AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just 52 days before the Texas Longhorns’ final Big 12 football season, head coach Steve Sarkisian spoke to the media at Big 12 Media Days about what this year’s team is trying to accomplish.
“Anytime it’s media days, that means college football is right around the corner,” Sarkisian said in his opening statement. “That’s an exciting time. I know that there’s been so much talk about the SEC and what’s happening in 2024, but I think one thing that I love about this team that we have this year is their focus on 2023.”
MORE THAN THE SCORE: Stay up to date on sports stories like these, and sign up for our More than the Score sports newsletter at kxan.com/newsletters
The Longhorns enter their final Big 12 season as the favorite to win the conference, finishing atop the preseason media poll with 41 first-place votes and ahead of second-place Kansas State. Linebacker Jaylan Ford was selected as the Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year and quarterback Quinn Ewers was officially named the starting quarterback for this season ahead of Maalik Murphy and Arch Manning.
Texas sold out its football season tickets in June, and Sarkisian said, “There’s a lot of excitement in the air,” about the upcoming season.
Sarkisian spoke to media members and answered questions for about 20 minutes, and here’s what he had to say:
Q: Do you expect this season at all to be awkward with the SEC talk and your exit?
Sarkisian: “It won’t be awkward for us. You know, I can’t speak for anybody else. It won’t be awkward for us. You know, we’ve got a roster full of players who, quite frankly, came to the University of Texas to try to win a Big 12 championship. And we’ve got one more opportunity to do that, and I think our guys are focused on that. It won’t be awkward from our end, but like I said, I can’t speak for everybody else.”
Q: Your last regular season game in the Big 12 is against Texas Tech. Does that game hold any extra weight given that it’s a rivalry and how that game went last season?
Sarkisian: “I hope it carries extra weight because hopefully, we’re competing to get into the championship game. The reality of it is, hey, we’ve had some long-standing games with a lot of teams in the Big 12, and we’re gonna embrace every opportunity we get this year. I think it’s pretty clear and easy to say we’re gonna get everybody’s best shot every Saturday. The key to the drill is that we make sure they get our best shot every Saturday. and that final game on Friday after Thanksgiving will be no different.”
Q: (About BYU joining the Big 12 this year) I understand that Kalani Sitake helped host you on your recruiting visit to BYU back in 1995. Can you speak about your relationship over the years with Kalani? And then secondly, even though you’ve coached against BYU before, will it be special to do it this year with both of you in Power 5 situations?
Sarkisian: “I think Kalani and I have a great relationship. You know, I’m really proud of him. He’s always been a great coach, a guy that I’ve had a chance to compete against in his days when he was a coordinator before becoming a head coach, and he’s earned a great opportunity. He’s done a great job leading BYU to this point. And you know, we do stay connected and stay close that way.
People have asked me before about BYU now being in the Big 12 and how that’ll be, and to me, BYU has been a national brand for decades going back to Coach Edwards and what he was able to do and some of the great teams and great players, and so for them now to be in a Power Five situation in the Big 12, I’m happy for them. I’m happy for BYU, I’m happy for their alumni and those players I think it’s a great opportunity. You know, and then we get a chance to play him. I’m glad we don’t have to go to Provo — we get them in Austin. So that’ll be fun.”
Q: Now you got a couple of your full recruiting classes in, how does this year’s team compare philosophically with your coaching style compared to year one? And how have you maybe seen that manifest in the locker room and practices?
Sarkisian: “I think we’ve got really quality competitive depth on our roster across the board, that our players know when they go to practice every day, that guy in the same line as them, whether he’s behind him or in front of him, is probably as equally as talented as him, if not better.
I think when you’re surrounded by like-minded people, that’s what pushes you to become even better. And then ultimately, when you go to practice, that the guy lining up from across from you is a quality player and a quality opponent. And so, again, that’s pushing you to be the best that you can be, but you do it out of respect. I was talking to the team earlier today about how proud I am of the culture that they’ve developed. You know, it’s one thing for me to come in and have an idea of a culture of what I want it to look like, and for them to buy into it. It’s another for them to not just buy into it, but to elevate it. And I think that that’s what they’ve done this team is is is different. They have a different look in their eye.”
Q: What are your expectations overall, for this season, do you expect to go home with the championship?
Sarkisian: “I expect our team to play aggressive, tough, fast physical and smart football every Saturday. If we do that, every Saturday, we’ll put ourselves in position to be competing for a championship. But that’s the challenge that we have week in and week out, is to put ourselves in the best position to go do those things.
I do think this team has the maturity to do that week in and week out because I think they hold each other accountable. And when a guy is not doing that, they’re willing to step in, and they’re not relying on the coaches to do that as much anymore. So, you know, ultimately, we all we if he ask any one of our players, they want to be here Dec. 2 competing for a Big 12 championship. That’s simple, but we have to do the necessary things day in and day out to try to make that happen.”
Q: Quinn (Ewers) went out of his way to tell us in the spring that he was not happy with how he played overall last season. What did that say to you about his leadership? And how’s he handling all the expectations? He’s projected already as a first-round pick next spring?
Sarkisian: “I think a couple of things about Quinn that stood out to me from last year as you go back and kind of assess last season. He came back for the OU game coming off the injury and had a really good football game. And you go read about the quotes that he had after that game and all he did was praise his teammates for how well they played. And then you look at him after we don’t play great against Oklahoma State and we suffer a loss. And he took all the blame. I think right then you found out the type of leader that he is. What he did coming into this offseason is continue just to pour into what does he need to do to be the best quarterback for the University of Texas.
And the result of that is we’ve seen his body composition change. We’ve seen a level of maturity change. We’ve seen him really dialing in and understanding schematically what we’re trying to do offensively change. We’ve seen him from a morale standpoint, speaking up in team meetings, speaking up on the field from a work ethic standpoint, and I think he’s earned the respect of his teammates throughout this time and throughout this process. What I do know is he’s extremely talented. There’s not a throw he can’t make, he’s got a very high football IQ. And if things go the way we think they can go, the pundits are probably right — he is a first-round draft pick quarterback.
Q: Did it surprise you that Texas was picked atop the preseason media poll to win it? And do you feel that’s going to be more added pressure on you to deliver in year three? And the program’s final year in the Big 12?
Sarkisian: I don’t know what surprises me. I don’t know what you guys do at night, man. So you guys are the ones that decide who gets picked where, quite frankly, and not to take anything away from you, it doesn’t really matter, right? It’s how we play and what we do.
What I do know is I chose to be the head coach of the University of Texas, and our players chose to come to the University of Texas, with that comes responsibility and expectations. So we don’t shy away from that we accept it, we have to acknowledge it, then we push it to the side. And then we get back to the daily grind of what we need to do. I think we’ve got a mature enough team to respect what you guys think of us. But at the end of the day, now we have to go back to work expectations are just that what will ultimately define us is how we play on Saturdays.”
Q: Coach, you’ve talked about the success of Quinn, but it all boils down to the offensive line. Have you gotten them to a two-deep situation?
Sarkisian: “I love what we bring back on the offensive line. You know, last year we started two true freshmen on the offensive line. Kelvin Banks was a freshman All-American at left tackle who had a great year, Cole Hutson at right guard, but we’re bringing back all starting five offensive linemen. We’ve recruited the position well over the last two years and it’s a highly competitive room. We have guys vying for starting spots right now that didn’t start a year ago and that’s exactly what we want.”
They have to go against a really good defensive front when you talk about Byron Murphy, T’Vondre Sweat, Alfred Collins, the addition of Trill Carter from Minnesota and Barryn Sorrell. We’ve got a really good defensive front that our offensive line has to block every day in practice.”
Q: What do you feel is different about this team, especially when you kind of compare it to your first two years?
Sarkisian: “I think we have competitive depth at every position. I think we’ve got great leadership. As much as there’s a lot of focus on a lot of the new players that have come into our program. There should be a lot of focus on the players that are in year three with me now. We’ve got a lot of veteran players that came to the University of Texas to win a championship. And they bought into a new coach, a new coaching staff, a new style of play and a new culture. Inevitably, they’re leaders on our team now.
They get a chance going into some of their final season to compete for a Big 12 championship. And I think that’s their focus. And I think that in turn then permeates throughout our locker room, and we’ve got a locker room full of guys that that’s the goal. There aren’t personal initiatives involved.”
Q: Now that Bijan and Roschon are gone, how are the other running backs responded and adapted to filling that key area?
Sarkisian: “We lost two really good players, we lost two really good leaders. We lost two really good people in our program that are going on to future endeavors in the NFL, and much deserved. But they were also great role models for some of those other players in that room and you start thinking about Keilan Robinson, Jonathan Brooks, Jaydon Blue … those three guys spent a year or two with those guys in that room and know what it looks like and know what it takes from a day-to-day basis in season, out of season and how they conduct themselves off the field.
With the addition of Cedric Baxter and Tre Wisner, two really good young players, there’s no shortage of talent in our running back room. It’s making sure that they’re prepared for the grind of a 12-game regular season and then hopefully games to come after that. We feel good about the depth in the room.”
Q: Alabama has lost once at home since 2016. What is the key for this roster to go in and win at Alabama?
Sarkisian: “We’re gonna get everybody’s best shot, and Alabama is no different. Coach Saban is going to have that team ready to play. We have to make sure they get our best shot … we have to prepare really well. We have to embrace the moment and understand what that moment is and we got to play good football. We thought we played them well a year ago, but we didn’t play well enough. And so the key to the drill when we go there is we have to play better than we did last time, and I think we can I think we’ll have the mental fortitude to go do it.”