Some 12 months ago, it was suggested in this space that the local football team would fall flat on its face in 2014 and limp home with a 7-5 record.
The players were mad. The defensive coach was incensed. The head coach was probably just alarmed.
Alas, the Longhorns lost their last two games in humbling fashion, scarcely made a first down in the bowl disaster against the Arkansas Razorbacks and stumbled to a 6-7 record, meaning the columnist was way too optimistic.
Fast-forward to this August, and the scenario is even less rosy. Which is why my first question to Charlie Strong on Thursday was this:
Is there a chance this year’s team could actually be worse than last year’s?
It caught the second-year head coach a bit off guard. Strong sighed deeply and said,”Oooh, I don’t know about that one.”
Strong doesn’t want to think in those terms, and who can blame him. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said,”As a coach, I can’t think that way.”
And he shouldn’t.
But be realistic. The Bevos are picked to finish a distant fifth in the 10-team Big 12, if you count Kansas and lowly Iowa State. They had just one player, unproven cornerback Duke Thomas, named to the preseason all-conference team, which is a real slight to shaggy kicker Nick Rose. It’s hard to define a strength.
One national publication, Sporting News, called Texas the most overrated team in the league. At fifth? No one has the Longhorns in their top 25. A national writer listed the most intriguing 25 head coaches in college football. Strong didn’t make the list, although I ardently disagree. Other than Jim Harbaugh, I think there’s more interest in Strong’s progress in Year 2 than nearly anyone.
And Strong has to just pray his team can pull some magic, stay healthy and find enough wins to return to a bowl game to show progress. Unless Vince Young walks through that door, I see a window of five to seven victories. Win eight or nine, and we check Strong’s background for Vince Lombardi lineage.
Strong had more talent last year. Ten players, five of them draftees, off last year’s team are on NFL rosters. Even the deep snapper is gone.
But how could this team be better when it lost seven defensive starters – and five of them were the best players on the entire team – and said goodbye to the top two wide receivers and leading rusher? Hmmmm.
It’s largely a team devoid of stars, much less superstars, unless you count freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson. Texas wisely trotted out the dreadlocked, effervescent Jefferson on Thursday when the team reported, and he’s already a media star. He’ll be a star on the field soon enough.
Are you already a star, I asked Jefferson. He’s big on manners as well as tackles.
“No, sir, I’m not a star,” he answered. “I’m not anything yet until I get there and show myself.”
This team isn’t anything, either, but that can change. Did anyone see TCU going from 4-8 to almost Final Four? So why not Texas?
There’s the intrigue over the starting quarterback. Strong revealed he would play Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard in the opener at Notre Dame, but said he’s sure there will be “a clear-cut No. 1 starter” by the end of August. Will there be one by December?
Jefferson said a goal is being named Big 12 freshman of the year. Bet on it.
Johnathan Gray has the stage to himself at running back if he wants.
And a top-10 recruiting class could wind up all over the field from offensive tackle Connor Williams to cornerbacks Holton Hill and Kris Boyd to receivers DeAndre McNeal (who Jefferson said will be a tight end), Ryan Newsome and John Burt.
So there are some exciting prospects.
And this could all work in Strong’s favor. He’s got a chance to sell his youthful team on opportunity and competition. There’s hardly a position that’s nailed down, except those of Thomas, Gray, defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway and maybe a couple of offensive linemen like guard Sedrick Flowers and Kent Perkins.
“It’s still up in the air,” Bedford said of a starting lineup. “If you look at the depth chart, there are a lot of freshmen on the second team. That’s where we are with the program right now. By the end of training camp, they might be first-team, and they might be third-team.”
And is there any difference between the first and third teams? Separation begins with Friday’s first practice.
“Nobody on our team is one of those big-time guys everybody talks about,” Swoopes said. “We’ve just got a lot of good talent that will show during the season.”
Hopefully, Swoopes meant this season.
Contact Kirk Bohls at 512-445-3772.