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Gut Check Time: Where does Steve Sarkisian go from here?

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Jameson McCausland
Jameson McCausland

Steve Sarkisian is only 9 games into his tenure at Texas, but he has reached a critical crossroads where tough decisions are about to have to be made throughout his program. Sarkisian himself is in no jeopardy of losing his job anytime soon, but the Longhorns currently sit a 4-5 on the season and it is his job to fix what is ailing the Texas program.

The reality is there are 3 key components he will be evaluating throughout the final 3 games (and potential bowl game) and into the offseason as he attempts to set his team up for a successful 2022 season. Let's take a look at those components. 

Personnel

Steve Sarkisian made an interesting comment after Saturday's game when asked about his defense giving up a WR pass for a touchdown for the second consecutive week. Sarkisian said "We told the (players) the exact play that was coming and it worked for them, so that's unfortunate."

For obvious reasons, Sarkisian is not going to throw his players under the bus by saying they are not good enough, but it becoming clear that the Longhorns are severely lacking talent-wise at several key spots. The areas Texas has been struggling at the most (OL, WR, LB), have been the positions Texas has recruited the most inconsistently for years.  Many point to the top 10 classes Texas has signed the last 5 years, but the hit rate for the players in those classes has been very low. The lack of production from the 2019 class, which is made up of guys who would be in their 3rd year in the program, is really hurting Texas right now.

So now the question is how is Sarkisian going to fill the roster holes that he has? Texas is set to return every starter on offense outside of Cade Brewer, Tope Imade and Derek Kerstetter, but the Texas defense could lose up to 7 starters. The obvious answer to filling these holes is through the transfer portal. Sarkisian tried to do this when he first arrived in 2021 but most of the transfers he took have been role players. Texas is going to have to attack the portal more aggressively this time around. The Longhorns could realistically be in the market for a quarterback, multiple wide receivers, multiple offensive lineman, a tight end, multiple edge rushers, an inside linebacker, a corner and a safety. It's unlikely Texas will be able to fill all those holes, but the majority need to be addressed.

Texas is also set to sign a big 2022 recruiting class that could have a few prospects ready to contribute as early as next year. The Longhorns have loaded up at defensive line, a spot that has underperformed relative to expectations entering this season. Wide receiver and safety are also spots where you could see some freshman make an impact early.

Finally, Sarkisian has to address the elephant in the room when it comes to personnel and that is the offensive line. The Longhorns have simply not been good all season up front and it is limiting the entire offense. Junior Angilau is the only Texas lineman who seems to consistently be playing at an acceptable level. If Sarkisian and Kyle Flood are unable to find solutions in this position room, it may not matter what other personnel moves are made.

Scheme

Despite some personnel limitations, Sarkisian has done some good things scheme wise on the offensive side of the ball. Texas has been able to consistently free up receivers down the field and find open space for Bijan Robinson and Xavier Worthy. It's far from perfect, especially considering the inconsistent quarterback play Texas is getting, but it's easy to see the direction the offense could be headed in if a few pieces fall into place. One thing scheme wise that Sarkisian needs to figure out is how Texas is going to attack drop 8 defenses because even if the QB play was improved, it does not appear he has found a solution for attacking defenses that spread the field. Iowa State and Arkansas owned the Texas offense with these schemes and the Longhorns are sure to see more of it in the future.

Defensively, Sarkisian is going to need to ask some tough questions to Pete Kwiatkowski about what the identity of the Texas defense is going to be. Scheme wise, Texas shifted from Kwiatkowski's 2-4-5 defense to a 3-4 about halfway through the season. Neither scheme has produced the desired results. Texas is getting run over in the second half of games. As mentioned earlier, the defensive line was thought to be the strength of the team heading into the year but has been a complete non-factor for a lot of the season. Are all these things scheme related? Personnel related? Coaching related? Fatigue related? These are the questions Sarkisian needs to be asking himself and his staff. The Texas defense has been left out to dry a handful of times this year, but they also seem like a unit that has lacked an identity dating back to the first game of the season. Kwiatkowski has made some adjustments as the year as gone on, but it hasn't worked so far. Is this a sign of things to come or can it be corrected?

Coaching

The last component Sarkisian will be forced to evaluate ties into the scheme component, and that is the job of his coaches. No one likes to fire coaches or talk about firing coaches, but it is Sarkisian's job to maximize his staff and do what is best for the University of Texas. He will need to evaluate if his position coaches are getting the most out of their players. Do the strengths of this position coach align with what the coordinator wants to do and the scheme we want to deploy? Is this coach a plus recruiter? Is he getting through to his players?  Do the players respond to him? These are all questions Sarkisian will be asking himself. 

One thing to keep in mind is every member of the defensive staff outside of Jeff Choate was hired before defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. If Sarkisian or Kwiatkowski choose to go in the different direction scheme wise or are unhappy with the play of an individual unit, they will have to ask themselves if the position coach is a good fit for what they are trying to do. 

Offensively, Sarkisian handpicked all his assistants, including two holdovers from Tom Herman's staff. Is he satisfied with the job the offensive staff is doing teaching his scheme or does he feel like he can upgrade at certain spots?

Final Thoughts

Steve Sarkisian is going to be in full evaluation mode the last month of this season and rightfully so. He mentioned during his introductory press conference back in January that he felt the roster he was inheriting had a lot of talented pieces to work with. While that may have been true, he appears to also be discovering some of the limitations he has and will now need to make adjustments on the fly. The adjustments he makes will determine how successful the Texas program will be moving forward under his watch. 




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  • 2021 Texas Football Schedule

    Week
    Opponent
    W/L
    9/4
    Louisiana
    W 38-18
    9/11
    @Arkansas
    L 21-40
    9/18
    Rice
    W 58-0
    9/25
    Texas Tech
    W 70-35
    10/2
    @TCU
    W 32-27
    10/9
    Oklahoma
    L 48-55
    10/16
    Oklahoma State
    L 24-32
    10/30
    @Baylor
    L 24-31
    11/6
    @Iowa State
    L 7-30
    11/13
    Kansas
    L 56-57 OT
    11/20
    @West Virginia
    L 23-31
    11/27
    Kansas State
    W 22-17

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