Texas football is in a strange place.
As a Nebraska fan who watched his team languish under Texas’ shadow for a decade and a half, watching the Longhorns struggle to get over the hump has been bizarre indeed. Since Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley in 2009, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor, and TCU can claim at least part of a Big 12 championship. Texas can’t.
Charlie Strong was the man to change all that, but the Big 12 is a difficult conference in which to build when you have to play everyone in the conference every year. Strong did himself few favors by going scorched earth on the roster after he was hired. Depth has been and will likely continue to be an issue. And typical of teams lacking depth, Texas has been wildly inconsistent: in 2015, they scored 44 in defeat against Cal, 45 in defeat against Texas Tech, 59 in victory over Kansas, but were held to three by Notre Dame and shut out by Iowa State (!). They allowed 50 to TCU, 45 to Cal, and 48 to Texas Tech, but beat Playoff-bound Oklahoma and pounced on a weakened Baylor team.
Texas is recruiting well (last four class ranks, via 247 Sports: 20th, 20th, 9th, 9th). And speaking strictly from a football-based standpoint, no school stands to benefit from the upheaval at Baylor more than Texas, who has already poached a number of its 2016 recruits, and are sure to steal more from the 2017 class.
Now Strong has to turn these star recruits into wins. It seems strange to suggest his seat is hot after just two years, but it probably is. And Strong is making moves indicative of a coach gasping for breath. Namely, his new offensive coordinator.
TEXAS ADOPTS BAYLOR’S OFFENSE, WORLD IMPLODES
In 2015, Texas’ offense was frequently good and occasionally woeful. A different coordinator, one more familiarized with power or pro-style concepts, might have come in. He’d have seen a pair of capable running quarterbacks in Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes and a pair of sledgehammer running backs in D’Onta Freeman and Chris Warren III, and seen potential for a heavy dose of ground-and-pound. The ingredients for the best rushing attack in the Big 12 are all here.
Instead, Strong, a longtime slow tempo, pro-style adherent, made a surprise move in the offseason to hire Sterlin Gilbert. Gilbert previously coached under Dino Babers, who previously coached under Art Briles, which means the Briles coaching tree has officially branched all the way to Austin.
Yep. Go back ten years and tell a Texas fan that in ten years, his team will be grabbing from Baylor’s bag of tricks in an attempt to get back on top.
In a lot of ways, it’s actually a return to form for the Longhorns, who with the likes of McCoy at the helm spread the field and threw the crap out of the ball. But it’s a complete diversion for Strong. Gilbert is likely handing the keys to new freshman Shane Buechele, who dazzled in the spring. But I hope Gilbert doesn’t square peg/round hole this thing. He can let these running backs carry the team, but that’s not his M.O. Gilbert’s 2015 Tulsa squad ran at one of the fastest tempos in the country and he’s bringing Texas there, personnel or not. Does he feel comfortable letting a freshman sling the ball 40+ times a game? There are enough four stars at the various skill positions that you can color me intrigued. That type of transition isn’t unprecedented even in the Big 12, when TCU flipped the switch. But more often these stories end much differently.
THIS DEFENSE WILL PROBABLY BOUNCE BACK
Strong and favorite DC Vance Bedford have always fielded stingy defenses, but Texas’ in 2015 was not. The Horns lost a ton of experience from a dominant 2014 unit, and opposing teams took advantage, finding Texas’ run defense plenty pliable.
But there’s plenty to get excited about. Two junior linemen, Naashon Hughes and Poona Ford, return after posting impressive numbers in 2015, as do a pair of linebackers (five-star Maliek Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler) who stood out as freshmen. Both units are stocked with talent and experience,
And the Horns return all the important pieces from a solid pass defense, which is obviously important in the Big 12. Senior safety Dylan Haines picked off five passes, and corner Davante Davis broke up seven. Most of these guys were freshmen in 2015. The ceiling is very high. The Longhorns lose a fantastic pass rusher in linebacker Peter Jinkens but the defensive line is perfectly capable of getting after the quarterback.
This was a unit that was fine at preventing big plays but got cut up by a thousand short ones. They need to tighten up against the run and maintain their effectiveness in the secondary.
TWO GAMES TURNED ON SPECIAL TEAMS GAFFES IN 2015
A missed PAT would have sent the Cal game into overtime, and a bungled punt snap let Oklahoma State kick a game-winning field goal. That will probably be all anybody remembers about special teams in Texas in 2015, which is unfortunate because Nick Rose was a fine placekicker and Daje Johnson a serviceable punt returner.
Almost all those contributors are gone, save for punter Michael Dickson. Three kickers took shots in the spring, and with all those four stars at wideout and running back surely there’s somebody who can return kicks.
. . . is going to be a one-stop shop for NARRATIVES. The Irish blasted the punchless Longhorns in week one last year. It would buy Strong a great deal of goodwill to upset a team people are hailing as a potential playoff contender in the opening week. If the Irish win comfortably, start sandblasting the national title trophy and start penning Strong’s obituary.
I’m being sarcastic, obviously. But that will be a very difficult game against a loaded Irish squad. I don’t see Texas beating Oklahoma (granted, I didn’t last year either), or keeping pace with a Texas Tech which will be absolutely electric offensively. I think people are underrating TCU. But the rest of Texas’ schedule is certainly winnable.
Is there a magic number of wins for Strong to keep his job? If Texas misses a bowl again, will a freshman quarterback and a new offensive coordinator grant him a stay of execution? Given the amount of youth on this team it might take until 2017 to see its true potential.