Consider all that stands against Steve Sarkisian on the eve of his second lap with the Texas Longhorns. He opened his stay in Austin with a losing record, a season that concluded with six losses in the final seven games. He arrived with a resume that included seven prior seasons at prime Power 5 jobs but none that ended with double-digit victories. He followed two coaches who compiled more impressive resumes before being hired by UT but lasted only seven seasons between them. He entered a program bound to the Big 12 but now hopes still to be in charge when it transitions to the SEC a couple years down the road.
He also landed quarterback prospect Arch Manning this summer.
Which means the rest of that stuff does not matter.
At least for now.
“Landing Arch, for the fan base anyway, I think has been the most positive sign that this thing is headed in the right direction,” Jeff Howe, who writes for Horns247 and hosts a radio show at 104.9 The Horn, told The Sporting News . “I think when you get the Manning family stamp of approval, at the very least you’re doing something right. You’re on the right track.”
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Arch Manning is 18 years old, 6-4 and 215 pounds and still two weeks from starting his senior year in high school. But he has that last name, the institutional knowledge of three Pro Bowl quarterbacks in his family tree and an arm that has generated 5,731 yards and 72 touchdowns in three seasons according to MaxPreps. He is ranked the No. 1 college football prospect in the 2023 recruiting class by Rivals.com and 247Sports. Alabama and Georgia, who played for the CFP Championship last season, both wanted him. He committed to the Longhorns after visiting all three schools in June.
This is how Sarkisian is entering what history tells us should be a pivotal second season at Texas. Fans will want him to win a bunch of games, sure, but he already brought in Arch and last winter got Quinn Ewers, who’d been the No. 1 prospect in the 2021 recruiting class, to transfer from Ohio State back closer to home. This is what they talk about now, rather than the 3-6 Big 12 record in his first season and the one-score losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas. (Yes, Kansas, which won two other league games in the past five seasons.)
“The only thing that I can compare it to, that I’ve seen in my time – it’s kind of like when Mack Brown got Chris Simms,” Howe said. That came in 1999, and such extraordinary talents as Cedric Benson, Roy Williams, Sloan Thomas and, ultimately, Vince Young would follow.
“It was: Hey, he’s got the Super Bowl MVP’s son and the No. 1 recruiting class in the country,” Howe said. “Basically, off that one commitment, you built the core of a team that ran off those 10-win seasons and won a national championship. It’s been a long time since Texas has had something like that. I think that one commitment has given this fan base – at least from the interactions I’ve had – more hope than anything on the field.”
Eventually, perhaps as soon as the Sept. 10 home game against Alabama, Texas fans will want more. It has been a while since they’ve gotten it. The 2021 defense ranked 100th in yards allowed, 99th in points allowed. The Horns scored a bunch with Casey Thompson at quarterback, but the D gave up more. The final record was 5-7. There was no bowl game, obviously.
It was a lousy debut for Sarkisian, hired by UT after he’d spent two seasons as offensive coordinator at Alabama. Tom Herman, the man he replaced, had been 7-3 and won the Alamo Bowl the season before. Even Herman’s predecessor Charlie Strong, who never had a winning record at UT, won six games his first year.
Obviously, there would not be much patience for Sarkisian to move this program forward, and he seemed to sense that by emphasizing the team’s youth by noting at Big 12 media days the Longhorns have 57 freshmen and sophomores among their 85 scholarship players. These no longer are ordinary circumstances, given the impending arrival of Manning, though that could change if these Longhorns do not.
“Texas has the best collection of skill talent in the conference,” college football analyst Gabe Ikard of SiriusXM Big 12 Radio told TSN. “You start with Bijan Robinson, who I believe is the best running back in all of college football. I think he would have been the first running back off the board if he had been able to enter the NFL Draft last season.
“And then Xavier Worthy, he was one of the best players in college football last season that people aren’t talking a lot about. I think he’s the best wide receiver in the Big 12. It’s hard to imagine he’s not going to have a really big season, especially if Jordan Whittington can stay healthy. When he’s been healthy and he’s been right, you can just see the explosiveness and the route-running.
“Someone’s got to get them the ball, but I’m not that concerned about the quarterback position. Whether it’s Hudson Card or Quinn Ewers, I think they’re going to get an adequate level of play at the quarterback position. They were as highly recruited as they were for a reason.”
There would appear to be an extreme amount of pressure on Ewers to win the job and to succeed, given that he already has transferred once and entered college with the expectation he would develop into a first-round pick. With Manning coming next year, wouldn’t that make it even more essential that Ewers become an instant Texas star?
“I think if Quinn Ewers hits his ceiling – you’re talking about a guy as naturally talented at quarterback I’ve seen come from the state of Texas. That’s Matthew Stafford, Kyler Murray, name the guy — just in terms of his ability to throw the football, he’s as good as any of them,” Howe said. “If he wins the job and hits his ceiling, he’s probably only going to be at Texas two years.
“I don’t think Quinn would have transferred to Texas if he didn’t think there was a really good chance he could come in and be the guy.”
As dreadful as the defense was last season, Sarkisian did not choose to blame it on the staff and make an appeasement-based change at coordinator. Pete Kwiatkowski, who previously worked at Washington and Boise State, will remain in charge. What needs to improve, though, may not be entirely rooted in scheme.
“The most disappointing part of the defense was there was a lot of what people call ‘LOE’: Lack of effort,” Ikard said. “I felt late in a couple games last season, some of those guys on the defensive side of the ball kind of folded the tent. That can’t happen.
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“That’s why two years under Pete Kwiatkowski they should be more comfortable in the system. I think that’s huge. The easiest way to play bad defense is to be thinking too much on the field, not lined up correctly. That’s how you get gasped; that’s how you give up points. There was a lot of that for Texas last year.”
This almost certainly is the wealthiest athletic department in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, and it’s situated in the heart of football country, and it has a history of excellence that traces back at least to Darrell Royal in the ’60s and ’70s. Since the decline of Mack Brown’s tenure began following a 2009 appearance in the BCS Championship game, however, UT football has been basically a cavalcade of misery.
Howe attributed much of the dysfunction relative to stewardship of the football program to the shifting infrastructure inside the university and the athletic department. There have been more athletic directors (four), university presidents (three) and head coaches (four) than seasons with double-digit victories (one).
After Brown resigned following an 8-5 season in 2013, the Longhorns struggled under Strong, who had been a rising star. Things went better under Herman, with four winning seasons and four bowl wins, but recruiting was meager and a 22-13 in the Big 12 wasn’t anyone’s idea of excellence. Firing a winning coach in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic was sort of brutal, but this is Texas football.
Or, it used to be, anyway.
With Arch Manning on the way, it may be again. Longhorns fans will prefer not to wait, though.