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Steve Sarkisian understood there were new challenges awaiting him when he took over the Longhorns, but learning how to be a head coach was not one of them. Sarkisian led programs like Washington and USC, and Alabama head coach Nick Saban tapped Sarkisian to lead the Crimson Tide for one game in 2020.
But even with six-plus years of head coaching experience, Sarkisian still lacks a track record in, of all areas, something related to the quarterback position.
The only time Sarkisian has overseen a true pre-season quarterback battle was as a position coach or coordinator. While leading Washington and USC, Sarkisian either inherited an incumbent starter or selected the obvious heir apparent with little controversy.
Sarkisian will eventually need to choose a starter between sophomore Casey Thompson and freshman Hudson Card. No one will be able to outrank him in determining the winner of a true quarterback battle for the first time in his career.
The next time Sarkisian sees Card or Thompson throw a football live will be the first, he admitted on February 3rd. However, he has closely studied both candidates vying to succeed Sam Ehlinger.
“I do like the maturity of Casey,” Sarkisian said. “I like what he brought in the (Alamo Bowl). You got a pretty good feel. We’ve obviously dug into a lot of practice tape.”
He continued, “I like the skillset of Hudson Card. I think that he is a really talented player, and you see that when you dig into the practice. I think we’ve got two frontline guys to start the process, and then (we’re) bringing in Charles (Wright) here.”
One of the reasons Sarkisian was drawn to Texas was what he saw in the quarterback room. Sarkisian told The Athletic he “probably wouldn’t take a job that didn’t have a quarterback on the roster.”
With Thompson, Sarkisian further detailed to The Athletic what he saw the Oklahoma native do in the second half of the Alamo Bowl.
“I was like, ‘jeez, Texas is in pretty good hands here,’” he said. “’They’ve got a pretty good guy.’”
He was also familiar with Card after doing an “extensive eval.” He could also rely on information from assistant coach Jeff Banks, who saw Card live while recruiting for the Crimson Tide.
“We’ve got two young men right now on our current roster that can play,” Sarkisian told The Athletic.
But at some point, he’ll have to determine who will play the most.
As quarterbacks coach at USC, Sarkisian provided invaluable input to offensive coordinator Norm Chow and head coach Pete Carroll when it was time to replace Carson Palmer, the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner.
And though Leinart would eventually win the Heisman himself, he was not the obvious choice to take over for the Trojans.
“There was a lot of uncertainty about that,” Sarkisian told USA Today in 2007. “Leinart hadn’t exactly set the world on fire in practice.”
John David Booty, who graduated high school early in an effort to succeed Palmer, competed with Leinart for the role. As spring practices were winding down in 2003, the offensive staff settled on Leinart because they felt the need to pick someone.
Leinart eventually flourished. Booty ended up missing the 2004 season and was Leinart’s backup in 2005. Once Leinart departed for the NFL, Booty received another chance at becoming USC’s starting quarterback in 2006.
Booty patiently waited behind not two, but three eventual NFL players if Matt Cassel is included. Rather than transfer, Booty stuck around and took over the starting role.
“Leave this?” Booty told USA Today. “Heck, everybody wants to be a part of this.”
A bygone era, according to Sarkisian. He believes the days of having a position room with players like Leinart, Booty, and five-star Mark Sanchez all in one place are over.
“I’ve got to wrap my brain around this isn’t six or seven years ago when you had four or five guys on your roster at that position,” Sarkisian said February 3. “They just don’t stick around. You’ve got to be ready to work with two or three.”
When Sarkisian chose Booty in 2006, he again had two coaches above him in the decision-making hierarchy with Carroll and Lane Kiffin.
In 2008, Sarkisian helped Carroll decide between Sanchez and Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain, choosing Sanchez as spring practices were ending. That would be the last true quarterback battle he had a say in for over a decade.
For his first head coaching gig at Washington, Sarkisian entered a program with Jake Locker as the quarterback. Locker eventually was selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft after two seasons with Sarkisian.
Locker’s replacement was Keith Price, who was the No. 2 Husky quarterback during Locker’s senior year in 2010. Sarkisian named Price the starter as 2011’s spring practices were concluding, and Price held that role for the rest of Sarkisian’s stay in Seattle.
At USC, Sarkisian inherited Cody Kessler from his friend Kiffin. Kessler threw for 2968 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2013. In 2014, his first season under Sarkisian, Kessler threw for 3826 yards and 39 touchdowns. Kessler was also the starter for Sarkisian’s truncated 2015 season.
Upon his full-time return to the college game in 2019, Sarkisian entered a quarterback room topped by Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama. Following one season with the No. 5 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Sarkisian and Saban needed to select who would follow Tagovailoa between junior Mac Jones and true freshman Bryce Young.
Jones had a leg up on the race after stepping in for an injured Tagovailoa in late 2019, and eventually won Saban’s final blessing. The decision proved to be the right one as Jones led an offense considered among the best in college football history.
Sarkisian’s preferences in quarterback battles assuredly carried weight, especially with defensive head coaches. But in his new role at Texas, no former NFL head coach, or anyone else, can overrule Sarkisian when it comes to determining the Longhorns’ 2021 quarterback.
Across a career already 20 years in length, there still can be a first time for everything. That includes a battle for the first-string role ahead of Sarkisian’s first season in Austin.