Charlie Strong‘s weekly press conference, at least lately, seem to revolve around a common theme.
Last week, it was Tyrone Swoopes — his play, his lack of making plays, the goal-line fumble against Baylor, the offensive malaise and how much of that is keyed off his play. Today, it was special teams.
Time and again, Strong was asked about special teams. Can’t remember the last time a Longhorns coach spent so much of a Monday addressing that unit. And certainly not in a negative way.
Three of the first five questions Strong got revolved around special teams — after the big mistakes the past two weeks, what are you telling them? What’s your level of concern on special teams? Does Chris Vaughn oversee all special teams?
Granted, Texas is having problems with special teams. Against UCLA, there was a kickoff that went out of bounds and there was a 45-yard Bruins punt return, which literally led to UCLA’s winning touchdown play. Against Kansas, Nick Rose‘s 48-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Against Baylor, the Bears’ first touchdown (and only one of the first half) came on a blocked 52-yard field goal attempt that was returned 62 yards. And against Oklahoma, the Longhorns allowed a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and had a punt snap get past William Russ.
Strong acknowledged the unit is having problems. He explained that while Vaughn does oversee all special teams, each part of a special teams play — kickoffs and punts, including returns and coverage — are divided amongst the staff. Strong, for example, is in charge of punt returns (“So that [UCLA] punt return was on me,” he said.)
“You don’t take a player off special teams,” Strong said. “You have offense, you have defense, and you have special teams. Against UCLA, the ball should’ve been punted to the side, but he punted down the middle. You’ve still got to go make the play on the ball. On the kickoff return Saturday, there were two guys that didn’t get blocked (but) didn’t make the play.”
The Longhorns used four or five starters on kickoff coverage vs. OU, including defensive backs Quandre Diggs and Duke Thompson. Jaxon Shipley ranks 18th nationally in punt returns (11.4 yards per return), and Strong said injured receiver Daje Johnson probably wouldn’t factor on returns when he’s back because of the job Shipley’s doing.
Texas ranks fourth in the Big 12 and 28th in the country on punt returns. Punting the ball, Texas ranks sixth in the Big 12 and 45th nationally in net punting. On kickoff returns, Texas is 10th in the Big 12 and 108th nationally.
Rose is 5 of 9 on field goal attempts. He missed from 38 and made it from 34 against North Texas; missed from 42 against BYU; made a 33-yarder vs. UCLA; made one from 42 but also had a 48-yard attempt blocked at Kansas; had a 52-yard attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown against Baylor; and made two field goals from 28 and 20 against Oklahoma.
Other updates from Strong’s presser:
On Desmond Harrison’s return from suspension: “You won’t get the answer this week.” Translation: Out for Iowa State.
On keeping his team motivated, sitting at 2-4: “You still have six games to go play, so we can still end the season the right way. This group of seniors still want to go out of here the right way.”
On Daje Johnson’s hamstring injury: Strong didn’t have an update on Johnson’s hammy, which he hurt against Baylor. Johnson didn’t make the trip to Dallas; Strong said the junior tried to jog a little Sunday night.
On whether the offensive line is getting better: “I think we’re really getting good. The last two weeks, we’ve rushed the ball over 350 yards. … They’re playing well and we’re getting chemistry there.”
On how to follow up the close loss to OU: “We need to follow it up now. Now it’s about how we’re going to come out and play against Iowa State. I always say in that (big rivalry) game, you’re going to be a step faster, you’re going to be a step quicker, and that’s what happened. Now can you continue that?”
On the Texas fanbase: “This is their football team, and we have to have their support. I don’t know how the (fanbase) feels about the team, but we’re sitting at 2-4 and very easily could be, well, I don’t want to say what, but I know this is a great team. If you look at the fans at the end of the (Oklahoma) game, and how they were still cheering for this team. … there are still six games left, so there’s lots of football left in the season.”
Texas sits at 2-4 six games into their schedule. The last six games await — Iowa State, at Kansas State, at Texas Tech, vs. West Virginia, at Oklahoma State and vs. TCU. The Longhorns need to find five wins in that group to become bowl-eligible.
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