Football

Comfortably Strong

Charlie Strong. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Charlie Strong. (Will Gallagher/IT)

AUSTIN — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly hasn’t announced his starting QB and, now, Charlie Strong hasn’t either. In fact, Texas broke custom by not even releasing a depth chart Monday.

Strong insisted, however, he already knows whether freshman Shane Buechele or senior Tyrone Swoopes will open with the first team against Notre Dame in Sunday’s season-opener. In short: the audition is over.

Both quarterbacks will play, Strong reiterated. More important, choosing between two competitive signal-callers has been a rare luxury during his brief tenure.

“We have two good players,” Strong said. “We’ve never had this problem before.”

Expect Strong to lean heavily upon his upperclassmen Sunday in what shapes up as the most important game of his career. He implied as much when he met with the true freshmen earlier this week. Inquiring minds wanted to know: how do they rookies expect to handle Sunday’s nationally televised big stage?

“They say they’ll be fine,” Strong observed, “but I know they won’t be. It takes a play or two to settle in. They have no idea what they’re going to step into. We have so many freshmen that we plan on playing, but we have to ease them into it.”

Do not assume that this applies to Buechele. Here’s why:

Barring injury or chronically poor performance, the starting QB will keep his job the rest of the season while the projected backup, Strong said, would rotate in “every third or fourth series” with a “package” of plays. That, Scooby, is a clue.

Tyrone Swoopes. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Tyrone Swoopes. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Swoopes, who is 6-8 as a starter and opened with the first team just twice in 2015, was effective primarily in the short-yardage “18-Wheeler” package. In other words: if QB2 is projected primarily as a niche player, all signs point to Swoopes as the backup. It would mean that a true freshman QB would start for just the 24th time in program history and Buechele would become Texas’ sixth starting QB in seven seasons.

Sunday’s tilt will not be a de facto audition for the starting QB, Strong said. The successful candidate has already met Strong’s criteria in executing the offense and earning the confidence of teammates.

“You got to have someone who can win the team over, and the players have to feel comfortable with that player,” said Strong. “You have to have someone who can manage the offense. You have to have someone who can execute the offense. We’ve been practicing so we’ve been seeing who can do that.”

This year’s QB will benefit from more depth and talent than any time in Strong’s tenure. There were “only one or two playmakers” surrounding the quarterbacks last season, Strong noted.

Now, the starting QB will benefit from Texas’ most electrifying corps of receivers since Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby last shared the field in 2008. Sophomore John Burt and freshman Collin Johnson will be the Twin Towers on the outside while explosive freshman slot receiver Devin Duvernay is a go-the-distance threat every time he touches the ball.

Punishing RB D’Onta Foreman and explosive Chris Warren III are considered the team’s strength. Add freshman Kyle Porter to the mix and, arguably, Texas rivals Oklahoma in boasting the Big 12’s best stable of backs.

An offensive line, boasting a couple of 2015 Freshman All-Americans, should see most of its members emerge from the MASH Unit this week after suffering the gamut of sprains and tweaks. Kent Perkins, Connor Williams, and Brandon Hodges are expected to play Sunday, Strong said. Tristan Nicholson has been cleared, Strong added, while Patrick Vahe is expected to return to practice Tuesday. There was no official word on freshman C Zach Shackelford (ankle).

Monday marked the first time in recent memory that UT officials did not release the 2-deep during the inaugural press conference of the regular season. It will be made public “later in the week,” Strong said, indicating that the QB decision will not strictly remain a game-time decision.

“It will be told well before Friday. I already have an idea (who the starter will be) and (the players) have an idea who the starter will be.”

The only significance that Strong attributed to the depth chart’s omission is that there are still some spots that are more unsettled than QB – but for all the right reasons.

“I still have some positions that haven’t really cleared up yet,” Strong said. “Some guys are really competing.”

Texas OC Sterlin Gilbert watching QB Shane Buechele. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Texas OC Sterlin Gilbert watching QB Shane Buechele. (Will Gallagher/IT)

One of those spots is at nickel back where PJ Locke had been considered, well, a lock. But the sophomore has been in a spirited battle all month with Antwuan Davis.

“Antwuan had an outstanding camp, He’s athletic, big, strong, and physical. He can play a lot of different positions in the secondary.”

Youth will be served — eventually. The Burnt Orange crystal ball says, by season’s end, at least six true freshmen will have logged starts (Buechele, Johnson, Duvernay, Shackelford, Patrick Hudson, and Brandon Jones are the likely to lose their ‘shirts sooner-than-later while DT Jordan Elliott could also crack the lineup of a thin D-line).

A program mired in mediocrity this entire decade is now infused with consecutive Top 10 recruiting classes. Still, it shapes up as a do-or-die year for Strong whose two-year mark stands at 11-14.

But if the third time is the charm for Strong (as it was during his turn-around season at Louisville), it won’t be because there is an All-American behind center but rather intangibles in the locker room. For the first time, Strong believes he has the senior leadership that’s been missing from the program. Players aren’t just paying lip-service toward winning, Strong said, but are collectively working toward it. He first noticed it last January with a heightened work ethic and improved attitude.

“They are more than just talking about winning,” Strong said. “They’re working at it.”

Worries that the kind of family feud, erupting in a Twitter war between older and younger players last October, should be laid to rest. No small part of the dynamic was the lingering tension between Mack Brown’s recruits and those arriving during Strong’s brief tenure. (There were still too many players who had not bought-in, veterans conceded well into the 2015 season).These days, nearly 85 percent of the roster are Strong’s signees. Players insist that, despite the intense ping pong competition, it’s been a Summer of Love for those donning the burnt orange. Players are actually spending time together off the field.

“”There was a time when players were going back to their rooms and just sitting by themselves,” Strong said.

Now, it seems, the players are all-in. Given the infusion of camaraderie and raw talent, Texas’ QB can actually settle in as a game-manager rather than a game-changer. And that, by season’s end, should finally forecast the end of the six-year quarterback drought at the 40 Acres.