Charlie Strong sidestepped all questions Monday and turned the microphone over to his two new offensive hires, Sterlin Gilbert and Matt Mattox.
“Don’t be too hard on him,” Strong told reporters.
For Gilbert and Mattox, Monday’s introductory press conference was the easiest day at the office they’ll have for the foreseeable future. Gilbert, 37, and Mattox, 33, now control the Longhorns’ offense and, by extension, Strong’s future as the head coach.
Does Texas’ new offensive coordinator know exactly what he’s getting into?
“Without a doubt,” said Gilbert, an Art Briles disciple who admitting leaning on the Baylor coach throughout the interview process. “We’re excited about being here. Coach said what he wants. He was looking for an up-tempo offense, a guy with Texas ties and being able to coach quarterbacks. That’s what I’ve got a background in.
“Obviously bringing Matt with me is huge and a piece of that,” the boot-wearing San Angelo native added. “We’re just excited to get to work.”
Mattox, UT’s new offensive line coach, said he wants to establish a physical running game, one that runs downhill. He didn’t address UT running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III by name, but said having multiple choices was “a great opportunity”
“Running the ball is one way that can make a defensive coordinator break down more than anything,” said Mattox, who played offensive tackle for Briles at Houston. “They’ll give up the long pass, but when you can just pound it on them and be able to consistently run the football, it’s tough on ‘em.”
Gilbert’s West Texas twang and Mattox’s insistence on running the football had to be music to Strong’s ears. From day one, Strong has wanted to build his burnt-orange empire on the foundation of a power run game. That’s still possible, as the October win over Oklahoma proved. But the Horns must keep pace in the high-scoring Big 12, college football’s Wild West.
Gilbert and Mattox spent the 2015 season at Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane went 6-6 during the regular season and will face Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl. Neither coach will coach in that game, though.
Gilbert, wooed during a face-to-face meeting with UT President Gregory L. Fenves, signed a three-year contract worth $850,000 annually. Mattox agreed to a similar deal worth $550,000.
“The core in me, I’m a Texas high school football coach,” said Gilbert, who had high school coaching stops in Abilene, San Angelo and Temple. “To be able to stand here today is very important to me. It feels very important for the Texas high school coaches.”
Tulsa, despite its .500 record, had a fantastic year offensively. Quarterback Dane Evans threw for nearly 4,000 yards as Tulsa finished 25th nationally in scoring (35.9) and 14th in yardage (502.8). The Golden Hurricane ran 1,000 plays during the regular season, 219 more than the Longhorns.
Remember how Texas coaches promised a more up-tempo offense in 2015? The Longhorns ran 892 plays in 13 games in 2014. They ran 781 in 12 games this year. Even if UT had reached a bowl game, the overall average still dropped after coaches insisted the Horns would pick up the pace.
Gilbert said his offensive philosophy is simple: “Fast, physical, have fun and score points.”
Foreman and Warren are fast. Freshmen linemen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe are physical. Most of the players love playing for Strong. It’s the scoring part that needs work.
“We’re confident in what we can do,” Mattox said.
Strong sure hopes so.