The 2015 cycle was unconventional, not just for Texas fans, but also Texas HC Charlie Strong. Maybe especially Strong.
Sure, it had some elements of his process at Louisville, but he got a whole lot more than he bargained for and ended up in some all out street fights with regional and national schools. He landed his share of body blows, and put WRTS at a standing eight count. You can actually say the fight with Aggie is now a draw, though I much prefer UT’s trend line. Aside from the on field production expected of this class, reversing the Texas trend line was the most significant thing Strong accomplished this cycle, even if the trend isn’t as steep as some would like.
Two things helped assemble this class; Malik Jefferson and out-of-state recruiting. The Malik Effect was not undersold. Nor was it oversold. It was real, we all saw it. You can say it wasn’t capitalized enough, but I think it ended up being maxed out considering the context of each recruitment it affected. In business, retainment is just as important as generating new customers. As a partial business owner who took a tremendous hit last week, I can assure you retainment is first and foremost. When Strong landed Jefferson, the class solidified. When he went out-of-state, it grew. There was a great deal of fortune in these two circumstances. The type of fortune you can’t count on year in and year out.
I’ll address these two instances further.
Charlie Strong, an evaluation.
Strong did not hit the ground running as quickly as I thought he would. The wind was not at his back like it has been for other new coaches entering harsh waters. I underestimated A&M’s draw at the time, as well as Strong’s ability to barnstorm. Truth be told, knowing his recruiting process now, he’s not overly concerned with making early, decisive moves. We saw the tortoise versus the hare this year – Strong vs. Sumlin – and how Strong overtook the hare down the stretch. If you don’t spot Sumlin a boatload of recruits before Strong’s arrival, the complexion of each class would very likely look different. Hell, Strong almost landed Kyler Murray and Daylon Mack after being behind 20 lengths.
There was significant ground to make up and the tide was very hard to reverse. Save a Harbaugh or Saban hire, I’m not sure who could have reversed it. Delude yourself with other names at your leisure, but it wasn’t going to happen.
That said, there could have been better early management on Strong’s part. It was senseless to pull Ed Oliver and Reggie Hemphill’s offers early. It never made sense to wait so long to offer Carlos Strickland. I questioned the quarterback selection when he and Shawn Watson decided to go with Zach Gentry and I question it now. With the poor recruiting staff Strong assembled, players can be your biggest ally. A hermit quarterback from New Mexico yields no recruiting value. And, yes, the staff was not assembled in any form or fashion to return Texas to recruiting prominence, especially in-state.
If you think that last paragraph is harsh, stick with me. Much like the cycle, it gets much better.
POINT OF ATTACK
I think Strong shines in person. He does well in-home, whether it’s the single parent home absent a father or the family with a strong father. His strongest parental relationship of the cycle was with Chris Warren’s mom, K’tara Lopez. Lopez is father and mother – stern as any dad, loving as any mother. Strong and her hit it off immediately and forged a sibling type relationship.
Strong’s core values – though overblown in my estimation – have also helped build relationships. Strong taking class APR seriously adds credibility to him professing he’s trying to help build well-rounded individuals. He makes no bones about work ethic. People with strong work ethic simply end up on the right side of life and he demands that. What better sell to a parent who loves their child?
Players love him. In his National Signing Day LHN interview, he mentioned Cecil Cherry shows him video of his workouts. How many brick walls do you think Cherry will run through for Strong, and I don’t mean in a Sergio Kindle kind of way? One of Strong’s strengths is identifying these players. Once he does, they’re his. Cherry was perfectly content with being a Tennessee commit until one weekend in Austin with Strong.
Devonaire Clarington is another example. His tweet directly to Strong telling him he believes he’ll right the Texas ship spoke volumes. These guys believe in Strong because of their interactions with him. They believe in him as a leader, not just as a football coach. If Charlie Strong decided to go manage a Best Buy tomorrow, I’m convinced Cherry and Clarington would immediately go buy blue polo shirts.
Malik Jefferson confided in me days after his commitment that he couldn’t believe he took so long to see the light. Charlie did all he needed to for so long and Jefferson was just a little bit late to recognize it. But not too late.
How you plan to deploy talent is a huge part of personal interaction. Nobody takes a job without understanding what’s expected of them and getting that ironed during the interview process. At times Charlie was a bit ambiguous with how he’d use players, but I don’t believe he ever told a lie. The end result was a class with every single fit he could need other than a quarterback with early starting capability – a true rarity.
CHANGE OF DIRECTION
This is where Strong impressed me the most. I’d be lying if I didn’t privately wonder, “Does this guy get it?” I’d also be lying if I didn’t wonder, “Is this guy an evil genius?” Often within hours of each other.
Strong’s ability to alter course or reverse recruiting momentum was at times awe inspiring. He pulled guys who were once heavy OU leans. He flipped a commitment from the defending national champions at a need position. He stole a linebacker from Butch Jones, a man compiling fantastic classes at Tennessee. He pulled the table cloth out from under Oregon at the 11th hour and didn’t disturb any dinnerware.
Easily the most impressive action of the cycle was Strong’s recognition he was faltering in Texas and the decision to go full bore into Florida. The yield was bountiful; a high upside tight end, an outside receiving threat, a plugger at linebacker, and an untapped cornerback with length. These ended up being foundational pieces in a foundation class. It also served notice to the country, Texas will go wherever it wants and pull players. With FSU being nearly full and Florida and Miami on the mend, Texas received some good fortune, but the point remains.
It was elite. 12 players committed from December on. It may not have been the flourish some dreamed about (including Strong), but any complaints about the finish should fall on deaf ears. He landed fits. He landed needs. He landed elite talent. He landed ‘Strong’ types. He came, he saw, and he conquered new regions for the University. He shored up the indecisive. He reversed A&M’s momentum and put them on the defensive. Compare how each class closed if you’re feeling down and out.
I’d rate Strong a B+ in this cycle. I’m grading on a curve a bit. He made some mistakes and underestimated the quagmire that is recruiting in this state, but tell me, recruiting wise, which school in the state would you trade positions with? Yeah, me either.
Room for improvement: Offer elite players earlier. There are plenty of kids in this state who should hold offers. Build relationships earlier. There are a lot of kids who haven’t heard much from Texas despite holding offers.
Please continue: Closing strong. Recruiting out-of-state with aplomb. Finding fits that even the most novice viewer of film can understand how you’d use players.
Originally, I was a believer of Charlie Strong. There were some tense moments in December where I was wondering if this class was going to crater. I still have some minor questions about his recruiting process, but damn, I just can’t see this guy failing at Texas, especially with 29 new loyal subjects.
This was his program the day he took the reins. With his first class in the books, the program is now becoming him.