Call it the Season of Redemption.
Lord knows the Longhorns need to redeem themselves.
You have to admit that after a highly disappointing 6-7 season in Charlie Strong’s first year, that sounds a lot better than the Year After Bad Coin Tosses, Costly Turnovers and a Horrendous Bowl Game.
Strong openly conceded in August that he fully expected to hop off the plane from Louisville, “push a button” and be off and running at Texas. Uh, not so fast. Now push may come to shove.
As he heads into his second season in the Big Time, he has an unproven but experienced quarterback, a questionable but improving offensive line, a defense missing six key playmakers from 2014, a wealth of freshmen talent and an anxious fan base.
Strong has yet to push the button to return Texas to the elite for the first time since 2009 as he tries to keep his program afloat and turn the corner in 2016. He’s clearly a year away. No one expects a double-win season, especially when Texas’ five toughest games all come on the road.
But there are promising signs.
The entire mentality of the team appears strong. Practices were spirited, intense. Offensive guard Kent Perkins went so far as to predict a national championship for the Longhorns. Slow down, Perk.
The talent level, too, is on the uptick as Strong promises to start as many as seven true or redshirt freshmen in the opener against Notre Dame. Here’s betting about 15 play.
Based on those workouts and interviews with the coaches, players and sources, here are my Texas predictions for 2015, many of which probably will be crazy:
- Tyrone Swoopes will start every game this season. Strong and play-caller Shawn Watson have so much invested in the junior quarterback and have totally bought in to his advanced maturity and ability to rally the team around him. That faith may not be shared yet by fans or media until it’s justified by on-the-field results. It’s time.
- Swoopes will improve on his touchdown/interception ratio and throw for 20 touchdowns with 10 picks.
- He will complete 61 percent of his passes, throw for 2,183 yards and run for 312 yards and five touchdowns.
- His backup, Jerrod Heard, will get a few series in the Irish game — Strong should play him some in the second quarter when the outcome is on the line — and play sporadically this season and finish with 254 yards rushing and seven scores.
- Heard will be intercepted four times and throw for 483 yards and two touchdowns.
- Two of Texas’ picks will be returned for touchdowns.
- Johnathan Gray, lighter on his feet this season at 211 pounds and highly motivated, won’t have to share top billing with anyone. But the backfield is well set with competent, very physical power runners in D’Onta Foreman and freshman Chris Warren III. Gray will not top 1,000 yards, but will rush for 932 yards and seven touchdowns. Foreman will add 385 yards and three scores, and Warren will manage 272 yards and one score. Texas will try to pound the ball late in games behind an upgraded offensive line.
- On that line, left tackle Connor Williams will be named to the freshman All-American team. With Williams and rookie guard Patrick Vahe already in the starting lineup, players have been put on notice that no one’s position is secure. The two novices will be on NFL rosters someday. Jake Raulerson will press Taylor Doyle for minutes at center. The line is better conditioned, very fit and angry. They will be the most improved part of the Longhorns team.
- Expect a revolving door at wide receiver. I love long-limbed freshman John Burt, who will start, and I’m real high on Dorian Leonard, who had a strong fall camp and will have 23 grabs for 267 yards and a score. Burt will catch 32 passes for 415 yards and three scores. Marcus Johnson morphs into John Harris and makes 65 catches for 787 yards and finds the end zone eight times.
- Daje Johnson will still drop as many balls as he catches, but also will jet-sweep his way to at least one long TD run and catch 29 balls for 232 yards and three scores. He’ll also be the punt returner — at least until his first two fumbles. Armanti Foreman has 24 receptions for 438 yards and two scores. Freakish DeAndre McNeal, who has a nasty mindset, will block his butt off and also catch 17 balls for 212 yards and a score.
- Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford have touted a stacked defensive line as the team’s No. 1 strength, but there isn’t a Malcom Brown in the bunch. Let’s hope the dozen or so linemen provide enough muscle up front that the back seven does not get exposed. Shiro Davis will lead the team with six sacks and 10 pressures, and Tank Jackson will be the most disruptive force inside with 75 tackles and eight for losses.
- Middle linebacker Malik Jefferson is the real deal. He’ll be the Big 12’s freshman of the year and record 89 tackles. Peter Jinkens will be solid. Texas’ linebackers will be fast, but there’s little depth. Always been big on Naashon Hughes. Anthony Wheeler, yet another freshman, will pleasantly surprise.
- The secondary will have its shares of successes and failures. Texas will play as many as eight players in the defensive backfield, including rising stars Kris Boyd and Holton Hill, and up to 22 overall players at Notre Dame. John Bonney grabbed the second cornerback spot. Duke Thomas will have flashes of excellence at nickel, but also will get burned occasionally. Safety Jason Hall will develop into a more consistent tackler instead of just trying to blow up running backs. The team will have nine interceptions.
- It will take a while to percolate, but the defense will have some growing pains before developing into a good unit by November or “at some point in the season,” Bedford said.
- Michael Dickson and Mitchell Becker will both get chances to punt.
- Nick Rose will kick a 50-yard-plus field goal and will miss one in the 30s. He’ll finish with 13 field goals in 18 attempts.
- Texas will beat a team it shouldn’t (Oklahoma), lose to a team it shouldn’t (Kansas State) and flirt with one of the biggest national upsets before falling short (TCU). The Longhorns will finish with a 7-5 record and play Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl on Jan. 2.
The 2016 season can’t get here soon enough.