Strong on UT’s defense, motivating stars, WVU

Alex de la Torre. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Alex de la Torre. (Will Gallagher/IT)

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AUSTIN — Charlie Strong has been at this intersection before.

But instead of turning the corner, Texas has always managed to paint itself into one. That’s why Saturday’s outcome against No. 10 West Virginia will speak volumes about the direction of the program.

“(West Virginia) is going to be a key one for us,” Strong said Monday.

“The good thing for us is that it’s going to be at home. We need to build on the last two (wins) but, for us, it’s a one-game season.”

Years from now, assuming Strong is still on the 40 Acres, it won’t be a particular game, but rather a particular play, that will loom as the turning point. It came last Saturday at Texas Tech when Strong notched his first road win of the season. It was the kind of spectacularly, self-sabotaging snafu that has torpedoed previous Longhorn seasons. You know the one.

It’s the one where Texas Tech scored on a 100-yard fumble return, but replays showed that freshman WR Devan Duvernay ran DB Douglas Coleman out of bounds at the two-yard line. A Red Raider TD was probably inevitable, but Duvernay’s effort was hardly a given. In fact, it energized the Texas sideline. And the Horns responded with 17 unanswered points.

But can Strong build on it?

The first building block was laid last month when Strong demoted defensive coordinator longtime friend Vance Bedford. When you boast the nation’s top RB (D’Onta Foreman averages 180.8 ypg), second-leading punter (Michael Dickson provides a field-flipping 48.2 ypg) and, arguably, the deepest pool of WRs in program history (yes, the pond still includes John Burt), the top of the Bucket List was to upgrade the defense from ‘putrid’ to ‘adequate’.

“You get tired of it after a while,” CB John Bonney said Monday. “You get frustrated from having to hear it all that time.”

Now, the defense is hearing that the times, they are a’changin’.

Texas’ defense has notched 19 sacks and 39 TFL in the four games since Strong took over.

He began by scaling back the playbook and simplifying coverages. The DBs are now giving more cushion than a sofa factory but have not given up a deepball during that span. Strong ordered a steady diet of blitzes, with ‘man’ coverage, against Baylor. He then backed-off ‘man’ in the early going at Texas Tech, went with a ‘zone’ package and unleashed Malik Jefferson to spy QB Patrick Mahomes.

“We’re not giving up the home run and guys are keeping everything in front of them,” Strong said. “We’re playing more aggressive because we’re playing a lot more ‘man’ coverage. Even in zone coverage, we’re playing a lot of match-up zone. With the pressure, we’re coming more on second-down. We’re coming on third-down, for sure. You can’t let the quarterback sit there with the ball in his hands and let routes develop.”

Even though nothing bothers Strong more than dropped passes, he still spends the majority of each practice with the defense, according to Bonney.

John Bonney. (Will Gallagher/IT)
John Bonney. (Will Gallagher/IT)

“He gets very animated,” Bonney said, “but he’s animated about everything. We feed off his energy.”

The change in the defense, players say, started with an overall change at practice. Strong is now holding players to a higher standard. (Yeah, playing-time really does depend on how well you practice. The bench is a helluva motivator). As such, the level of competition and intensity may be at an all-time high during Strong’s tenure.

“The practice habits are crazy now,” said MLB Tim Cole. “Guys are more hungry. We know what’s at stake.”

Cole would know. He replaced face-of-the-program Malik Jefferson in starting lineup against Baylor. High-profile players like Burt, CB Davante Davis and LG Patrick Vahe have also ridden the aluminum, but Jefferson has made the most of what he described as a “humbling” experience.

Jefferson has been playing the best ball of his career since he lost his first career start against the Bears.

“When you’re a really good player, and someone sits you down and tells you that you’re not playing at the level you should be playing at, a lot of players take it personally.

He sat down, watched the tape, and it was obvious. The thing about him is he can take criticism. He just ran with it. He’s really come on for us. I told him after the game Saturday that he’s now looking like the guy he should be looking like.”

Jefferson led the Horns the past two outing, totaling 18.

The light has finally come on for CB Kris Boyd or, as coaches and teammates attest, the sophomore has finally grown up. Slated to start his sixth straight game, Boyd has come light years since his ill-advised re-Tweet in the middle of last season’s debacle at TCU. His game-sealing end zone INT at Texas Tech came on the heels of seven tackles.

“Like all guys, they need to mature,” Strong said. “Once that happens, you start playing them a little bit, and then you start playing them a lot. He’ll make a mistake, he’ll give up a play, but it doesn’t bother him. He can forgot the last play.”

But does Strong occasionally forget about D’Onta Foreman? You know things are going better for Strong when the toughest questions involved play-calling rather than his job security.

Not once, not twice, but three times was Strong asked why he continued to rely on the 18-Wheeler short-yardage package, instead of the nation’s leading rusher, with the game on the line. Was there something about Foreman’s 10.3 ypc at Tech that coaches didn’t like on 3rd-and-2? Fourth-and-1?

Tyrone Swoopes was, of course, stuffed twice in the waning minutes, prompting FSI analysist Tim Brando to observe that it’s the kind of call “that gets you fired.” On Monday, a colleague said it best when he noted that the only ones in the stadium who could stop Foreman are Strong and OC Sterlin Gilbert.

The 18-Wheeler has proven successful in the past, Strong said, adding that if a chop-block penalty in the package hadn’t nullified a second-quarter TD, then “we wouldn’t be talking about it.”

It raised eyebrows when Strong said Foreman was one of the three fastest guys on the team (Duvernay and Burt top the chart). One thing is certain, Foreman is racing up the record books even with one shoe off.

“He is so physical at the point of attack,” Strong said. “What people don’t realize about him is his breakaway speed. They are DBs, with angles, and they can’t him. We’ve seen it out here (in practice): he’ll break away from us, and our guys think they’re fast.”

It only underscores the absurdity of removing Foreman from the equation the past two weeks with the game on the line.

If Foreman ties Earl Campbell’s school-record of 11 straight 100-yard games, it will have to come against one of college football’s better defenses. West Virginia fields eight seniors on a defense that ranks just behind Kansas State in league play (394.0 ypg). The Mountaineer O-line, under the direction of former Longhorn assistant Joe Wickline, boasts three seniors.

“West Virginia is going to come with a lot of pressure on defense,” Strong said. “Offensively, they don’t beat themselves. They let their defense go play and try to get turnovers and get a short field. That’s what we can’t allow to happen.”

Another missed opportunity to turn the corner? Strong can’t allow that to happen, either.

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