Texas coach Charlie Strong will face some hard choices about his offensive coaching staff and philosophy this offseason. Ricardo Brazziell/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Will Charlie Strong make substantive changes to help struggling offense?

Longhorns aren't keeping pace with Big 12 rivals, falling behind without offensive firepower

Posted November 17th, 2015

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Story highlights
  • Longhorns on pace to score below 30 points per game fourth time in the last six years.
  • With D'Onta Foreman, Texas' run game is working, but the Big 12 is a passing league.
  • Would Charlie Strong start incoming freshman Shane Buechele with no experience?

Regardless what happens in the final two games, Texas coach Charlie Strong faces hard choices this offseason about his offense.

He must dramatically step outside his comfort zone, reorganize his offensive staff and bring in assistants with new philosophies and play-calling structure.

Or, Strong can make minimal staff changes or even stand pat, casting extreme doubt on his long-term future at Texas.

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What the Longhorns are doing offensively just doesn’t work. The offense can’t keep pace against Big 12 competition, and the numbers are trending down.

To be fair, this problem wasn’t created upon Strong’s arrival prior to the 2014 season. Offensively, Texas has been treading water or slowing sinking since 2010. But going into Strong’s third year in 2016, drastic changes must be made just to keep up with everyone else.

The question is whether a defensive-minded coach who wants to win games by running the ball and playing hard-nose defense can stomach a more wide-open approach.

He appeared to hit on that exact winning formula in early October. But a win over then-No. 10 Oklahoma now looks like an aberration, as losses to Iowa State and West Virginia brought Texas (4-6 overall, 3-4 in Big 12) back to reality.

Scoring

YearTexasBig 12 avg.Difference
201023.829.8-6
201128.134.4-6.3
201235.735.10.6
201329.331.4-2.1
201421.432.1-10.7
201524.936.5-11.6

Start with scoring. To even be competitive in the Big 12, teams must score about 30 points each week. The league average hasn’t dipped below 30 since 2010, when it was 29.8 points per game.

Last season’s unit featured a first-time starter (Tyrone Swoopes) and an inexperienced offensive line. That group averaged 21.4 points per game, the lowest total since 1997.

This year, Strong pulled the offensive reins from Shawn Watson after the season-opening loss at Notre Dame, when UT managed only a field goal in a 35-point embarrassment. But things haven’t changed radically with Jay Norvell at the controls.

In 2015, Big 12 teams are averaging 36.5 points; Texas is averaging 24.9. The Horns simply don’t put themselves in position to score enough. Strong must determine whether that’s play-caller Norvell’s fault, the players’ lack of execution as is so often mentioned or something else.

First Downs

YearTexasBig 12 avg.Difference
201020.221.7-1.5
201120.223.8-3.6
201221.623.6-2
20132121.2-0.2
201417.822.6-4.8
201516.824.1-7.3

The Longhorns are tied for the worst third-down conversion rate in the Big 12. Last season, Texas was ninth in the 10-team league in that category, too.

Texas had five three-and-outs against TCU, not to mention a fumble and bad snap for a safety. The Iowa State game had seven three-and-outs. The Horns didn’t get past the Cyclones 47-yard line until the fourth quarter.

In 10 games, Texas’ average starting field position is about its own 28-yard line. For Nick Rose to try a 40-yard field goal, UT must get around the opponents’ 23. Even then, as fans saw against California, nothing is a sure thing.

Asking this offense to move 40, 50 or 60 yards on a consistent basis is a tall order.

Rushing Yards Per Game

YearTexasBig 12 avg.Difference
2010150.5165.2-14.7
2011202.6185.117.5
2012174.6180.2-5.6
2013196.2171.225.0
2014137.4167.3-29.9
2015213.9198.415.5

Running back D’Onta Foreman is a clear bright spot. The sophomore has turned in some explosive runs of 81, 93 and 65 yards. Foreman has established himself as the team’s showcase back of the future.

But how should Foreman, Chris Warren and Kirk Johnson line up and be utilized? Should the Horns use a two-back formation, one that leans on a lead blocker, whether that’s a running back or a tight end like Caleb Bluiett? Or, is it a one-back set?

It’s a huge mistake to go away from the run game completely. Baylor and TCU light up the scoreboard, and those two teams lead the Big 12 in rushing yards this season. Teams are so afraid to get beat deep, the safeties and linebackers play back or on their heels, giving up ample ground in the process.

Strong wants to run the football. Pass-happy teams are having great success on the ground. Next year’s offense must find that happy medium.

Passing Yards Per Game

YearTexasBig 12 avg.Difference
2010232.0245.0-13
2011189.9267.8-77.9
2012260.0276.2-16.2
2013212.5251.3-38.8
2014199.9274.5-74.6
2015153.6281.3-127.7

Texas is on pace to finish with less than 2,000 passing yards for the second time since 1991. That’s simply not winning football in the Big 12.

Next season, these will be Strong’s quarterbacks:

Swoopes, who found a niche as a short-yardage runner, struggled in a starting role. He’ll be a senior.

Jerrod Heard, a would-be sophomore with moxie, has gone stretches without completing overhanded passes. These coaches go conservative at times, because they are fearful of him making a mistake with his arm.

Kai Locksley will be coming off a redshirt season. He didn’t throw for 1,000 yards as a high school senior. It’s unclear whether he’ll be ready. Arlington Lamar’s Shane Buechele, assuming he signs a letter of intent, is a redshirt candidate only because this staff is fearful of playing true freshmen quarterbacks. Buechele signed non-binding scholarship papers but is expected to enroll in January.

There are plenty of choices, but none are clear cut. Let’s assume Buechele flashes potential in preseason camp. Would Strong go against every fiber of his DNA to play someone that untested?

Total Offense

YearTexasBig 12 avg.Difference
2010382.5410.1-27.6
2011392.5452.8-60.3
2012434.6456.4-21.8
2013408.7422.5-13.8
2014337.3441.7-104.4
2015367.5479.7-112.2

This offense has potential. Foreman is a home-run threat. So is freshman receiver John Burt. Don’t ignore Bluiett, either. Linemen Patrick Vahe and Connor Williams could wind up being four-year starters.

But Texas won’t get anywhere without a top-flight quarterback and some creative mojo.

Was Oklahoma’s rejuvenation this season simply the result of hiring Lincoln Riley? No, not by itself. The Sooners have gotten All-Big 12 caliber play from quarterback Baker Mayfield. Both TCU and Baylor have the right combination — talented, creative signal-callers and standout triggermen.

Interim athletic director Mike Perrin will likely still have that interim tag in December. But he’s been totally supportive of Strong since taking over for the fired Steve Patterson. Perrin will open the financial floodgates for Strong to remake his staff however he sees fit.

As the program’s CEO, Strong cannot incur more mistakes in assembling his staff. He fired two assistants after the 2014 season, a third left on his own, making a lateral move to get out of town. Strong changed play-callers after 14 games, and he’ll likely be doing it again this offseason. All of this before Year 3 even begins.

Sure, the defense can always improve, but Strong’s issue is the offense. Fix that, and the Longhorns can truly take flight.

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