Opponent: Texas Longhorns
Last Year's Record: 8-5, 7-2
Coach: Charlie Strong
Game 9: October 25th
1. I'm Confused. I'll admit that I don't have a clue what to expect with Charlie Strong at the helm. There is a large part of me that thinks that the Longhorns truly were having an identity crisis last year and Mack Brown forgot how to forge a tough football team. And all of these things that I'm writing, I'm writing knowing that the Longhorns whipped Texas Tech's tail. But either way, I think the thing that Mack forgot how to do was to create tough and mean football teams. He had very talented football teams and that talent usually won the majority of the games that they played, but over the past few years, I didn't think they were tough footballers. I think that changes with Strong coaching this team. The problem has been that I think there's just been a lack of overall commits and the type of talent that the Longhorns are used to, but I'd just maybe tell them that football players that are tough and mentally focused can things that more talented players can't do. The problem for Texas is that Texas A&M is whipping their tail on the recruiting trail and Texas fans are very much used to keeping track of things like that. I think Strong will try to do it the right way, I'm pretty sure about that. I have doubts about Strong's ability to coach, which seems ridiculous to say if you look at his record and what he did at Louisville. Maybe I'm reading this wrong, but I think Strong's best trait is his ability to prepare players to be tough.
2. The Defense Should Be Fine. Strong probably isn't going to tinker all that much with defense. Not really. There's really some talented players returning defensively, from DT Malcolm Brown, DT Cedric Reed, to LB Jordan Hicks, to Steve Edmond, to CB Quandre Diggs. There's really some elite players for the most part and I can't envision a situation where the coaching staff fiddles that much with what Gerg did to clean up the mess. And Gerg did clean up the mess for the most part, they were much better defensively when he arrived. I think my favorite player is probably Diggs, although he is maybe a bit undersized, he is very good at his job. Not great, but very good. The other thing that bodes well for Texas is that they really are pretty stout up the middle with Brown and Desmond Jackson as well as Edmonds and Hicks filling the gaps. If Vance Bedford just sticks to the basics, the Longhorns will be fine defensively because they're pretty strong up the middle.
3. There's Just One Little Problem. Okay, Maybe Two. So, that whole quarterback thing is problematic. If David Ash is fine, then I'm sure that the Longhorns will be acceptable, but concussions are funny things and I don't mean ha-ha type of funny. Still though, the more I think about it, it's that one hit that could cause all of this to go into a tailspin and I don't like any of the alternatives for Texas. The same thing could happen with Texas Tech, although I like Kingsbury's ability to coach up freshmen quarterbacks. I don't know how Strong and Watson really are in terms of building up a freshman, which is why I'd be hesitant to appoint Jerrod Herrod. Don't get me wrong, maybe in a couple of years, it will be fine, but right now I don't know that Texas is equipped to play with a true freshman. And Tyrone Swoopes maybe be a terrific athlete, but there's enough holes in his game to question if he is a guy that make the turn to be a real pocket and pro-style of passer.
Every coach cleans house to some extent. Every coach. Kingsbury, Leach, Tuberville, Strong, etc. The list goes on. Every coach has to clean house a bit. It just happens. For no reason other than instinct, I think Strong is trying to be as fair as possible on whatever has happened with the player dismissals. It is very difficult to institute a culture change of 85+ human beings, much less, 85+ human beings who are most likely in some respects alpha males. There may be some more dismissals before it is all said and done, but Strong strikes me as a fair person in this respect.
4. Offensive Talent. Texas isn't completely devoid of offensive talent. I love Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, two terrific running backs. Jaxson Shipley is a decent receiver that can make some plays. Dominic Espinosa calling plays at center can help anchor that offensive line and Daje Johnson opposing Shipley is a nice combination. Brown rushed for 904 yards on 214 attempts for a little over 4 yards a carry and 9 touchdowns, while Gray rushed for 780 yards on 159 carries for almost 5 yards a carry. Gray is the more explosive running back, but we'll have to see if he can return healthy. I hope he does (for every game except one). Shipley is okay, maybe similar to Bradley Marquez, in that he hasn't exploded onto the scene. Johnson caught just 24 passes, so he's largely unproven at this point, or unproven enough to think that we'll have to see the rest of the year.
5. By the Numbers. Looking back at last year, Texas was just okay at just about everything. Just okay. The Longhorns were just 64th in total offense and 68th in total defense. Just okay, right in the middle and without any real ability to dominate any one facet of the game. The rushing game was, perhaps, Texas' strong suit in that they were 36th in the country in rushing overall. I think that's a positive and I'd expect Texas to continue to do that part very well because they may not have a lot of options in the passing game. I also wrote earlier that Texas should be stronger up the middle and I still think that, but it's not as if the Longhorns were world beaters stopping the run, only 83rd in rushing defense. There's lots of room for the Longhorns to get better and lots of places to exploit too. Don't take what I wrote above thinking that Texas will be invincible or anything like that. They're flawed and it's going to take Strong time to turn things around. I think there's quite a bit of work here.
Q&A with Burnt Orange Nation:
Much thanks to Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation for answering some questions about the Longhorns.
1. What are your expectations for 2014?
In the past, expectations at Texas equate to goals like winning the conference championship and appearing in a BCS game. Now, there's no BCS and competing for a Big 12 title might be a bit of a stretch. As a result, I think the expectations have shifted towards less tangible results like playing harder and executing fundamentally, aspects of the game that often eluded recent Texas teams, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Since achieving those type of results is the specialty of Charlie Strong as a coach, I think he stands a reasonable chance of meeting the somewhat lowered and certainly altered expectations of a Horns fan in 2014. Even if that means four losses, the type of season that ultimately cost Brown his job.
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses for the Longhorns?
There's no question that the strength of this team is along the defensive line with players like senior defensive end Cedric Reed and junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown. As a whole, the unit suffered some departures, but clearly benefited from the sanity of the Greg Robinson scheme and started causing havoc not long after the former defensive coordinator returned to the Texas sidelines.
If senior linebacker Jordan Hicks can stay healthy, the linebackers could be a strength as well. And overall, there's still some talent on the team, but the entire offense and the secondary could be areas of weakness.
The two glaring weaknesses for Texas as the lack of a proven back-up quarterback to David Ash and the absolute lack of depth at offensive tackle, which could suffer further if two of the starters are suspended early in the season, reportedly a possibility.
Somewhat lesser concerns exist on special teams, with depth and quality in the secondary, finding playmakers at wide receiver, and creating explosive plays at running back. Not exactly a short list there.
There's talent at Texas, but not enough depth across the board and not enough All-Conference level talent to stand a strong chance of winning the conference.
3. Who are two of the best players to watch on offense and defense for Texas?
Offense: David Ash and Malcolm Brown
These are two of the players who have All-Conference potential for Texas, yet haven't managed to stay healthy in both cases. On the other hand, there is that undeniable talent both possess.
In 2012, Ash was a near-elite quarterback overall in passer rating and had flashes of even greater brilliance than that. Inconsistency that year and the concussion last year led to the spring setback with his foot and suddenly there are even greater question marks surrounding him than merely his odds of maximizing his ability.
Brown, meanwhile, has struggled to produce explosive plays and struggled with his own injury issues his first two years. Yet another in the long line of players in the best shape of their lives coming out of the summer, Brown may actually be in that category based on his Instragram feed and broke off a career-long run against Oregon.
With limited depth now and the possibility that junior Johnathan Gray doesn't come back at full strength from his Achilles injury, Brown may have to carry the load at running back for the first time in his career.
Defense: Cedric Reed and Jordan Hicks
Unsurprisingly, both of these players came up in the above answer. Reed played at an All-American level last season for stretches and is a better NFL prospect than Jackson Jeffcoat who could truly come into his own this season.
Before going down injured the last two seasons, Hicks was the leading tackler in each case. His injury concerns aren't far off from those surrounding Ash. Again, if Texas can get a healthy Hicks for a whole season, the defensive front for Texas could be a major strength.
BONUS: What's your evaluation of Charlie Strong thus far in his tenure in Austin?
I'm still not a fan of the Watson philosophy on offense and the odd division of labor with Watson as the play caller, even though Joe Wickline is the offensive coordinator. On the defensive side of the ball and in overall discipline and the installation of a more fundamental and focused approach, I have much more optimism.
On the recruiting trial, it's hard to tell if a more competitive environment in Texas has contributed to a relatively slow start or if the staff deserves some blame. In that regard, there's some positive recent momentum and it wouldn't be fair to judge the staff too harshly after starting to so far behind.
The program is going in a positive direction in a lot of ways that should eventually result in winning more games. This season may not be the year that it happens, but right now, I think that Charlie Strong is a good enough coach who can recruit well enough to Texas to compete for Big 12 titles again in the near future.
From the Spring:
Ed. Note: These quotes are from after spring practices. Things have changed and players are no longer there. I hesitated as to whether or not to keep these quotes, but decided that it would be best to continue on the same path that I have this summer in previewing teams.
(I'm) very pleased about the spring game and I am always very excited just to see our fans come out and the numbers they came out in. I don't know exactly the numbers but it is just so good our players had a chance to go out and perform in front of a crowd. Usually you are at a practice and no one is standing out there and then all of a sudden we have a crowd. I think some of them had a few jitters if you think about how we started off with our second offense versus the first defense and the second offense drove the ball down the field. Miles (Onyegbule) made a couple of throws there and gained a touchdown and then they got settled in and started playing. Then offensively we had to do a better job of executing. Tyrone (Swoopes) just to get him to settle down and to play with confidence and then go and just manage the offense and lead the offense. You are the quarterback and it is all about you and what you have to do to make sure that we just drive the ball and get first downs, don't look for the big play and just get first downs and continue to move the chains. He escaped injury-free, probably only had one bump or bruise but just to get it completed. Now we get into next week they are going to sit down and they are going to meet with our coaches and have a chance just to sit one-on-one and have the coaches tell them exactly where they are. I want the coaches to let them know if you are a starter, you are a starter, if you are a backup, you are a backup, if you are scout team player, then you are a scout team player. So each player will understand the role he has on this football team. Then the following we get into final exams but overall just pleased with how well we performed today.
On where is the strengths of the team and what positions need work: I have said it the whole spring, and today is just not only one indication, but you look at it that you have a good running back with Malcolm (Brown) and now when you get Johnathan Gray back and (Joe) Bergeron back and with (Jalen) Overstreet you are looking at four backs right there with your run game. With wide receiver, we just have a collection of guys and not just one guy stands out. Daje (Johnson) goes out there and makes a big catch today, (John) Harris had some big catches and (Montrel) Meander and you still have Marcus (Johnson). But you have some guys that can take the top off the defense and it is all about them making the catches. With the offensive line, we are just looking for seven or eight guys. (We'll) get (Kent) Perkins back but (Taylor) Doyle did an unbelievable job, (Sedrick) Flowers on one side, Dom (Espinosa) in the middle and then the two tackles. We gave up some sacks but we can play better in our offensive line. In the quarterback position, which is going to be the key position because you have to manage the offense and you have to run the offense, but it is going to be key right there. What we need to have is we don't need a great player, just someone to take control of it. Then you look at tight ends with (Geoff) Swaim and (M.J.) McFarland, you are solid there.
Then you go to the defensive side and I think our defensive front with (Malcom) Brown, Tank (Desmond Jackson), and (Cedric) Reed outside you have your chance. Then with the linebackers, we need to get a little stronger with Steve (Edmond) and (Dalton) Santos in the middle. You got to get stronger with Tim Cole but when we get our guys back then you have your chance at linebacker because it is going to add strength to your position. Then the back end, we just can't give up big plays but you have Duke (Thomas) and (Quandre) Diggs on one side and (Mykkele) Thompson at safety and Josh Turner. So you have a core, you have a good group but you just have to add depth now. Don't know how good we can be, we will have a lot of work and we still have a long ways to go.
I always talk about effort and I thought we had really good effort today and I thought we went out there and we competed but we could've been better on assignments and fundamentals, and technique too. It is all about tackling and catching the football and connecting the throws. When you talk about fundamentals and technique that can be corrected, assignment can be corrected, we just got to do a better job of coaching. When you look at it just overall, we still have some work to do. I wish I had 15 more days but I don't have them. So now we just got to get our guys through the summer and get them to fall camp. When we get to fall camp, we just need to go to work and get a team out there to put a product out there that is being consistent. It is all about consistency and that is what you want to see from a football team; just be a consistent team each and every day and snap.