Texas football coach Steve Sarkisian addresses passing problems, Xavier Worthy's happiness

While stumping for Bijan Robinson's Heisman Trophy candidacy Monday, Texas coach Steve Sarkisian rattled off a bunch of statistics.

Robinson has accounted for 1,894 yards of offense this season. That's the most in college football. The junior running back has scored 20 touchdowns. Only Pitt's Israel Abanikanda has more. And Robinson has rushed for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns, both of which lead the Big 12.

"If we were 10-2 right now and playing for a Big 12 championship and maybe on the cusp of the College Football Playoff, I think there'd be no question this guy would be in New York for the Heisman," Sarkisian said.

So, yes, Robinson has been great this season. And fellow running back Roschon Johnson (554 yards, five TDs) wasn’t that bad, either. That explains why Texas has averaged 199.6 rushing yards per game, third-best in the Big 12 and 25th nationally.

But what about the passing game?

The Longhorns, who finished 8-4, averaged 230.8 passing yards. There are 61 other schools out there, including six Big 12 teams, with better numbers.

Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers tries to thread a pass between TCU defenders Dylan Horton and Dee Winters during the Longhorns' 17-10 loss Nov. 12. In nine games, Ewers has thrown for 1,808 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he has completed just 56.6% of his passes.
Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers tries to thread a pass between TCU defenders Dylan Horton and Dee Winters during the Longhorns' 17-10 loss Nov. 12. In nine games, Ewers has thrown for 1,808 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he has completed just 56.6% of his passes.

The Longhorns have thrown 21 touchdown passes. Last year, Texas had 29.

“Inevitably the passing game, like the running game, it takes all 11 (players), and it takes precision and execution," Sarkisian said. "That's an area where I know we're going to spend a lot of time on and cleaning that up."

The focal point of any passing attack is the quarterback. Before spraining his clavicle, redshirt freshman Quinn Ewers had some moments against then-No. 1 Alabama in September. And the former five-star recruit was as good as advertised in a 49-0 win over Oklahoma in October.

But he also faltered in losses to Oklahoma State and TCU. He threw for fewer than 200 yards in each of his last four games, and in that span he had only three completions of 25 or more yards. Ewers enters the bowl season with 1,808 yards, 14 touchdowns and a .566 completion percentage. Texas' leading passer hasn't completed less than 60% of his passes since 2017.

Last week, Sarkisian said he's not going to anoint Ewers as the unquestioned starter for next season. Hudson Card, Maalik Murphy and Charles Wright are on scholarship, and five-star phenom Arch Manning is committed to UT's upcoming recruiting class.

For his part, Ewers understands that his coach believes offseason position battles are healthy.

"I'm ready for any competition," he later told reporters.

Sarkisian has consistently insisted that the quarterback isn't the only component of a passing attack. For example, he was not pleased with how the offensive line protected Ewers in last week's 38-27 win over Baylor, when Ewers was sacked three times and hurried six other times. And someone has to catch those passes, too.

Xavier Worthy (53 catches, 676 yards, nine touchdowns) and Jordan Whittington (45-608-1) have had solid seasons. And tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders (49-577-5) has emerged as a tangible target for Ewers as well.

Texas, though, was unable to develop a third wide receiver. The Longhorns' fourth-, fifth- and sixth-leading pass catches this year were running backs. Aside from Worthy and Whittington, no other UT receiver had more than five receptions.

"We need the depth of that room to be stronger. That third wideout has got to come on," Sarkisian said. "We've got to make sure that we're versatile enough of threatening people to where one guy is not getting doubled, one guy's not getting all these intricate coverages, and we're not hurting people somewhere else."

Whittington participated in UT's senior day activities but can return if he so desires. On paper, Texas still has a foundational building block in Worthy if Whittington departs.

Sarkisian said Worthy is "arguably the best receiver in our conference." The sophomore's nine touchdown receptions lead the Big 12, and his 21 touchdowns over his first two seasons already are third-most in school history behind Roy Willams' 36 and Jordan Shipley's 33.

However, Worthy has caught nine fewer passes and had 305 fewer receiving yards in 2022 than he did during his sensational freshman year. He has been limited to fewer than five catches in eight games this season.

Recent internet speculation has paired Worthy with the transfer portal. On Monday, Sarkisian was asked if he believes Worthy is happy at Texas.

"I think the one thing about Xavier is this: He's a highly competitive young man," Sarkisian said. "From the moment he arrived on our campus, he came to work, and he came to work to earn an opportunity to play, came to work to become a starter, he came to work to be the best receiver he could be, whether that was in our conference or in the country. I think the guy's got a high sense of competitiveness and drive to be the best, and he works that way every day.

"Sometimes when you don't get the actual result of it, that can become a sense of frustration. I would much rather have a receiver that's frustrated that he didn't contribute more to a win than a guy who's content of going on the field and playing and the ball not coming his way, because I think he values his ability to get open. I do too. I get it, you know. So again, addressing the passing game is going to be a critical component to what we do. I'd be hard to argue, find the guy in his first two years of college football at the Power Five level who's got 21 touchdown catches in two years. He's been off to a pretty good start, but I think his best days are ahead of him."

Sarkisian said he'll meet with every one of his players this week to discuss their futures at Texas. Those meetings began Monday.

Texas, which moved up three spots to No. 21 in the Top 25, failed to reach this weekend's Big 12 championship game. The Longhorns will find out Sunday which bowl game will invite them.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Steve Sarkisian addresses issues with Texas football's passing attack