Ethan Downs rooted for Washington at Monday night’s College Football Playoff semifinal, obvious by his flashing “Horns Down” during his halftime appearance with the rest of the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. Nothing wrong with representing the Oklahoma side of the Red River Rivalry.
Perhaps when OU and Texas become SEC bedfellows next fall, that league will cast its tribal spell and the Sooners and Longhorns will start pulling for each other in the postseason. Don’t bet on it.
Just realize it’s more important that the Sooners emulate their burnt orange adversaries than like them. It’s more important that the Sooners emulate Texas’ player development.
OU beat Texas last Oct. 7. Right.
But since the Longhorns won a Big 12 championship game that the Sooners failed to reach, and the Longhorns played a Sugar Bowl four nights after the Sooners’ Alamo, and anyone connected to OU football insists the program is about more than one game, heated as that game is, let’s consider the bigger 2023 picture here.
Texas defensive tackles T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy spent this season playing like Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter, the Georgia tackles around whom Kirby Smart built his 2021 and ‘22 national championship defenses. This wasn’t a case of two five-star high school signees growing into their talent.
Sweat, this year’s Outland Trophy, was a three-star prospect from Huntsville (Texas) High School when he joined the Longhorns in 2019. He played some his first three years in the program but didn’t start regularly until year four.
Murphy was a three-star prospect from DeSoto (Texas) High School, according to Rivals.com, when he joined the Longhorns in 2021. He started one game that season and one game in ‘22 before breaking through as an All-American this year.
In Austin, Sweat and Murphy should be hailed as the pillars that returned Texas to national prominence.
In Norman, weird as this feels, they should become poster children in defensive line meetings. Examples for assistants Todd Bates and Miguel Chavis to use should any of their impatient linemen become transfer portal-antsy.
They should become examples for Bates and Chavis themselves.
“I think they’ve got great front players,” Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said of the Longhorns in the lead-up to the Sugar Bowl, “but I’m always amazed at how well their front is coached. I think Texas does a phenomenal job with technique and how hard those guys play.”
Sweat and Murphy made it look as easy as it once appeared for Tommie Harris during OU’s 20-year-old defensive heyday, but it wasn’t. Harris had five-star gifts the present-day Longhorns don’t. That they maxed out is a credit to their perseverance, and to the coaching they got along the way.
Bates and Chavis must be similarly impactful as OU transitions into the SEC. Track the progress of five-star incoming freshman David Stone the next two or three years, and that of the three- and four-star prospects that make up the bulk of every recruiting class.
OU upgraded its defensive line via the portal this year. It’s OK to go there. Rondell Bothroyd, Trace Ford, Da’Jon Terry and Jacob Lacey all had moments, right through the Alamo Bowl loss to Arizona.
It’s ideal to build organically, with a core of multi-year players who understand what their position coaches and coordinators want, complemented by plug-and-play transfers.
That feels as important on the offensive line as it does on the defensive one. Texas is an example here, too.
Left tackle Kelvin Banks was the can’t-miss of the group, a five-star second-year future pro. The rest of the starters consisted of three-star second-year guard Cole Hutson, three-star third-year guard Hayden Conner, four-star fourth-year center Jake Majors and three-star sixth-year right tackle Christian Jones.
That group helped make things easier for Bijan Robinson’s replacement Jonathon Brooks. And while the Longhorns didn’t blow anyone off the ball, they did help balance the offense through their Sugar Bowl loss to Washington, when Steve Sarkisian probably should have noticed Texas’ run success more often.
We’ll get to the pre-SEC task facing OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh soon. Just know he might take a few notes from Texas O-line coach Kyle Flood.
Coaches of OU’s strongest positions might emulate their Texas counterparts.
Emmett Jones’ receivers excelled without the benefit of a five-star standout like Texas’ Xavier Worthy, and yet it was worth hearing Washington co-defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell’s assessment of Worthy during the Sugar Bowl run-up.
“We’ve seen most of these guys almost exactly a year ago (Washington beat Texas in the 2022 Alamo Bowl), and I think he’s definitely improved his game,” Morrell said. “Really involved in their explosive plays. Doing a better job, I think, this year of running his route tree.”
Venables’ and Ted Roof’s linebackers made most of the highlight plays on OU’s defense. Development there is as obvious as any team position, with Danny Stutsman leading the way.
And yet it’s instructive that the week of OU’s 34-30 Red River win last October, Venables hyped Texas’ defense by starting with linebacker Jaylan Ford.
“As good of a linebacker that’s out there in college football,” Venables called him.
That’s a three-star signee who went from special teams player his first year at Texas to important backup in 2021 to nationally-recognized impact the past two seasons.
“We’re living proof … guys like us with three-star (rankings) and look at us now, all of us are balling,” Ford told the Houston Chronicle last month. “That just shows that these guys who come in, you might not play right away, you might not see the playing time you want, you might not get the success you want to start off with. But if you really see it through and you trust the process and you keep grinding, eventually you’ll… enjoy the fruits of your labor.”
It is coaches’ labor, too. Credit Texas staffers for their work with the most critical pieces of the Longhorns’ CFP qualifier, something that bodes well with the SEC beckoning.
As for the Sooners’ SEC relocation, they don’t like the idea that they’re following Texas any more than they like cheering for the Longhorns. They should settle for this: following the Horns’ developmental blueprint from the 2023 season.
That ought to make 2024 and beyond more profitable.