In his first news conference since Texas officially announced it is moving to the SEC, new Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian said on Thursday that he knows the Longhorns will be a target for opposing fans.
"I didn't take this job blind," Sarkisian said. "We're everybody's biggest game. I think coming out of [the SEC move] and the talk of what's happened, our bull's-eye got a little bit bigger. We can't be naive to that. Whether it's crowd noise, whether it's yelling at us on the bench, whether it's the 'Horns Down' signal, all those things are really irrelevant to our ability to execute and succeed at a really high level."
Sarkisian said he understands he has to navigate the excitement of his own fans and even discussion of the SEC in conversations with recruits. With public comments by Texas and SEC administrators that the move won't happen until 2025, he said he has to balance between looking toward the future and keeping the team focused on the season at hand.
"We've got a lot of unfinished business here in the Big 12 that we want to make sure we take care of," Sarkisian said. "This year is really the start of it. That's really where our focus is. I don't know what the timetable on this other thing is looking like. What I do know is, we're playing Louisiana on Sept. 4 and we've got a Big 12 schedule that's very challenging."
With fall camp starting Saturday, Sarkisian addressed reporters on the state of his team. He said that the spring practices weren't enough to decide on a starting quarterback in the race between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card but that he feels both are capable and that he'll need both QBs during the season.
"I'm really trying to find the complete player," he said. "It's our job to develop the complete player, but also who feels comfortable playing that style of play is something that I'm going to be looking for."
This will be Sarkisian's third go-round as a head coach, with a 46-35 record at Washington and USC. He said the past four seasons as offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons and Alabama, playing in NFL playoff games and for college national championships, have helped him find a comfort level.
"I'm in a much different space, quite frankly, as far as being a little bit more at peace, a little bit more consistent in my approach," Sarkisian said. "I've been able to kind of recalibrate and adjust myself over that time since I was a coach before to where I am now, and there's a lot more calm, there's a lot more peace, more clarity. I just feel really comfortable in the arena now, and am very confident in our approach to what we do."
Sarkisian said that the Longhorns are 90% vaccinated and that they're focused on remaining vigilant with 40,000 students returning to campus soon.
"Hopefully, we can keep getting ourselves closer to 100%, because inevitably, we're all just trying to protect one another," he said.
He said that in terms of health, only running back Gabriel Watson and linebacker Ben Davis, a transfer from Alabama, are being held back to monitor their progress recovering from injuries. Otherwise, he said, the team is at full strength.
But with camp starting, Sarkisian is excited to prepare for the run-up to that first game against Louisiana, which beat Iowa State in Ames last year to open the season. With Oklahoma coming off its sixth straight Big 12 title, and the Sooners picked again to win the conference in the media poll -- with the Longhorns third behind the Sooners and the Cyclones -- Sarkisian believes the Longhorns can contend right away.
"I think we're plenty talented to compete for a championship," he said. "What I need to recognize is, are we playing at a level to compete for a championship? There's a lot that goes into that, but I do believe we have the talent, the depth to do it."