How Nick Saban’s words, life in the NFL shaped Steve Sarkisian’s overhaul of the Texas offensive line

Listen to Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian or offensive coordinator Kyle Flood what discuss they value in offensive linemen and it doesn’t take long for either of them to bring up how much they like large humans like 6-foot-6-inch, 345-pound four-star prospect Payton Kirkland (Orlando, Fla./Dr. Phillips), who on Saturday became the 20th member of the Longhorns’ 2023 recruiting class. Sarkisian brought Flood with him to the Forty Acres from Alabama where the two former Crimson Tide assistant coaches helped Nick Saban‘s organization end the 2020 season with a win over Ohio State in the title game of the College Football Playoff behind an offensive line featuring 6-foot-6-inch, 312-pound Outland Trophy winner Alex Leatherwood as the lightest man in the trenches.

Mauling opponents in the trenches with a group whose primary starters throughout the season (an injury to 325-pound All-American center Landon Dickerson in a victory over Florida for the SEC championship led to 315-pound Chris Owens Starting both the CFP semifinal and championship games) averaged 6-feet-5 inches in height and tipped the scales at an average of 334.2 pounds had Sarkisian wanting more than what the group he’d eventually inherit in Austin could immediately offer. All-American left tackle Samuel Cosmi declared for the NFL draft before Sarkisian took the job, but in addition to the unit’s best player moving on, Sarkisian didn’t like what he saw when taking stock of the depth chart while going through the interview process with the Texas brass.

“Honestly, you could ask CDC (Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte) or [anybody], that was one of the things I said: ‘We need bigger humans in our program. And we need more of them,” Sarkisian said at Big 12 Media Days when he was asked when he realized that the offensive line needed an overhaul. “The numbers weren’t the way I would’ve liked it and the body structure — there’s just a lot to it.

“For me — everybody builds a roster a different way — I just value up-front play in our style of play and a level of physicality that you need to play with and I think that so much of your team and your program and the identity of that comes through the big people up front.”

With that said, Sarkisian’s five seasons as Washington’s head coach don’t reflect such a mentality with the Huskies rolling out lighter offensive lines, especially compared to the ones Sarkisian would coach thereafter on the college level. Sarkisian’s 18-game run as USC’s head coach saw him coach and recruit bigger bodies, but it wasn’t until his time with Saban as an Alabama analyst in 2016 that his perception of up-front personnel started to shift.

“We all want to recruit the best linemen we can get and sometimes you’re at places where you have access to more than others, but two things stood out to me,” Sarkisian said after recently partaking in a panel discussion with the other 11 FBS head coaches in the state of Texas at the Texas High School Coaches Association’s annual convention in San Antonio. “Coach Saban at Alabama, I give him credit. He used to say there’s a reason heavyweights don’t fight lightweights. That was one of his classic sayings that always resonated with me.”

As for the other thing that got Sarkisian on his current path of putting a premium on size when building the Texas offensive line, it was his two-season stint in the NFL as the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Taking over an offensive line that under current San Francisco 49ers head coach and Lifetime Longhorn Kyle Shanahan Fielded the lightest offensive line in the NFL (304.4 pounds per lineman), Sarkisian’s lines (Flood was the assistant offensive line coach in Atlanta) remained the same with the Falcons’ primary starters averaging 304.6 pounds per man in 2017 and 305.2 pounds across the board in 2018.

With Sarkisian calling plays on offense, Atlanta won an NFC Wild Card Game in 2017 and finished the 2018 season ranked sixth in the league in yards per game (389.1) and 10th in points per game (25.9). Further, the lack of size up front hampered the Falcons when facing bigger defensive fronts, something Sarkisian vowed to fix if he was ever again allowed to lead a program.

“Every time we went and played teams from the AFC or NFC North, we would struggle,” Sarkisian said. “Those were big, physical teams when you start talking about the Ravens, the Patriots, the Eagles and I thought to myself, ‘Man if I ever get another chance to do it on my own, I’m going to make sure we never walk into a stadium and get bullied.’ To do it, you have to recruit guys that can be the bully and not get bullied. You’ve got to recruit big people.”

With Kirkland joining a 2023 offensive line class that currently includes Jaydon Chatman (6-4, 300), Connor Stroh (6-6.5, 335), Trevor Goosby (6-6, 280) and Andre Cojoe (6-6, 330), Sarkisian and Flood are well on their way to successfully piggybacking a beefy haul in 2022. It remains to be seen how the newcomers in Sarkisian’s second season will perform if and when they’re given snaps, but the fact that five of the 11 Longhorns weighing 314 pounds or more on the school’s official roster are offensive linemen recruited in the first complete cycle for Sarkisian and Flood (314-pound) Neto Umeozulu318-pound Kelvin Banks321-pound Devon Campbell337-pound Malik Agbo and 374-pound Cameron Williams) shows the current regime is dead serious about how Texas wants to look and play at the point of attack.

“To me, when you control the line of scrimmage in football, the game is a lot easier for the skill players when you’re winning up front,” Sarkisian said.

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