Arch Manning’s big day, Longhorns’ biggest concern: Takeaways from Texas football spring game

AUSTIN, Texas — For those wondering how ready Arch Manning will be if called upon this season, the former No. 1 recruit provided plenty of encouragement on Saturday.

In the most extensive playing time Manning has received in a public setting since signing with the Longhorns, the redshirt freshman looked sharp, confident and in command in a way that nobody outside the Forty Acres has seen since his arrival.

Manning’s performance during Texas’ annual Orange and White spring game — 19-of-26 passing for 355 yards and three touchdowns — was his best front-facing showing since he arrived at Texas. It will provide plenty of offseason fodder for observers to chew on until the Longhorns’ season opener arrives on Aug. 31. Some may wonder aloud if there’s a potential quarterback controversy brewing (there isn’t; Quinn Ewers is the entrenched starter heading into the season), but Manning’s accuracy and comfort level operating the offense should give Texas coach Steve Sarkisian peace of mind about what he has at quarterback heading into the fall.

There’s Ewers, a soon-to-be three-year starter, entering what is likely his final season on campus as a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate. And if he gets injured — which he has each of the last two seasons — or the Longhorns otherwise need another passer, Manning looks ready in a way he hasn’t since he enrolled in January 2023.

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Yes, this is just a spring game, and grand proclamations should be met with caution. But anyone who has closely watched Manning since his arrival could tell the difference in him from last year to this year. In his one meeting with reporters last year, before Texas’ Sugar Bowl loss to Washington, Manning mentioned the challenges in adjusting to the next level after never riding the bench in high school.

“Some days, it’s tough,” Manning said in December. “There’s hard workouts, hard practices, they expect a lot out of you. … Practice is way different. You’re in high school, and you’re kinda the guy, but in (college), practice, it’s tough. And I like it that way because they want what’s best for you.”

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Steve Sarkisian has plenty of reason to be happy about Texas’ quarterback situation. (Sara Diggins / USA Today)

With Maalik Murphy serving as Texas’ backup quarterback in 2023, there was a buffer that allowed Manning time to acclimate and develop. But after Murphy transferred to Duke in the winter, that buffer is gone. If Ewers goes down, Manning’s up next. If Saturday is any indication, it looks like the Longhorns are in good hands.

The talent and ability that contributed to Manning’s lofty recruiting status were on full display. He capably moved through his progressions, showed patience in the pocket, drove the ball with plenty of velocity and displayed laser-like accuracy on his throws. Of his first 20 attempts, only one didn’t hit a receiver in the hands.

Sarkisian was mostly encouraged by Manning’s progress in the pocket.

“The biggest thing I saw from Arch was something that we really harped on with him … playing the play, keeping your eyes up,” Sarkisian said. “When he gets himself in trouble at times at quarterback is when he relies on his athleticism, which he has a ton of and he can do. And there’s times today I blew the whistle on him, and I don’t know if he was really happy with me that I blew it, but he’s (in a) non-contact (jersey). But when he keeps his eyes up and steps up in the pocket, he can deliver those balls down the field, the way we like to play.”



What Arch Manning’s big day in Texas spring game means for QB, Longhorns

Some other takeaways from Texas’ spring game:

1. The biggest concern area for Sarkisian coming out of spring? The defensive line depth.

“We don’t have enough bodies,” he said. “There’s not enough big humans. … so we’ve got to address it.”

Losing T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy — who combined for 941 snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus — is the most difficult personnel loss the Longhorns must overcome. Their likely replacements, Alfred Collins and Vernon Broughton, have plenty of experience and were regular rotation players, combining for 692 snaps last season. But behind them is a lot of inexperience, in the form of Jaray Bledsoe (85 snaps), Aaron Bryant (51) and Sydir Mitchell (17).

Landing former Arizona defensive lineman Tiaoalii Savea in the transfer portal helped (he saw 381 snaps in 2023, including 350 on the defensive line), but it sounds like Sarkisian and his staff will seek more help in the portal soon. Could former TCU defensive tackle Damonic Williams, who recently entered the portal, be a potential addition here? If so, it would go a long way toward addressing that concern.

2. The starting defensive line group made its presence felt immediately, as edge rusher Ethan Burke batted a Ewers’ pass, which Alfred Collins hauled in to return for a touchdown for the game’s first points. And while the interior defensive line depth is of concern to Sarkisian, he sounded confident in what Texas has coming off the edge.

“Our edge pass rush is real,” Sarkisian said.

Citing the return of Burke and Barryn Sorrell, the addition of UTSA transfer Trey Moore, the addition of five-star freshman Colin Simmons and four-star Zina Umeozulu and the development of Colton Vasek, there’s talent and depth that should make Texas both effective and consistent in rushing opposing quarterbacks.

“We’ve really tried to address that position, and I think it’s paying off for us, and it will pay off for us in the fall,” Sarkisian said.

3. If there’s a true freshman fans can get excited about based on Saturday’s game, it’s receiver Ryan Wingo. The former five-star recruit has received plenty of praise from Sarkisian throughout spring practice for the way he has made his presence felt, and that translated to Saturday’s game, during which he caught two touchdown passes and showed off his speed.

“He’s an awesome kid, he’s got great work ethic, he’s humble and shows up every day trying to get better. It showed this spring,” Sarkisian said.

4. The talent around Ewers in the passing game will look a lot different this year. Xavier Worthy, Jordan Whittington, Adonai Mitchell and Ja’Tavion Sanders are out. Isaiah Bond, Matthew Golden, Silas Bolden and Amari Niblack are in, not to mention returning young receivers like Johntay Cook, Ryan Niblett and DeAndre Moore.

All but Bolden — who arrives this summer — played on Saturday and contributed. Moore flashed with his big touchdown catch early and seemed to have a strong rapport with Manning. Golden was used in the return game and on offense. Cook and Niblett got early action in the game.

Sarkisian liked the speed showed by Wingo and Bond, who transferred from Alabama. Sarkisian was encouraged by the contested catches Cook made. Golden, Sarkisian said, was “a little bit limited today” but still contributed.

Feeling out the rotation and who the Longhorns can lean on will be an important task in the coming months for Sarkisian and his staff. Worthy, Whittington, Mitchell and Sanders were reliable, experienced veterans, and even though the Longhorns hit the portal hard to add experience, this is the first time all of them are playing together.

“We’re going to have more than just a couple of guys that we can rely on,” Sarkisian said. “There weren’t many guys that had caught passes in DKR, in front of our fans, for our team. So how were they gonna respond, how were they going to play? For them to make some catches and big plays at critical moments, that’s something we can build upon.”

5. The number of big plays in the passing game was encouraging for the offense, but also a little bit of concern for the defense.

Sarkisian acknowledged that with split teams and different combinations of players in the secondary, that things will happen, but he noted that it’s important to figure out “solidifying the back end and making sure we have the right combination of guys” in the secondary.

6. Another true freshman who stood out was quarterback Trey Owens, the Longhorns’ December quarterback signee.

Owens, a four-star prospect from Cy-Fair High near Houston, threw three touchdown passes and made some impressive throws deep and over the middle of the field. Owens, who was a three-star recruit when he committed to the Longhorns but eventually earned four-star status, validated Sarkisian’s initial instinct with his performance on Saturday.



What’s it like to be the Texas QB recruit after Arch Manning? Meet Trey Owens

“Not to take a shot of those that put stars on quarterbacks, but I trust our evaluation, and we can probably recruit any quarterback in the country,” he said. “But Trey Owens is just really talented, and he can make a lot of throws. And so I’m very encouraged with where we’re at with the quarterback position.”

(Top photo: John Rivera / Icon Sportswire)

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