It’s not like Charlie Strong was going to get any sort of a grace period anyway, but the timetable has suddenly been moved up.
By Pete Fiutak | 6/29/2015
There’s no excuse for it. Texas has always been able to wake up in the morning and recruit anyone it wanted, and even with Texas A&M and others picking away a player here and a star prospect there, there really hasn’t been that huge a problem getting top-shelf talent to sign on.
And for those who really do notice and care that Texas, okay, might have gone from being able to get every No. 1 prospect to having to work for it, and for those who really do want to blame it on the talent level taking a dip, two words …
It’s one thing for Oklahoma to be a Big 12 superpower, and Kansas State and Oklahoma State have earned their stripes over the years, but for Baylor to suddenly step up and become a force, and for TCU – a little private school of around 10,000 that was just in the Mountain West three years ago – to go from 4-8 to within a fourth down conversion of getting into the playoff, that’s not going to fly in Austin.
But Strong was thrown in a tough situation when he first stepped into the job. Without opening dogging Mack Brown and how things had slipped from where they were supposed to be at a place like Texas, Strong made sure in his actions that everyone knew that playtime was over.
To way overgeneralize, under Brown’s watch, Texas was always able to get the talent with a brain – and that wasn’t always a positive. Sometimes the top-shelf teams just need the me-play-football type of guys, but that wasn’t really Texas.
That’s not to say that Strong is looking for the lobotomized Neanderthal types – he wants players to do things his way, and that’s it.
Nine players last season were told their services would no longer be needed on the football team as Strong cleaned house, setting the tone for the new way the program was going to be run. For Texas to work, and to be at a whole other level, it needed to change the overall culture. Every coach talks about cranking up the discipline, but Strong had the energy and the juice to impose it right away.
That’s all well and good, but being more focused and tougher all the way around has to equate into results on the field.
Just as it looked like Texas was going to start plowing its way through the storm to get bowl eligible following a three-game winning streak, reality showed just how far the program had to go to become Texas again.
TCU did whatever it wanted in a blowout win, and Arkansas ran all over Strong’s defense as the Longhorns closed out the season losing the final two games by a combined score of 79 to 17.
This year the rebuilding continues. Just three starters are back on a defense that should be great, but might not be special enough to overcome the team’s other issues.
The receiving talent is minimal, the experienced offensive line needs to be far better, a quarterback has to be great, and all the parts need to kick in on offense to keep up with …
TCU and Baylor.
Texas, be better than TCU and Baylor.
What to watch for on offense: More speed. Offensive coordinator Joe Wickline is going to quicken up the pace and try to generate a better tempo. Without the ability to go with the ground-and-pound – at least not at the moment – the offense has to come up with a better rhythm to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker and try to combat the TCUs and Baylors of the world. It’s not going to be the Longhorn version of Oregon or Auburn, and it’s not going to be anything that looks too crazy and frenetic, but it won’t be stagnant. For a team miserable on third downs, it had to do something.
What to watch for on defense: The defensive front is going to be a killer. Gone is All-America tackle Malcom Brown along with all-star end Cedric Reed. Even so, the front four has potential and talent to be deeper, more talented, and better. It all starts with a defensive tackle combination of Desmond Jackson on the nose next to Haasan Ridgeway – it’s not a stretch to call these two the cornerstones of the rebuilding effort under Strong. Naashon Hughes and Shiro Davis will start early on at the ends, but they’ll be pushed hard by several options including Malik Jefferson, the superstar recruit who’s being seen as a difference-maker at either linebacker or end.
The team will be far better if … The O line is far better. The receivers need to emerge, the quarterback play has to be better, and the depth at running back needs to be developed, but it all starts up front. Hit hard by a slew of issues last season, the line had to piece together a starting five that wasn’t ready for primetime. The running game averaged just 3.77 yards per try and gave up 28 sacks. On the plus side, all five starters are back to go along with a few JUCO transfers to help push for jobs. This is an improved overall group, but it has miles to go to become great.
The schedule: The Longhorns will have a shot at a big statement right away with a road game at Notre Dame and with Cal coming to Austin. Rice will be just good enough to be dangerous, too.
– Considering the Oklahoma game is in Dallas, obviously as always, Texas doesn’t have to leave the state from September 12th until Halloween.
– Going to TCU and Baylor might be too tough to overcome. Throw in the road game against Notre Dame and the neutral site date with Oklahoma, and Texas isn’t taking it easy.
– The Longhorns have to take advantage of the off-week to beat Kansas State on October 24th. With at Iowa State and Kansas to follow, there’s a chance to beef up the record a bit with a win over the Wildcats.
– WATCH OUT FOR … the road trip to Iowa State on Halloween. Cyclone fans are still mad over the bad call that turned out to cost Iowa State in the loss to Texas two years ago. Can weird things happen in Ames? Texas has to be ready.
Best offensive player: Senior RB Johnathan Gray. There are a few other backs looking to see time in the rotation, but it’s Gray who’ll be the lead runner for an offense that needs someone to take the offense by the horns. The quarterbacks need to be great, and a No. 1 receiver has to step up, but Gray is the steady veteran with a ton of talent and the upside to be a statistical star. Can he be the featured back? He won’t have to be a workhorse, but with improved play from the line he should be more productive.
Best defensive player: Freshman DE/LB Malik Jefferson. The most likely top defensive players early on will be safety Dylan Haines, corner Duke Thomas and tackle Hassan Ridgeway, but Longhorn fans are through the moon over one of the nation’s top recruits and the signal of what might be coming in the Charlie Strong era. Jefferson might not be the team’s biggest producer right away, but in terms of talent, he’s it. He’s the hybrid of lightning fast outside linebacker and tough end, and at the very least he’s expected to be a devastating pass rusher right out of the box.
Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Tyrone Swoopes. If it’s not Swoopes as the main man for the offense it’s Jerrod Heard who’ll have to lead the way. No matter what, and no matter if the line needs more time, or if the other parts aren’t there, Texas has to get more consistent quarterback play. It was supposed to be the David Ash show last year, but when he was forced to retire, Swoopes stepped in and looked great at times. There were glimpses of potential greatness, but he has to be consistently good.
The season will be a success if … Texas wins ten games. That’s a tall, tall order considering the Longhorns aren’t going to be better than Notre Dame, Oklahoma, TCU or Baylor – and all four of those games are away from Austin. But Texas has to be above that. There are more than enough good players across the board to expect this coaching staff to do more, and while it might take a bowl victory to get there, ten wins would be a sufficient second act for Strong.
Key game: Sept. 5 at Notre Dame. Every week will be vital for Texas and every conference game will be big, but considering the way last season ended, and considering the pressure coming into this season, beating Notre Dame in South Bend would be exactly what the program needs – and would be exactly what Strong could use. With three straight home games to follow, there’s a chance to go on a nice run with a big Week One performance. However, with so many huge games still to go, losing right out of the gate could be disastrous.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Texas 3rd Quarter Scoring: 23 – Texas 4th Quarter Scoring: 100
– Kickoff Return Average: Opponents 30.1 yards – Texas 19.6 yards
– Sacks: Texas 40 for 250 yards – Opponents 28 for 221 yards
What You Need To Know About The Offense: It’s going to be a work in progress after averaging just 337 yards and 21 points per game. The line that was such a disaster at times throughout last year after dealing with injuries and other issues comes back full of experience. The recruiting class from the JUCO ranks will help, but if the line isn’t far better, the offense won’t improve. The goal will be to increase the pace a bit, but the line has to give Tyrone Swoopes more time to work. There’s a good young group of backs to rotate in with Johnathan Gray, but defenses will load up to stop them until the receiving corps finds new performers. The top two receivers – John Harris and Jaxon Shipley – are gone, and it’s going to take a few out-of-the-blue performances to improve the air attack.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: Despite not getting any help from the offense, the defense did its job – for the most part – especially against the pass. This year, there’s an overhaul of talent, and there might not be enough experience, but the upside is for a more consistent season. The line should be fantastic with a strong tackle tandem of Hassan Ridgeway and Desmond Jackson, while super-recruit Malik Jefferson will fill in a role as a pass rusher as either an end or a linebacker. The back seven should swarm with safety Dylan Haines and corner Duke Thomas leading a great secondary that can get around the ball. The linebackers might need a little bit, but the talent is there to be fine in a 4-2-5 alignment the Longhorns are normally running.
Players You Need To Know
1. DE/LB Malik Jefferson, Fr.
While he might be a role player early on, and there might be several experienced players who need to have big seasons, the superstar recruit comes in as the most talented player on the roster from the moment he set foot on campus. The hype was off the charts for a program starving for more elite talent, and he has been every bit the part and more this offseason with blazing speed and a natural pass rushing ability from the outside. At 6-3 and 217 pounds he’s undersized for a true end, and he’s not really a linebacker in the traditional sense, but he’s going to fit into a role on the outside and be allowed to turn it loose. With a rare blend of athletic talents and more than enough toughness to hold up against the run, he’ll be too good to keep off the field. Give it a year before he truly blossoms, but he’ll be a devastating outside linebacker sooner than later.
2. SS Dylan Haines, Jr.
A big producer early on after taking over a starting safety job, he earned all-star honors as a ball-hawking playmaker with four interceptions to go along with 86 tackles. Very smart off the field – earning all-star honors in the classroom – to go along with the mentality of a special teamer, he’s a good athlete who’s great at getting around the ball and making the stop. He was great at coming up with making the big stops and doing big things in the open field against Iowa State and West Virginia, making 14 stops against the Mountaineers, and came up with a key interception against the Cyclones. Now that he knows the job, the numbers and big plays should soar.
3. CB Duke Thomas, Sr.
The veteran corner is one of the team’s most accomplished players in the classroom and has grown into a dangerous performer when the ball is in the air with three interceptions and ten broken up passes. While he’s only 5-11 and 175 pounds, he’s a feisty, willing tackler making 53 stops last season doing most of his work in the open field. Just tough enough to work as a safety if needed, he’s better and more productive at corner with outstanding speed and athleticism. He can fly, having no problems hanging around with the faster receivers. Quick enough to be used as a kick returner, he can move.
4. RB Johnathan Gray, Sr.
The main man for the ground game at times, he came up with a 780-yard, four score 2013 season, but he suffered a torn Achilles heel and missed the last four games. The 5-11, 206-pound veteran stepped in as a true freshman full of hype after being named the 2011 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year, setting a record with 205 career rushing touchdowns highlighted by a 70-score season. Now he’s going to be the do-it-all veteran in the young running back corps after taking off for 636 yards and seven scores and catching 20 passes. Very quick with a great burst and good enough pop, he destroyed West Virginia for 101 yards and three scores on just ten carries, but two games later he was held to no yards on 11 carries. The offense has to establish him early.
5. DT Hasaan Ridgeway, Jr.
At 6-4 and 320 pounds, Ridgeway has the right size to gum up the works on the inside to go along with the quickness and athleticism to see time at end. A good enough pass rusher to find his way into the backfield, he came up with six sacks and 11 tackles for loss with 43 tackles. Very smart in the classroom, and extremely consistent on the field, he went from being a little-used reserve to a blossoming star. While he might not be an anchor, he’ll ease the loss of Malcom Brown.
6. QB Tyrone Swoopes, Jr.
How much better will Swoopes be? He’s still competing for his job despite starting almost all of last season, and even though he has a world of upside, he needs to be better. At 6-4 and 248 pounds with good mobility, he has the right look, the arm, the smarts, and now the experience. Accuracy has been a problem in the past, but when he was on last year, he showed the upside to potentially carry the team on his own. Brilliant against Oklahoma, he threw for 334 yards and ran for 50 yards and a score in the loss, throwing for over 300 yards three times finishing the year hitting 58% of his throws for 2,409 yards and 13 touchdowns with 11 picks, while running for 262 yards and four scores. It’s all about being able to move the offense. He was at the helm when the offensive struggled to put up points on a regular basis – that can’t happen again.
7. WR Daje Johnson, Sr.
While he’s had more than his share of issues – academic ineligibility in key points being a part of the problem – and it always seemed like he was just a hair away from being off the team, when he’s healthy, he has the potential to be among the team’s biggest difference-makers. Bothered by a hamstring injury, the 5-10, 184-pounder missed a bulk of last year and never broke out. He only ran for 88 yards and he caught just five passes for -7 yards. Great on kickoff returns, he averaged close to 25 yards per pop, but he only got four tries. Can he build off a promising first two years and become the breakthrough star the offense needs? The talent is there, and now the drama has to be over.
8. QB Jerrod Heard, RFr.
At the very least, he’s giving the coaching staff another option. At 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s not as big as Tyrone Swoopes, but he’s a better pure passer and a big-time dual-threat prospect. Smart, slippery, and with outstanding rushing skills, he took off for 2,172 yards and 28 touchdowns as a high school senior, while throwing for 2,148 yards. He might be saying and doing all the right things to be a dutiful No. 2 option, but he’s been great at times this offseason and had a great spring game. If the offense sputters at all for a stretch, he’ll get his shot.
9. NT Desmond Jackson, Sr.
A bowling ball on the nose, the senior is a 6-0, 305-pound plugger who anchors the middle – when he’s healthy. Hurt almost all of last year with a foot injury, he’s still a leader and a rock who made 37 tackles with two sacks in 2013 and 25 in 2012. He doesn’t have to do it all with a good rotation ready to help, and he should shine playing next to Hassan Ridgeway. It might not be a great statistical year, but that’s not his role.
10. OT Brandon Hodges, Jr.
Is it possible he could be an answer? Marcus Hutchins should hold the left tackle job, and Connor Williams on the right side, but Hodges is a star 6-5, 310-pound JUCO transfer with the talent and ability to start immediately. He might be a bit raw, but he’s the type of blaster the line desperately needs. Really, really big, and with good movement, he’s a potential anchor of a line – even a veteran one like Texas is bringing back.