Washington's DeBoer, Texas' Sarkisian built playoff teams with holdovers from previous coaches

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Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer speaks during media day for the the upcoming Sugar Bowl NCAA CFP college football semi-final game against Washington in New Orleans, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS – Remaking a roster has never been easier in college football for a coach taking over a new team.

If the players aren't to the new guy's liking, they can be nudged — or even shoved — into the transfer portal to create room for potential upgrades.

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As Deion Sanders told the players at Colorado in his first team meeting: “I’m bringing my luggage with me, and it’s Louis.”

At Washington and Texas, extreme makeovers weren't needed. In fact, the holdovers from the previous regimes for the second-ranked Huskies (13-0) and third-ranked Longhorns (12-1) formed the core of two College Football Playoff teams that will face each other Monday night in the Sugar Bowl.

The programs Washington coach Kalen DeBoer and Texas coach Steve Sarkisian inherited weren't necessarily lacking talent. What they needed was for the players to embrace a new message.

“We weren’t just going to bring a wave of guys in,” DeBoer said Saturday at Sugar Bowl media day. “We were going to be very careful because we knew, you might bring two guys in and it might push the wrong two out. And we wanted to be really careful with that because we felt like there was a base within the program of good football players, great people.”

For the second-ranked Huskies (13-0), 30 of the 44 players on the two-deep depth chart — specialists included — were on the team before DeBoer took over after the 2021 season, including AP All-America receiver Rome Odunze and tackle Troy Fautanu, defensive end Bralen Trice and linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, all third-team All-Americans.

“A lot of us were gonna leave after lake after (former coach Jimmy) Lake got dismissed, and I think you got to give (DeBoer) a lot of credit because he recruited the heck out of all of us. He he was trying super hard and he was having so many authentic conversations,” said Ulofoshio, a sixth-year player who came to Washington when Chris Petersen was the head coach.

Petersen stepped down after the 2019 season and Lake was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, hoping to keep continuity in a program that seemed to be on solid ground.

Lake's two seasons include the abbreviated 2020 pandemic season in the Pac-12 and then a tumultuous 4-8 season in 2021, when he was fired with two games left.

DeBoer was lured away from Fresno State, bringing with him a large chunk of a staff of assistants who had worked with him at several previous stops.

They wanted to send a message to the players: “We chose them. And with us choosing them, we wanted to keep them around,” Washington co-defensive coordinator William Inge said.

Tight end Jack Westover, another sixth-year player, credits Petersen for laying a foundation and building a culture that kept the team tight-knit even through a couple of bumpy seasons.

“It’s important to buy in to the (new) coaches, but really when you do that, you’re buying into each other,” he said.

Sarkisian took over a Texas team after the 2020 season that had gone 25-12 in the previous three years under Tom Herman.

“When you take over a program, you’re trying to figure out what are the issues and I don’t think anybody ever felt like our issue was lack of talent or lack of resources,” Sarkisian said. “I just felt like culturally, we needed to get better. We needed to get more connected. We needed to get more vulnerable, we needed to get honest with one another, so that we played more for one another than playing for ourselves.”

Sarkisian said former Longhorns running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson, both NFL rookies this season, were critical in building the culture he felt was missing at Texas.

“I thought those guys really carried the flag for what we were trying to do in our program, when very easily those two guys could have went somewhere else,” Sarkisian said.

There are 16 players from the 2020 team still playing for Texas, including some of the Longhorns' best: All-America defensive tackle T'Vondre Sweat, leading tackler Jaylan Ford, defensive back Jahdae Barron and starting offensive linemen Christian Jones and Jake Majors.

“We all took it upon ourselves to be leaders and kind of encouraged what Sark was preaching and what these coaches were preaching because we knew that we had a chance to be one of the best in the country,” Ford said.

Initially, the change was jarring.

“You do something a certain way for three years. And then they basically came in and was like, the way that you’re lifting is wrong, the way that you’re running is wrong, the way that you're practicing is wrong, everything that you’ve done wrong, and this is right,” Jones said.

Jones also noticed quickly that Sarkisian was trying hard to connect with the players. Jones recalled Sarkisian, less than a week into his tenure at Texas, asking about his girlfriend.

“He cares about everything that's a part of your life because he knows that it all ties into the product on the field,” Jones said.

Sarkisian instituted Culture Wednesdays in an attempt to get his players to open up, the way he does to them about his past struggles with alcohol that cost him the head coaching job at Southern California and led him to rehab.

“I really believe that culture is organic. I don’t think it’s a sign up in your team room,” Sarkisian said.

Barron said Culture Wednesday was a way for the players to get to know their teammates away from the field.

“Knowing that if you can trust them off the field, it’s easy to trust somebody on the field,” Barron said.

By building upon what they found, DeBoer and Sarkisian didn't need to go searching for what they needed to win.


Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com.


AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football

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