Key players separating from pack as Orange-White Game looms

Carter Yates

Texas finished their ninth practice of spring ball Tuesday morning, marking less than two weeks until the annual Orange-White Spring Game. Through the first few weeks of spring practice, head coach Steve Sarkisian said two players have stood out.

Sophomore David Gbenda primarily contributed on special teams in 2020 but has predominantly played inside linebacker this spring after Texas lost senior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown to an injury and senior linebacker Juwan Mitchell to the transfer portal. Sarkisian said Gbenda is making a case for starting time this fall with standout performances in the team’s scrimmages.

“I’ve been very, very impressed with him,” Sarkisian said. “He is flying around the football field, playing physical. He’s got a real leader’s mentality.”

The Longhorns lack depth at the position, especially considering that Mitchell led the team in tackles last season. So far, Gbenda and sophomore linebacker Jaylon Ford are receiving the bulk of the work, and junior safety Tyler Owens hinted on his Twitter account April 7 that he is playing in the box, presumably to bolster the group.

On the offensive line, senior Denzel Okafor is turning heads. Okafor is gearing up for his fifth season with Texas after utilizing his extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19. His experience and familiarity with the Longhorns’ program is paying dividends with the new coaching staff.

“Denzel’s probably playing as good, if not better, than anybody up front right now,” Sarkisian said.

But while Sarkisian noted Gbenda and Okafor as the standouts, he kept his cards closer to the vest when discussing the quarterback battle.

Junior Casey Thompson and redshirt freshman Hudson Card are still duking it out to see who can replace four-year starter Sam Ehlinger as the Texas signal caller, and while both have shown flashes of brilliance, Sarkisian said he is working with them to play more loosely.

“Clearly, they’re both very athletic young men. They throw the ball well,” Sarkisian said. “I think they’ve got a good grasp of what we’re trying to do. Now, it’s just getting into the flow of letting things happen naturally and not playing quite as robotic.”
Sarkisian has made a name for himself as a “quarterback guru” over his coaching career, most recently molding former Alabama backup Mac Jones into the 2020 Davey O’Brien Award winner and a potential first-round NFL draft pick this spring. He’s looking to do the same this season with two former backups in Thompson and Card.

“A quarterback’s responsibility is to manage the game, to control the tempo of the offense,” Sarkisian said. “To me, good quarterbacks are game managers, but they also have the ability to be aggressive when called upon to do so.”

While Sarkisian said the coaching staff and players are still learning how to work together to build the best product possible, the two facets are making significant inroads as spring practice rolls on.

“We are still learning one another. I think we’re still in the growth stage, but I think the ice has been broken,” Sarkisian said. “There’s an understanding of the style of team we want to be (and) the expectation from the coaching staff to the players and then from the players to each other.”