Practices in preseason camp are now underway for the Texas Longhorns after an afternoon session at Frank Denius Fields in near-record heat in Austin on Wednesday.
For Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian, that means balancing the fine line between player safety and the reality of multiple high-temperature games early in the season.
“Player safety is first and foremost, right? That’s got to be paramount,” Sarkisian said. “And so monitoring obviously any health issues, asthma, sickle cell, things of that nature monitoring hydration. Clearly, we monitor the amount our guys run with our Catapult, so we have a pretty good pace and pulse of kind of what’s happening for the team and kind of go from there.”
But the reality is that the Longhorns will have to play the opener at Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium at 7 pm Central on Sept. 3, arguably the season’s biggest game against the Crimson Tide at home the next week at 11 am Central, and then another evening game in Austin against UTSA on Sept. 17.
“We also recognize in 30 days it is what it is, we’ve got to play, and it’s probably going to be hotter because we’ll be in the stadium and the turf is just that much more,” Sarkisian said.
Texas will hold afternoon practices again on Thursday and Friday, moving from helmets on to shells on the third day before practices on Saturday evening and Monday morning as Sarkisian and his staff work on installing their systems in all three phases.
With two hours per week during the summer, the newcomers for the Longhorns entered preseason camp with more time spent on the field than previous classes, but the emphasis on Wednesday was still returning to initial installation and then seeing which players could apply the fundamentals and technique they learned during the summer to drills and team settings. When the coaches review Wednesday’s practice film, they’ll look for retention, consistency, and how players respond to the fatigue of practicing in extreme heat.
In the early practices of preseason camp, there won’t be much movement on the depth chart — Texas coaches afford every player the same amount of reps with the same scripts on both fields, including four groups on special teams as coordinator Jeff Banks tries to find more depth for those units after Sarkisian felt there were too many starters on special teams last season.
“We’re really just trying to teach really well today, see who can take that information, go apply it in practice, and then do it again in day two because the installation will continue to grow,” Sarkisian said.
Two players who Sarkisian mentioned as special teams standouts in high school who could play key roles this season are sophomore safety Morice Blackwell and freshman linebacker Trevell Johnson.
One of the more fortunate developments for the Longhorns is starting preseason camp at close to full health. Senior linebacker Luke Brockermeyer was limited after suffering an ACL tear late last season, but redshirt freshman wide receiver Jaden Alexis, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Troy Omeire, and freshman quarterback Maalik Murphy were all full participants after suffering injuries last year.
Senior tight end Jahleel Billingsley was held out as a precautionary measure after experiencing some tightness in his hamstring, a situation that will bear monitoring, but is not currently of great concern.
And while freshman cornerback Jaylon Guilbeau was out for personal reasons, his spring suspension is now lifted.
Murphy missed the first practice of spring football due to injury and the first summer workout, so Sarkisian was happy to have his big, strong-armed quarterback recruit available for the first practice of preseason camp.
“I think there’s naturally some things that he does really, really well and he created some big plays today when he was in there. But there’s still a bunch to learn or some other plays that I’m sure he’d love to have back and some some learning experiences and that’s all part of growth. But it was just good to have him in day one,” Sarkisian said.
Omeire was wearing some support on the right knee he’s had surgically repaired twice now in the last two years and may need a few practices until his conditioning reaches acceptable levels.
“Good to have him back out there,” Sarkisian said. “Faded a little towards the end — I think just naturally of the first day back out really on the field practicing in a year, but it was good to have him hopefully tomorrow we get in a little longer… you saw glimpses of what we thought of Troy a year ago.”
The large group of six offensive linemen who enrolled during the summer provided something Texas hasn’t often had in recent years — some players who look like future NFL linemen, led by freshman left tackle Kelvin Banks.
Fellow freshman DJ Campbell spent some time working at center, as did Conner Robertson, in an effort to establish depth behind junior starter Jake Majors and his current backup, redshirt freshman Logan Parr.
“He played tackle in high school, but still he has an interior lineman kind of skill set,” Sarkisian said of Robertson, who starred at Austin Westlake. “The fact that he had the movement skills to be able to play tackle in high school, I think shows his versatility, his ability to move. He’s obviously a very smart player, comes from a great program. So we’re excited about his growth potential and his work ethic and I think he came in with a really good mindset this summer — driven and focused and competitive.”
On the defensive side, Sarkisian feels better about the linebacker position than he did several months, largely due to the growth of juniors Jaylan Ford and Devin Richardson at Mike and the addition of James Madison transfer Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey at Will. Senior Jett Bush is also working as an interior linebacker after playing along the defensive line in 2021.
“I think it’s been good for him,” Sarkisian said. “Just retooling where people are defensively for us to get Jett back into kind of like a comfort zone. I felt like at times a year ago, he almost got swallowed up a little bit when he was on the line of scrimmage and I think he can just be a little bit more effective off the ball, which we did in spring ball a fair amount as well, but he is an instinctive guy, and that’s what that position requires. It requires instincts. He’s obviously very tough and he provides a lot for us, I think, and will provide a lot for us on special teams.”
At the wide receiver position, the maturity and experience of Iowa State transfer Tarique Milton, a super senior, should benefit a position room that does not feature any other players with more than three years of experience.
“Tarique is a very mature young man — you see why he had the role that he had at Iowa State,” Sarkisian said. “He definitely has real speed. He’s got a really mature approach to the game. He’s prepared. He’s organized. He’s got his life in order, and it shows on the field. He knows what he’s doing. So glad to have him for sure.”
At quarterback, Sarkisian declined to make any estimates on Tuesday about when he might name a starter, but maintained his consistent rhetoric of happiness with the competition between redshirt sophomore Hudson Card and redshirt freshman Quinn Ewers. Even though both quarterbacks had some throws that weren’t delivered in exactly the spot Sarkisian wanted — the subtle difference between a precision throw on the front number or a less precise throw on the back hip — the Texas head coach was mainly focused on body language during the first practice.
“I look for body languages, ownership, there’s a level of accountability, and that’s taking responsibility for your own actions. If you miss the throw, are you willing to own it and let the receiver know?” Sarkisian said.
“Sometimes that’s as important as having a lot of bravado and a lot of confidence because that to me is a lot of confidence — that you’re willing to accept responsibility for a missed play. And so I think both these guys are really mature. They’ve got a really cool workman-like mentality. I said this yesterday, but there’s something about our room this year that I really enjoy — these guys are definitely competitive, but they I feel like they work really well together and they’re pulling for each other. I think these guys really want to win a championship and that to me is very healthy.”