Fans expect Texas to compete for championships no matter what the roster looks like or how difficult the schedule may be. The Longhorns will report to training camp Thursday, and optimism abounds.
Spoiler alert: Texas probably won’t win the Big 12. Deep down, the Texas coaches know this, although a pox on Charlie Strong’s house if he ever mentions this in public.
All that said, for those who enjoy the process of building from the ground up and taking pride in watching it all come together, this could be an extremely fulfilling season. The Longhorns, 6-7 last year, have a clear blueprint for long-term viability. Things are percolating on the recruiting front. And there’s a real possibility that 2016 will be a breakthrough season.
Wins and losses are important in the here and now, though. And this season will be judged by one subjective metric: Do you believe the Longhorns got better?
Or, put another way, if we get to November and the general consensus is “You do not want to play Texas right now,” then things are pointed up.
Here are five keys for the Longhorns this year:
1. Pick a quarterback. Junior Tyrone Swoopes must realize he has little margin for error. He threw 13 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions last season in 12 starts. But he got rattled after big hits and never really acted the part as the unquestioned leader.
At Big 12 media days, Strong said the quarterback must be smart, which means “not turning the ball over and having dumb plays or dumb mistakes.”
Redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard wants to lead this team. The two-time high school state champion has sizzling moves, but also accuracy questions. Incoming freshman Kai Locksley has earned rave reviews during the summer, but he’s likely to redshirt.
Swoopes is the starter for now, but Heard is waiting in the wings. Odds are both will play in the opener at Notre Dame.
“My man Jerrod, he may take the ball and go 60 (yards), but the next time out there he might throw it out there and it goes 60 the other way,” Strong said. “You got to be ready to live with that.”
2. Stick with the up-tempo style. Texas had the second-worst scoring average in the Big 12 last season. An inexperienced quarterback and offensive line and a lack of playmakers were key culprits. But today’s college football demands that teams average 30 points per game to be competitive. Texas averaged 21.4 last year.
The offensive coaching staff has promised a more up-tempo, spread offense this season. “My first year, Texas was an I-formation team. Now we’re going back to a zone-read, air-it-out team,” senior running back Johnathan Gray said.
It’s make-or-break time for veteran receivers Marcus Johnson and Daje Johnson. Jacorey Warrick, Lorenzo Joe, Armanti Foreman and Dorian Leonard are ready to get involved. A slew of newcomers such as Ryan Newsome, John Burt and DeAndre McNeal are champing at the bit, too.
“DeAndre is a big, physical wide receiver,” cornerback Duke Thomas said. “I could definitely see him just manhandling DBs. Little Ryan is so fast, and then John is a mismatch because he’s so long, he can get the ball at the highest point.”
3. Go all-in with freshmen. Some in the locker room are Mack Brown’s recruits, and others are Strong’s. Upperclassmen tend to look down on those signed by the new coach. And coaches tend to favor their recruits over another coach’s players.
Strong must walk a fine line. He can’t afford to alienate anyone. At the same time, there are sky-high hopes the new freshman class can make a big impact. This August, if a veteran isn’t playing at a satisfactory level, move him out of the way for the youngsters.
Linebackers Cecil Cherry, Anthony Wheeler and Breckyn Hager are coming to take the spots currently owned by Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens. Holton Hill and DeShon Elliott are coming for the safety spots held by Dylan Haines and Jason Hall.
Connor Williams, Patrick Vahe and massive 6-foot-9 Tristan Nickelson are all angling for playing time on the offensive line. If something happens to Gray, Chris Warren and Tristan Houston are ready to climb over D’Onta Foreman and Duke Catalon.
“Sometimes you just go with the younger guy,” Strong said. “He may not always be right, but the times that he is right, he has a chance to go make a play for you. You can take a veteran, and if he can’t make a play, you’re sitting there the whole game saying, ‘God, he can’t make a play.'”
4. What about Malik? Barring the unforeseen, Malik Jefferson should start against Notre Dame. The freshman linebacker is the prize of the 2015 recruiting class. He was rated the nation’s fourth-best overall recruit and No. 1 in Texas.
Jefferson enrolled early after graduating from Mesquite Poteet and impressed veterans this spring with his work ethic. In seven months under strength coach Pat Moorer, Jefferson’s weight has ballooned to 240 pounds from 217.
Strong needs Jefferson on the field for advertising purposes, if nothing else. The coaching staff can go after other top high school recruits and say, “See, we play our top guys immediately.”
Start Jefferson, and don’t look back.
5. Develop some attitude. It got lost in the losing last season, but Strong let it slip that he’d be OK with an unsportsmanlike penalty – if it came in the right context. If someone makes a big hit on defense and stands over the ball carrier, that’s a flag. If a receiver does a little dance in the end zone, that’s a flag in college.
Texas could use some of that attitude, though. That’s how Strong’s teams have won everywhere he’s been. The coaching staff is banking on the freshman class adding more.
“At Texas, you shouldn’t be at the bottom. You should be at the top,” Gray said. “Baylor and TCU, they’ve had their fun. Now it’s time to have ours. Guys are very hungry and ready to put Texas back on top and play ball.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957.