So, how do you do evaluate a mulligan?
Coach Charlie Strong and several Longhorns assessed the 6-6 regular season, insisting it would be the aberration for the Texas program. Despite the attrition, offensive breakdowns, and defensive implosions that torpedoed the 2014 campaign, Texas football has been infused with desperately needed intangibles during Strong’s first year, players say.
“Sometimes it just eats at you, and it should,” Strong said. “We’re a much better football team than 6-6.”
The season was practically a wash by Labor Day. That’s when Strong announced the career-ending injuries to starters, David Ash and Dominic Espinosa (his 40 starts made him the team’s undisputed vocal leader).
48 hours later, Strong announced the suspension of a couple starting offensive lineman. Strong questions if he’s ever had a honeymoon, but the big money donors and the fan base (in essence) gave Strong a de facto ‘free pass’ that he never intends to use again. This type of season, he vowed last month, will never happen again on his watch.
“6-6 will never be the standard here,” Strong said. “It is not an indication of this program.”
The defensive-minded Strong said his biggest disappointment was the points-allowed to TCY, BYU, and Kansas State. The team didn’t always show pride, he added.
Nor did the team completely acclimate to the changes within the program (not even the players who remained after Strong cleaned house), outspoken senior corner Quandre Diggs said on a number of occasions. Diggs has consistently sung the praises of Strong and his staff. He’s not the only one.
“Coach Strong is someone that we needed. Honestly,” said Sedrick Flowers. “He came in here and he made us humble ourselves. When I first got here, there was some arrogance in the program. There were some players who thought they were entitled. (Strong) came in here and just took all of that away. Everyone is on the same level. We all just want to work and get a championship.”
It was apparent from Day 1 that the times, they were a’changing, according to WR John Harris.
“I remember going through offseason and thinking it was horrible,” Harris told Inside Texas. “You’d wake up early and have to get it going again. I don’t know if I’d want to go through another of those offseasons. Coach Strong really pushes his players just because he wants to get the best out of us.”
Harris is a case study for bringing out the best. He entered his fifth year with just nine career catches and considered transferring to Texas Tech. By the end of the regular season, Harris posted a team-best 64 catches for a team-high 1,015 yards. If Harris tallies seven grabs in the bowl game, he will most past Roy Williams into No.5 all-time for Texas single-season receptions.
“He’s brought a certain resiliency to this team,” Harris continued. “He brought a never-give-up attitude. One of the most important things is the toughness he’s brought to this program. We go through a lot of stuff that’s hard for us, and he doesn’t let us back down. He makes us push ourselves through. It’s a continual grind with him and his staff. The biggest difference has been the toughness that he brings and his preparation as well.”
LT Marcus Hutchins, speaking to the media for the first time this season, said he learned he could elevate his game beyond his perceived limitations.
“I learned I had another level,” Hutchins said. “When I thought I was going to break, or going to stop, I pushed through it. I learned that I had a second, a third, and a fourth gear.”
The near-misses against Oklahoma and UCLA reframed the season as much as the three blowout losses. A couple of wins against high-profile programs would have obviously elevated Texas’ bowl venue, including one that would not have necessitated a Christmas Eve departure. (Harris commented — presumably it was tongue-in-cheek — that he “is tired of spending Christmas Day with teammates.” Privately, Strong told players that if they didn’t like practicing on Christmas, then they need to get to a better bowl).
For Harris, however, the only regret is personal.
“I wish some of us would have stepped up and said something to those nine (dismissed) guys who aren’t here,” he concluded. “Those guys could have made a difference on our team. A lot of those guys were big contributors on special teams and had played a lot. A lot of those guys were seniors. I wish some of us would have spoken up and said something to those guys before we let any of this get out of hand and at the point where we are today.”
Overall, players generally believe they have been part of laying a solid foundation for a bright future. None profess regret for their involvement in a break-even season that, for many fans, feels more half-empty than half-full. A bowl win over former Southwest Conference rival Arkansas would go a long ways toward filling the glass of good tidings and providing much needed momentum heading into the offseason.