping… your beverage of choice followed by a Kool-Aid chaser. Holton Hill’s pick-six to start the game probably made you think Texas may have been… actually… back.
As the game wore on, that all changed. Texas lost to the Maryland Terrapins in Austin. The Showband of the Southwest spelled H-E-R-M-A-N out on the field at halftime. Its timing could not have been worse. Longhorn football, as IT’s Paul Wadlington proclaimed, had a staff problem.
The cake assuredly had not been baked. The ingredients that went into making Charlie Strong’s cake had little chance of becoming consumable with his ham-fisted baking techniques.
It may be easy to think that, four years later, history will repeat itself. But the program is a long way from Maryland. Here’s why.
This is a quality offensive line
The fivesome that started versus Maryland, from left to right, was Connor Williams, Patrick Vahe, Zach Shackelford, Jake McMillon, and Tristan Nickelson. Williams and Vahe were mostly known quantities, but were still very young. Though Shackelford’s story had yet to be fully written, at the time it was going through its “young sophomore afflicted by injury” phase. McMillon was an unproven defensive convert. Nickelson gave great effort, but was severely limited.
For Sarkisian’s opener, he enters with a line from left to right: Christian Jones, Denzel Okafor, Jake Majors, Junior Angilau, Derek Kerstetter. Better put, fourth-year junior, sixth-year senior, true sophomore, fourth-year junior, fifth-year senior.
Compared to 2017, that’s a stellar O-line. Compared to lines around the country, that’s a quality O-line. This group will offer Hudson Card protection a step above what Shane Buechele received in Herman’s opener.
Kyle Porter isn’t walking through that door
Against Maryland, Buechele led the Longhorns with… prepare yourself… 15 carries.
Behind him were Kyle Porter with eight carries and Chris Warren with six carries. Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Jerrod Heard also toted the rock one time apiece.
Buechele: 15 carries, 21 yards, one touchdown
Porter: 8 carries, 21 yards
Warren: 6 carries, 31 yards
Humphrey: 1 carry, 21 yards
Heard: 1 carry, four yards.
Don’t expect that to happen again. Bijan Robinson is the undisputed lead back for Sarkisian, and likely will serve as the focal point of the entire offense. He should receive up to 20 touches per game, and even if Texas gets into a deficit against the Ragin’ Cajuns, he’ll be a part of the effort to dig the Longhorns out of it.
Whether the game reaches a moment of desperation for the Longhorns or not, Robinson brings talent the 2017 running back group simply could not provide, even if you assembled each player’s best attribute. He’ll have a higher quality offensive line to run behind, too. His backups, Roschon Johnson and Keilan Robinson, each would have been Herman’s best option in 2017.
In 2017, after Andrew Beck was lost in camp, the position consisted of Garrett Gray, transfer Kendall Moore, and true freshman Cade Brewer.
In 2021, the position consists of fifth-year senior Cade Brewer, junior Jared Wiley, and a stable of promising true freshmen.
True freshman Gunnar Helm, Sarkisian’s third tight end, would be a better option than those available to Herman in his first season.
Between the headsets
Remember the most recent national title game?
That guy is running the show. While recruiting may be somewhat stagnant, Sarkisian didn’t just forget how to call plays and run an offense. Will he have to adjust to not having players like Mac Jones, Najee Harris, and DeVonta Smith? Of course. Are there still strong options available with players like Bijan Robinson, Xavier Worthy, and Joshua Moore? Of course.
Texas chose Sarkisian, but Sarkisian also chose Texas. He wouldn’t have walked into a situation in which he didn’t think he could succeed early, and he has said as much.
What about the defense?
Defensive coordinators entering their first year at Texas have been able to reap the benefits of good timing and their predecessor’s strong recruiting. Charlie Strong inherited Jordan Hicks, Quandre Diggs, and several others who make a living in the NFL. Todd Orlando had similar good fortune.
New defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has a senior-laden secondary and experience and depth in the trenches. He may experience another first-year bump like Manny Diaz, Strong, and Orlando before him, but PK has experience in making those performances last and the defensive roster sets up well in Year 2 as well.
There’s some credit to be given to Herman and his former personnel department. He left Sarkisian in a position to do well in his first year and likely beyond, as UT won’t need to “rebuild” after natural attrition following the season.
If there’s a perceived trap coming in the form of Louisiana, it’s a different situation from that of four years ago today.
After all, the program has come a long way from Maryland.