The season starts now for Charlie Strong.
By the time his Texas Longhorns take the field against Notre Dame on Sept. 3, Strong will hopefully be ready for anything the Irish throw at him. He’d better, because things haven’t gone swimmingly in his first two seasons.
Spring football is no longer just a warmup period for the big stuff that comes every fall. Strong has to get his coaches and players prepped and ready to make some consistent noise for the first time in his Texas tenure.
Oh, there have been highlights — last year’s wins over Oklahoma and Baylor rank right at the top — but the disappointments have been too numerous to mention with hopes of maintaining your attention over the next five minutes.
This year’s spring practices have taken on a different feel because of what’s happened these past two years. A seven-win regular season would represent a nice step forward, but Strong will sleep much better next offseason with eight or more.
Here are 10 reasons why the next month is the most important offseason month to date of Strong’s Texas tenure:
Because the fan base needs early proof that 2016 will be different. You can’t keep Longhorn Nation in mediocre limbo forever. Strong’s 11-14 record through his first 25 games could have been much better had the Horns just made a couple more plays in the games that still feel like razors — UCLA in 2014, and the devastating back-to-back losses to Cal and Oklahoma State last season.
Because of the tough non-conference slate. What happened to the good old days when the Horns could open the season with a pair of beat downs against overmatched opponents? Not anymore. Notre Dame and Cal aren’t world beaters, but they’re certainly good enough to beat the Longhorns, as evidenced by the events of 2015. The UTEP game that’s sandwiched in between will be a welcome sight. I think.
Because they will be young again. The Horns played more than a dozen freshmen last season and expect to play quite a few again this fall. Want proof? Only three returning seniors — safety Dylan Haines, defensive tackle Paul Boyette and tight end Caleb Bluiett — started more than two games last season.
Because this coaching staff needs time to gel. Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford are the only ones on this staff who were there to kick off Strong’s 2014 debut season. New offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and offensive line coach Matt Mattox are the two most important hires. They must produce fireworks early for an offense that’s bringing back more experienced playmakers than its defensive counterparts. Strong knows this is likely his last major overhaul of a staff.
Because the QB position is up in the air. Conventional wisdom suggests Jerrod Heard has the incumbent’s edge going into the spring, but Tyrone Swoopes has experience. On the day he was hired, Gilbert said he would play the one that was playing the best. Heard has to the choice because Strong surely doesn’t want to go into the opener against Notre Dame with Swoopes — who struggled mightily in South Bend last year — or backups Kai Locksley, Matthew Merrick and Shane Buechele.
Because Strong needs to get back to the talk of football. After a great national signing day class, Strong was an unwilling would-be participant in a divorce action, which gave opponents negative recruiting ammunition against him because of his core values platform. The business of football is a chance to put his personal life in the background, especially if he can post a winning season.
Because the freshmen defensive tackles need reps. Despite a freshman All-American debut from linebacker Malik Jefferson, the Horns had plenty of problems against teams that just decided to run it right at them. Baylor’s wildcat was the perfect illustration of the problems facing the Horns, who won in Waco despite giving up 395 yards on the ground. It’s time to see if youngsters like Chris Daniels and Jordan Elliott are ready to step in and compete for starter’s minutes.
Because the offensive line has undergone major changes. First off, there’s a new guy coaching the position, as Mattox came over from Tulsa with Gilbert. Secondly, the Horns lost experienced hands Sedrick Flowers and Taylor Doyle to graduation. Kent Perkins, Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe are a nasty threesome, but Texas needs some unprovens to emerge before this offense can make a big move in the wild Big 12.
Because a No. 2 wideout needs to emerge before the fall. Sophomore John Burt made some big plays his freshman year, and I expect him to surpass last season’s totals of 28 catches, 457 yards and two touchdowns. But who will step up on the other side for new position coach Charlie Williams? I’m thinking freshman Collin Johnson will be one to watch this spring.
Because basketball season isn’t forever. Unless you see a Final Four coming from the Texas men or women — and both teams got blown out earlier this week — hoops season is about to be over. Worse yet, Texas baseball is having its problems, too.
Bring on spring football.