Football

This offseason has broken Charlie Strong's way, so hello, turnaround. Right?

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Story highlights
  • Charlie Strong at Big 12 media days: 'You want to see progress. I totally agree with that.'
  • Quarterback Shane Buechele appears to be the front-runner for the starting position.
  • The Longhorns started 10 freshmen last season. Easily three to five more could start in 2016.

Posted July 29th, 2016

For Texas fans who believe in karma, good times may soon be heading your way.

That’s the only way to interpret what’s happened this offseason for the Longhorns and coach Charlie Strong.

Skeptics will look at Strong’s 11-14 record and think the end is near after the 2016 season. The coach himself admitted that going 6-7 and 5-7 was unacceptable. UT hasn’t had endured three consecutive losing seasons since 1936-38.

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“You want to see progress,” Strong said at Big 12 media days. “I totally agree with that.”

Optimists have the edge, though. When the Longhorns start fall practice on Aug. 6, they’ll be lifted by the knowledge that too many things have gone right this offseason instead of wrong.

Strong has a new offensive coordinator and a talented freshman quarterback. The roster has been stockpiled with athleticism, thanks to two dynamite recruiting classes. The coach has the full support of UT administrators, and a capacity crowd of 100,000-plus should pack Royal-Memorial Stadium for the Sept. 4 season opener against Notre Dame.

This is going to work, right? For Strong’s sake, it must.

Texas coach Charlie Strong watches defensive lineman Chris Nelson go through drills during the first Spring practice at Denius Fields on Monday March 7, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas coach Charlie Strong watches defensive lineman Chris Nelson go through drills during the first Spring practice at Denius Fields on Monday March 7, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“I’m getting the players, but I look at us last year,” Strong said. “We had a bunch of freshmen to start. We could have played better. I go back and watch a lot of those games. That’s why I make some of our players watch some of them right now. I want it to burn.

“I want them to see if we be consistent and go play well, we could have won some games last year,” he added. “We’re getting the talent. It’s just now all about us.”

Make no mistake, this year’s team will be young. The Longhorns might have the youngest two-deep depth chart in major college football. Ten freshmen started last season while 17 played overall. It’s conceivable that three to five more will start against the Fighting Irish.

The few impactful seniors Strong does have are excited like never before.

“I haven’t felt the energy like this since my freshman year,” senior lineman Kent Perkins said. “I tell the guys all the time, guys are not coming out to workout sluggish and saying, ‘Oh, we have to work out.’ Guys are coming out saying, ‘Yo, we need to get better.’ We’re hitting it 100 percent every day. The vibe is definitely amazing.”

New coordinator, new recruits

No other coach in America had a charmed offseason like Strong did.

In December, the university president flew with Strong to Tulsa, Okla., to land new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. Understand, this was unheard of in UT history, and Gregory L. Fenves faced criticism back home for doing something viewed as unpresidential.

By flying to Tulsa, however, Fenves showed incredible support for a coach and his football program. Many UT insiders believe Fenves wants Strong to succeed in the best way imaginable.

“I think Charlie is methodically building a team with his great recruitments and with his coaches,” Fenves told the American-Statesman in June. “That alone, I see as progress.”

In January, four freshmen enrolled early — quarterback Shane Buechele, receiver Collin Johnson, center Zach Shackelford and linebacker Demarco Boyd. How important was that? Buechele, Johnson and Shackelford are all likely to start, and there are high hopes for Boyd.

“It really doesn’t bother me for a freshman to start at quarterback,” Strong said. “He’s going to have enough around him where he should feel pretty good about what he’s doing.”

Texas coach Charlie Strong, left, University of Texas chancellor Bill McRaven, and UT president Gregory Fenves listen to President Barack Obama Address the crowd at SXSW interactive at the Long Center forthe Performing Arts in Austin, Texas.  RICARDO BRAZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas coach Charlie Strong, left, University of Texas chancellor Bill McRaven, and UT president Gregory Fenves listen to President Barack Obama Address the crowd at SXSW interactive at the Long Center forthe Performing Arts in Austin, Texas. RICARDO BRAZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In February, the Longhorns were the toast of national signing day and signed a stout top-10 recruiting class. Seven players committed on signing day, a stunning haul that lifted UT’s class into the top 10 of most recruiting rankings. Even Strong would later admit, “We needed that.”

The rest of February wasn’t so hot, but even off-the-field items went Strong’s way. The university fired defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn for his role in possible NCAA infractions during his time at Mississippi. That news came and went practically in one day. Strong also got dragged into a nasty divorce case involving a member of the Louisville board of regents. The couple reached a settlement and that went away, too.

Baylor’s fall benefits Texas

Spring practice produced no real shock waves, other than Buechele showing his stuff. The Arlington Lamar product completed 22 of 41 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

“People gotta step up,” linebacker Malik Jefferson said after the game. “From the coaches to the players to the fans to the families, everybody has to buy in. I think some guys are going to have to sacrifice a lot of things they do for the betterment of the team. That’s the truth.”

Texas's players, including Malik Jefferson (46) leave the field after warming up before their game against Rice at Royal Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 12, 2015. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas’s players, including Malik Jefferson (46) leave the field after warming up before their game against Rice at Royal Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 12, 2015. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Best anyone can tell, that’s exactly what happened. The rest of the spring semester was quiet. The same Longhorns who vented on social media last season were praising the team’s offseason work in April and May.

However, the biggest sports story in Texas was unfolding up the road in Waco.

Baylor officials fired the school’s president, athletic director and coach Art Briles in the wake of multiple sexual assaults involving football players. The case is far from over, but four Baylor recruits ultimately left the Bears and joined the Longhorns in late May. That includes receiver Devin Duvernay and offensive lineman Patrick Hudson, two players that should be instant contributors.

Miraculously, a kicker even fell out of the sky earlier this month. LSU’s Trent Domingue is coming to Austin as a graduate transfer, giving Strong a huge sigh of relief.

There is a real sense Texas is poised for a breakthrough. It’s likely an all-or-nothing proposition. School officials won’t let Strong go into 2017 with only two years left on his contract. He’ll likely either get an extension or be fired when the 2016 season is finished.

Las Vegas oddsmakers believe Texas will win only six games. Considering all that’s happened in the last eight months, it’s difficult to bet the under. Right?

“If you’re reluctant to change, like coach Strong says, get on the train or get out of the way,” senior safety Dylan Haines said. “We don’t need any more people who are going to hold us back.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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