May 25, 2024

Steve Sarkisian talks managing loaded Texas QB room, striving for his program to have Alabama-like success

Texas is coming off a 12-2 season highlighted by its first-ever College Football Playoff appearance. It marked a breakthrough season for coach Steve Sarkisian, who went 5-7 in 2021 and 8-5 in 2022. Now, entering his fourth year, Sarkisian faces a fresh challenge as Texas enters a 16-team SEC that is also adding Red River rival Oklahoma.

After going on the road and beating Alabama 34-24 in Week 2 of the 2023 season, the Longhorns can enter their new conference with confidence after accomplishing something few other SEC teams could during Nick Saban’s legendary 17-year coaching run with the Crimson Tide.

“I laugh when everyone says it’s not the same Alabama anymore,” Sarkisian told Josh Pate during an extensive interview for the “Pate State Speaker Series.” “Well, they were in the College Football Playoff again and were a play away from playing for the national championship. So, year in and year out, that’s the consistency that Coach Saban had gotten that program to. That’s obviously what we’re striving for.”

Maintaining the upward trajectory in 2024, or even improving, will be tough for Texas. The schedule features a Week 2 trip to reigning national champion Michigan and a Week 3 home game with Group of Five power UTSA. Back-to-back games with Oklahoma and Georgia highlight October before a relatively manageable November marked by the renewal of the program’s rivalry with Texas A&M to cap the regular season.

The Longhorns came in at No. 4 in Dennis Dodd’s post-spring Top 25, putting them squarely in the preseason national title conversation. Texas ranks No. 25 in returning production, per ESPN’s Bill Connelly, even after losing 11 NFL Draft picks. Those 11 selections were the most Texas has ever produced in a seven-round NFL Draft.

But the Longhorns’ offseason was marked as much by who stayed as by who left. 

Star quarterback Quinn Ewers spurned the draft to return for another year after passing for 3,479 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing 69% of his passes. With former No. 1 overall prospect Arch Manning at No. 2 on the quarterback depth chart, Sarkisian has an embarrassment of riches at what he described as “the most important position in sports.” Four-star freshman Trey Owens rounds out what is arguably the best quarterback room in college football, even after experienced backup Maalik Murphy’s transfer to Duke.

“Having Quinn back for a third year is huge,” Sarkisian said. “Watching his growth and maturation over three years has been incredible. Just looking at Arch from Year 1 to Year 2, and then we have a young player in Trey Owens who we think is going to be a really good player as well. We like the room. Knock on wood, you hope you don’t have to go to all those guys on the depth chart. But a year ago, we did, and we were able to win a couple games with a backup quarterback starting.”

With Saban retired, LSU and Oklahoma seeking breakthroughs under third-year coaches, Texas A&M transitioning to new coach Mike Elko and historically strong programs like Auburn and Florida trying to find their way after losing seasons, the door is open for the Longhorns to enter the SEC with a statement.

Last season’s win over Alabama and CFP appearance made for an impressive prelude. Now comes a new type of grind for the Longhorns in which they will need to bring the precision they had at Alabama last season on a near-weekly basis.

“I think that was a great checkmark on our journey for a lot of people to look back at that game, and it was like, ‘OK now we’ve assembled the team and culture that can go achieve that,'” Sarkisian said. “Now how do we find that level of consistency to do it year in and year out?”