AUSTIN –There are only 279 shopping days left until Notre Dame, and since Texas can’t buy a road win this year, those with purchasing power look beyond Saturday’s cheap date with Baylor toward procuring an elite offensive coordinator, a few other assistants, and an offensive identity.
Charlie Strong denied Monday that he has contacted TCU co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie – the Horned Frogs are No. 4 nationally in total offense — about joining his staff. But that story ain’t going away. That’s because landing a premiere play-caller in the near future trumps anything that might happen in Waco Saturday.
Other than the remote possibility that 20-point underdog Texas can spring the upset at Baylor (I never thought I would write something like that) and fill a vacant bowl slot with a losing record, and other than avoiding its worst season in in 60 years, there’s no appreciable difference between 4-8 and 5-7.
So, let’s pull the plug and let the dirty water drain from the most forgettable, back-to-back seasons in decades. It’s more important to specify what Strong must do now to fully restore the football program at The University-of-by-God Texas.
The assumption, here, is that Strong returns for a make-or-break, do-or-die, now-or-never, third season.
“I know I have plenty of support for this program,” Strong said. “We have to do our part. I know that when I sat down with Mike, whatever we need to get done, he’s going to do it for us.”
The crying need for a play-caller worthy of college football’s third-winningest program is painfully obvious. That is a given, and it has to be the most important ‘blip’ on Strong’s radar this month. After all, he can survive a mediocre recruiting class but not a third year of offense that has plummeted to historic levels of ineptness. (The offense has been so bad the past two years that it’s overshadows the fact that Vance Bedford’s defense currently ranks No. 107 nationally after surrendering 450.2 ypg).
Even so, Strong, and a number of his players, weighed-in Monday on what needed to get done — within the current roster and irrespective of staff changes — for Texas to get back on track. Surprisingly, Strong cited ‘team chemistry’ as the missing ingredient. After all, players typically name the heightened levels of camaraderie and cohesive as the biggest improvement of Strong’s two-year tenure. Yet, they have no less bemoaned the pervasiveness of selfish individualism within the clubhouse.
“Our players need to think about what they represent,” Strong said. “It’s not always the name on your back but what’s in front of you. That’s what it’s got to come down to. You’ve got to play for what’s across your chest.”
A few times this year (especially at Iowa State), the team just didn’t show at all. NT Desmond Jackson told me Monday: “These guys are going to have to be a lot more motivated than they are. The only thing that motivated, man, was playing this sport. And my family. Guys need to have something that motivates them enough to where they would do anything to just go get it.”
Fire in the belly, according to Jackson, is the missing ingredient.
FS Dylan Haines attributes the problem to the proverbial learning curve. Said Haines: “We haven’t played well all year, but that will change. I’m confident in that, and I’m confident in what coach Strong has done so far and will continue to do. We just haven’t put all the right pieces together. The pieces are there, but it’s going to take time…The freshmen that came in this year were his first, true recruiting class, and those are some of the most impressive guys I’ve seen since I’ve been here…Last year was our first year to learn a whole new defense and a whole new offense. It just takes time.”
Well, you can argue that Texas played exceptionally well at least once this year. Save for the incredible upset of Oklahoma, UT has found a different way each loss to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The biggest problem has been that an inexperienced team doesn’t know how to seal the deal, according to senior H-back Alex De La Torre.
“There’s something to finishing the game completely on all cylinders,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys and we’ve had a lot of injuries. There are a lot of factors that go into it, but it’s mainly about going out there and playing a complete game to the finish.”
The excess of youth on the current 2-deep is well-documented but, in all fairness, the 2015 Longhorns are younger than most realize. The Horns have fielded 24 freshmen (‘true’ and ‘RS’) while 17 underclassmen have combined to start 118 games. Specifically, Texas will return nine offensive players with at least four career starts (the tally does not include RBs Chris Warren III or D’Onta Foreman) and 12 (12!) defensive players with as many starts. (The list does not include P Michael Dickson).
Problem is: the list includes two QBs. Neither Tyrone Swoopes nor Jerrod Heard have shown they can complete a downfield pass with any semblance of consistency. Insiders continue to tell me that Heard has yet to mentally grasp what has been a fluid offense.
And if a third-year player like Swoopes can’t connect with a wide-open WR on deep vertical by now, he never will.
How critical is productive play at quarterback? Consider this: No. 1 Clemson actually fields a younger team than Texas, but the Tigers boast a dual-threat QB who will be in New York this month for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Or consider this: Texas was college football’s winningest program (69-9) from2004-2009 when it had two transcendent QBs during those six years. In the six years since, Texas has had five starting QBs and its record has fallen to 40-35.
In essence, Strong said Monday what we already knew: the QB race will be wide open this…. Ah-gain.
And that’s why, ah-gain, there is nothing more critical to Strong’s tenure, and to the immediate future of the program, than to hire a top-notch with a proven history of QB development. The other pieces, relatively speaking, should be in place.
Offensively, the bright spot heading into 2016 is freshman RB Chris Warren III who set three UT freshman records against Texas Tech with 276 yards rushing, four TDs and a 91-yard TD run.
Even against one of college football’s worst defenses, you can tell Warren III may be special enough that you can build an offense around him.
Texas was the most productive this season when it based out of a two-back set with a lead blocker. Warren III was sidelined much of the season with a high-ankle sprain in what was a crowded backfield. He is a physical, tackle-breaking, downhill runner who has great vision and deceptive speed. He is an amazingly mature, humble, poised and personable young men. Based on first impressions, he is precisely kind of student-athlete you want representing the Burnt Orange).
He also gets it.
“Texas needs to get back to where Texas used to be back in the day,” Warren III said. “It’s not a sense of entitlement at all. The history of Texas football is a milestone, and it’s a stepping stone to where we need to be. By the time we get to be juniors or seniors, we’re going to be a pretty good team. I feel like you (reporters) will have more freshmen in here to interview because they’re going to be out here getting records. We’re going to bringing in all kinds of (recruits) because of the success we’re going to have…It’s unfortunate for the people who are leaving, but they can come out of here knowing that Texas will be back.”