Strong talks slumping sophomores, job performance

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

Charlie Strong was peppered with more questions about job security during Monday’s press availability than he was Saturday’s opponent. That says something, considering No. 6 Baylor is the highest ranked foe to visit Austin during Strong’s tenure.

Reporters lobbed just three softball questions about this weekend’s matchup. That’s because the focus, now, is on the big picture, as in, What is wrong with this picture?. What hasn’t Strong’s program been able to turn the corner in his third season?  What accounts for the sophomores-slump, a regression that, apparently, is affecting several members of the class? And are UT’s higher-ups giving Strong the same level of support that was offered him this time last year?

Athletic Director Michael “No talking” Perrin briefly attended Monday’s press conference and, for the third straight week, departed within 10 minutes. Perrin did not attend any of Strong’s Monday press conferences until after the Oklahoma State loss. Perrin’s weekly cameo appearance prompted a few reporters to speculate why he was there in the first place Was it a show of support? Was he there to intercept any inquiries about Strong’s future?.

Strong’s style is to pivot toward vague generalities, and then sprinkle-in a few peripherally related details from the previous game. On Monday, Strong said his bosses “have shown their support,” but there is a helluva difference between a pat-on-the-back and knowing that someone has-your-back.

“The support is there,” Strong said, “but we’ve got to get it done on the football field.”

Reporters continued to press for more information regarding the MIA status of several key sophomores. The roll call began with CBs Holton Hill and Davante Davis, who combined for 13 starts as true freshmen. Davis was a preseason All-Big 12 pick, but his last start was at Oklahoma State. Hill’s only start this year was against OU.

At first, Strong said their presence on special teams may be affecting their productivity. Later, he said the competition at DB had pushed Hill and Davis deeper into the rotation. Finally, Strong probably came closest to speaking the truth: it has to do with their work ethic.

“It’s all about your work in practice,” Strong said. “That’s where it always starts. If you look at some of those early games, you saw them out there and you saw us give up some big plays. The rotation is still where they’re going to rotate in. We’re looking for a combination that can stay out there on the field, and get us off the field, where we’re not giving up the home runs, where we’re not giving up the big throws over our head, or we’re not giving up the pass-interference.”

Strong dismissed a suggestion that there may be some disconnect between the CBs and coaches. He insisted that players and coaches are “on the same page” but reiterated that Davis and Hill “have got to play better. If you practice better, then you play better.”

The laundry list of sophomores expected to take their game to the next level almost inexplicably includes Malik Jefferson and John Burt. Dorian Leonard replaced Burt in the starting lineup the past two contests. Burt had zero receptions the past two weeks, and did not play against Iowa State. It was senior MLB Tim Cole who, ahem, subbed for Jefferson at Kansas State, and it was Cole who made his first appearance this season at a Monday availability.

“It’s not that [Jefferson and Burt] are regressing,” Strong said. “It’s just that there’s competition there. Once you get to where guys are playing good, you stick with those guys.”

The list of players who have performed consistently well makes for a small fraternity this season. Here’s to you, sophomore NT Chris Nelson. Same goes for sophomore LT Connor Williams.

The problem, Strong said, is there have never been enough accomplished upperclassmen to impact his program. His defense has gotten younger each of the past two seasons. This week’s two-deep lists five freshmen and 12 sophomores. Bevo does not have a “bell cow” on either side of the ball.

“We don’t have a lot of older guys who are playing a lot. We don’t have a featured guy where you always have one. Maybe it’s your quarterback, or a defensive end or a defensive back. That’s what we’re missing…There’s usually a featured guy you need to go to. That guy becomes your bell cow where you say that’s the guy you can point to. Everybody has been playing on a level where there hasn’t been much of a separation. That’s what you’re looking for. Who’s going to stand up and become that guy?”

This year, the only upperclassman who fits the bill is RB D’Onta Foreman; his 142.5 rushing ypg checks-in at No. 3 nationally.

As far as an offense that did not score a single point off of three turnovers Saturday, and just one FG off four take-aways against OU, Strong said “it comes back to just execution.” And that goes back to what has Strong been saying most weeks these past three seasons.

The rhetoric, coming into the season, is that the Belmont brass needed to at least see progress in Strong’s program. Strong has now started his third-straight campaign at 3-4. On Monday, the narrative was ‘regression’ rather than progression.

Rod Babers spoke the truth when, immediately after Texas’ Keystones Cops showing at K-State, he said that ‘bad teams find a way to lose.’ If there are still ways that a team can do just the wrong thing at just the right time, Strong’s teams have proven they will find it. On Monday, the coachspeak was just a different verse of the same ‘ol song: another “disappointing loss”, mistakes that are “fixable”, and a turnaround that “eventually will happen.”

“I go back to those games where we were so close [to winning],” Strong said, “but I’ve been saying to the team that we’ve worn that cliché out.”

So close, but yet so far. It’s actually been cliché at Texas this entire decade.