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Gameplan: How does the 2021 class fit Sarkisian’s vision?

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Texas’ incoming class for 2021 is now more or less complete with the passing of NSD2. Most of the thought and analysis these days occurs around NSD1 when the strong majority of recruits sign. For Texas, the complicating factor is the fact they hired a completely new staff in between NSD1 (to the shock of newspaper readers) and NSD2.

Football is football and most of these players will be in the same positions regardless of who is coaching them to play the game. However, a lot of positions and schemes are changing which will bring differences in how these players’ skill sets and talents will project at Texas.

So here’s a rundown for 20 of the 21 new Longhorns and how they’ll be impacted by the new schemes brought by Steve Sarkisian and his staff. For punter Isaac Pearson, hopefully the only serious development in his utilization is a decreased demand for his skill.

Quarterback

Charles Wright: 6-1, 194. 3*** from CTX (Austin)

Wright is unquestionably one of the big winners from the coaching transition. He was a big winner when Tom Herman fired Tim Beck and brought in Mike Yurcich, who then cleared out Texas’ existing quarterback class before circling back to Wright when they needed a 2021 take as insurance before the Quinn Ewers era.

Yurcich’s offense was bringing more of a RPO and play-action bent to the Texas offense than Herman’s quarterback run-heavy system, but Sarkisian’s offense is even further along the pocket quarterback trail. Austin High asked Wright to be the engine for a sizable chunk of their offense. He averaged 38 pass attempts and 12.4 rushing attempts per game, often pairing each on quarterback run RPOs in which he had to threaten the perimeter with his arm and the interior with his legs.

The reason he got a scholarship offer from Texas is what he did with his arm in the RPO game and throwing down the field often on double moves. Those dimensions were also the primary features in the 2020 Mac Jones Alabama offense Sarkisian just coordinated. Texas became an even better fit for Wright with the Sark hire. The local quarterback will have the chance to grow into the job both mentally and physically, and the job will be one that fits his skill set and projection. The “Colt McCoy” energy around Wright definitely increased with Texas’ staff changes.

Running back

Jonathan Brooks: 6-0, 185. 4**** from STX (Hallettsville)

Brooks is a pure running back prospect. He has amazing lateral agility that allows him to set up and find holes and then enough burst to hit the hole. He’s the type who can learn to be effective in a variety of running schemes as what makes him amazing is his balance and ability to accelerate AND decelerate. He can cut and go faster than opponents can adjust. Once he’s adjusted to running lower against Big 12 defenders Brooks should be able to learn how to manipulate defenders in multiple schemes.

Wide receiver/tight end

Gunnar Helm: 6-5, 225. 3*** from CO (Cherry Creek)

Helm is a big, fluid receiver whose move to tight end is guaranteed by his frame and inevitable future as a 250-pound (or bigger) collegian. Under the Herman staff he’d be sentenced to a redshirt and three years of toil under the rod of Yancy McKnight before seeing the light of day. He still may face that fate, sans McKnight, but Sark has shown a willingness to involve multiple tight end sets and to flex receiving tight ends who aren’t terrific blockers. Those are both wins for Gunnar Helm while he adds the strength and knowhow to block inline.

Ja’Tavion Sanders: 6-4, 240. 5**** from DFW (Denton Ryan)
Sanders is a bigger winner still from the new philosophy in tight end deployment. Sarkisian sees tight ends as potential vertical RPO targets and not just mobile bludgeons for generating two-back run game concepts. Denton Ryan threw Sanders 16 touchdown passes and a fair percentage of them were goal line fades where he posted up some helpless corner and went up and one-handed the ball.

Sarkisian is going to see him as Austin Sefarian-Jenkins 2.0 and know just what to do with his skill set.

Casey Cain: 6-2, 175. 3*** from NOLA (Warren Easton)
Casey Cain was a Mike Yurcich special. The former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator was convinced they had something in Cain similar to some of the overlooked 3-stars the Cowboys would regularly develop into big time stars in the Big 12. Was he right?

The hangup with Cain is his lack of elite speed. His body control and hands are both fantastic. It’s not hard to imagine him as a chain-moving slot within a few years but in a RPO and play-action heavy scheme that also incorporates several receiving tight ends, his potential role in the new offense is diminished.

Keithron Lee: 5-10, 175. 3*** from CTX (Bryan Rudder)
Jaden Alexis: 5-11, 185. 4**** from SFL (Monarch)

Lee and Alexis are both much cleaner fits for the Sarkisian offense. The 2019 Alabama Crimson Tide famously had four future first round wide receivers in Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle, and DeVonta Smith and all of them were shorter than 6-foot-2 and under 200 pounds. The key feature was speed, all of them were hell on wheels catching glance routes, perimeter screens, crossing routes, and deep posts and double moves.

Lee and Alexis are both of the same mold, burning fast receivers who’d be typecast as slot receivers in another offense but will get opportunities in different parts of the field for Sarkisian.

Offensive line

Hayden Conner: 6-6, 317. 3*** from HOU (Katy Taylor)

Conner looked a bit more spry and tackle-capable as a junior than as a senior. He’s a truly large kid who’s listed size is no exaggeration. The obvious trajectory for him is to develop into an inside zone guard who can cover up a defensive tackle and prevent tackles for loss or be a large piece of the wall in pass protection. Kyle Flood has become pretty multiple in the run game so Conner’s upside will depend on the extent to which he can develop as a versatile athlete.

Max Merril: 6-4, 273. 3*** from HOU (Strake Jesuit)
Merril was a valuable and extremely necessary addition to the paltry 2021 offensive line class. He meets the same profile as some of Texas’ best offensive linemen over the years, a scrappy and athletic but underweight 3-star (Conner Williams, Sam Cosmi). Merril has fantastic reach for the position and will undoubtedly add the needed strength and weight in time. Flood’s emphasis on multiplicity along the line and NFL background suggest athleticism will be the name of the game for the Texas O-line moving forward, which is a positive for Merril who could project to multiple positions once he fills out.

Defensive line

Byron Murphy: 6-1, 290. 3*** from DFW (DeSoto)

Murphy is going to be one of a few interesting test cases for how Pete Kwiatkowski’s approach on the defensive line translates at Texas. Murphy has a quick first step and had a Poona Ford sort of role at DeSoto, shooting A-gaps and creating problems at the jump for opposing run schemes. He’d be a great fit as a nose in the tite front, helping to cancel out interior gaps with quickness while keeping the linebackers clean to run to the ball.

Barryn Sorrell: 6-3, 250. 3*** from NOLA (Holy Cross)
Sorrell is a big winner from the transition to Kwiatkowski’s scheme. His power and motor on the edge is a great fit for what Kwiatkowski has tended to utilize at the field defensive end position. Sorrell will likely be able to grow into a 270 or 280 pounder who lines up in the B-gap at times in a 4i-technique but then also stand-up on the edge and have a chance to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback.

Juan Davis: 6-4, 217. 3*** from DFW (Everman)
Davis could end up at tight end as well. At Everman he played mostly at quarterback (for wildcat runs), H-back (often taking hand-offs on trap plays), and as a more traditional tight end running down the seams. He has good hands, length, and wiggle that allows him to be effective as a ball-carrier in the box or breaking off routes to get open coming off the hash marks. Given Texas’ depth at tight end and need for potential defensive ends and jack linebackers, I’m guessing Davis will end up on this side of the ball. He should be effective with time using his length and agility to execute stunts and set the edge.

Derrick Harris, Jr: 6-3, 215. 4**** from HOU (New Caney)
Harris is another winner from the schematic update going from Chris Ash’s 4-down to Kwiatkowski’s multiple, 3-down scheme. He’s a jack linebacker all the way who is made better by the opportunity to play wider on the edge and mix coverage drops. Ash was going to have to fill him out into a true, full-time hand in the dirt lineman to make the most of his scholarship. Harris is more of a true hybrid, outside linebacker who might be able to find the field more quickly in this scheme.

Jordan Thomas: 6-3, 240. 4**** from GTX (Port Arthur)
Thomas is another outside linebacker who will benefit from being able to play standing up and outside-in within Kwiatkowski’s scheme. He may grow into more of a true defensive lineman and could be another guy to play the hybrid field end position if he adds more size to translate his power into playing interior gaps and inside shades.

David Abiara: 6-4, 248. 4**** from DFW (Mansfield Legacy)
Abiara is similar to Sorrell. He has a lot of power to stay outside when he could be lining up inside down the line and using his length and explosiveness to take on offensive linemen more directly than the jack linebacker tends to do. He could grow into a 3-technique but is probably a field-side end for Kwiatkowski who balances his edge-rushing potential with some interior run-stopping responsibilities.

One or two of these guys might grow into defensive tackles.

Linebacker

Terrence Cooks: 6-2, 210. 4**** from HOU (Shadow Creek)
Morice Blackwell: 6-1, 196. 4**** from DFW (Arlington Martin)

Texas added a pair of legit Big 12 inside linebackers for this class, courtesy of the work put in by Coleman Hutzler. Both of these guys are ideal fits for the new defensive scheme. Kwiatkowski will cover them up and allow them to match some routes on RPOs and to use their speed to run to the football without having to deal with a lot of trash. The days of Texas lacking athleticism at linebacker and getting easily targeted by Big 12 offenses in space should at last be over.

Secondary

Jamier Johnson: 6-0, 170. 4**** from CA (John Muir)
Ishmael Ibraheem: 6-1, 175. 4**** from DFW (Kimball)

In the schemes Terry Joseph was running at Notre Dame, Ibraheem and Johnson would both fit best as field side cornerbacks. They have good length and both play a mean cover 3 corner in their high school film, playing the ball in front of them effectively and often closing and tackling well in the screen and run game. Terry Joseph plays more quarters but often has the field corner sit back in off coverage and close on the ball from a deep quarter or third, much like a cover 3 cornerback.

JD Coffey: 6-1, 180. 4**** from DFW (Kennedale)
Coffey’s most promising skill, covering a lot of grass from a deep alignment and possessing the range and tackling ability to line up deep, translates to a variety of defensive schemes. He’d be at his best as a true free safety, playing over the top behind coverage rather than positioned to have to match inside receivers in man coverage.

Overall Sarkisian and his staff have to be fairly pleased, though not blown away, with this class they inherited with a few notable exceptions. The offensive line depth is terrible and hasn’t set Flood and Sarkisian up to mimic their success at Alabama. Of course they mostly have themselves to blame since they poached the state’s best lineman AND speedy wide receiver in the 2021 class on behalf of Alabama.

The rest of the incoming pieces on offense are mostly going to be upgraded by the change in scheme. On defense, Kwiatkowski and Bo Davis will have lots of players to start developing along the defensive line and will be in great shape for the foreseeable future at linebacker. For 2022 and beyond they’ll want to rebuild the numbers in the secondary and aim to land some press-man cornerbacks.

History major, football theorist.