Texas Football: Blueprint for a Perfect Offseason
Charlie Strong's tenure at Texas has already been a seesaw of decommitments and ended careers juxtaposed with big hires and new recruits. And that's just a week into the job.
But with his staff coming together just as the recruiting dead period comes to an end, the blueprint for what Strong has to accomplish in his first offseason is becoming clearer.
There is plenty of work to do, but Strong has the fortune of coaching one of the more talented programs in the nation. His true task is to motivate that talent into producing wins, which he has proven he is more than capable of doing.
Strong's offseason task list starts with stamping his personality on this Longhorn team and figuring out the quarterback position. Once he does that, things will finally fall into place for this program.
Adopt Charlie Strong's Personality
Over their four-year stretch of middling football, the Longhorns have been labeled as a "mentally soft" football team. The best way to change those opinions would be to adopt the personality of their fiery new head coach.
Charlie Strong will have no part of a team that exudes those qualities. In his introductory press conference on January 6, he used the terms "tough" and "toughness" 11 times. That's just part of the former safety's DNA.
In his four years as Louisville's head coach, Strong's team adopted his affinity for toughness. During last season's 12-1 campaign, the Cardinals led the country in total defense and were second in scoring defense. According to ESPN Stats & Info, they allowed just 14 broken tackles and one touchdown of 20 yards or more.
For comparison's sake, the 'Horns gave up three 20-yard touchdowns in the 40-21 loss to BYU alone.
As you can see, Strong has his work cut out for him. But he has proven that his teams can accomplish extraordinary feats when they play with the same determination he brings to the job. Given the amount of talent on Texas' roster, the change in attitude alone will yield major returns.
Mold Tyrone Swoopes into a Starting Quarterback
In terms of ceiling, few players have a higher one than rising sophomore Tyrone Swoopes. Getting him ready to start in 2014 should be at the top of Texas' priority list.
Physically, Swoopes has it all. At 6'5" and 250 pounds, he is a defensive end who happens to have a cannon for a right arm. He is also blessed with the long stride that allows him to glide past defenders with ease.
Putting it all together is another matter. Swoopes completed just five of his 13 passes on the season, struggling to make quick decisions from the pocket. He had his moments, but it was clear he was not yet ready to handle every snap.
This offseason, the coaches have to prepare him to do just that. David Ash is still expected to return but has missed all or part of 15 games over the past two seasons. Meanwhile, incoming freshman Jerrod Heard deserves a redshirt season before he gets thrown into the fire.
It could depend on the offensive coordinator, but maximizing Swoopes' dual-threat ability would give Texas the best for a fast start to the Charlie Strong era.
Hire a Good Offensive Coordinator
While we're on the topic of the starting quarterback, Texas still needs to find an offensive coordinator that can coach one up.
Strong has filled all but two positions for his 2014 staff, including the predictable hire of former Longhorn Vance Bedford as his defensive coordinator. On Sunday, he picked up two more key members of his offensive staff, starting by pulling O-line wizard Joe Wickline away from Oklahoma State and later naming Shawn Watson the new quarterbacks coach.
The Watson hire is intriguing for several reasons. First off, he was the odds-on favorite to be named the team's offensive coordinator after serving in the same role at Louisville. And after his work with Teddy Bridgewater, he projects to do fine work with Texas' troubled position.
Watson still could be named the offensive coordinator, but the reluctance to do so indicates something bigger is in the works. Clemson's Chad Morris is still out there, as are Ohio State's Tom Herman and Auburn's Rhett Lashlee. Athletic director Steve Patterson has stated that the program is working with a "significant budget" here, so few of the big names are off-limits.
Whoever the eventual choice is, the eyes of Texas will be upon him to turn the Longhorns back into an offensive juggernaut.
Hold This Recruiting Class Together
With three defensive tackles decommitting and Otaro Alaka now shopping around, Texas' 2014 recruiting class is in dire straits. If Strong can hold the remaining group together, then the 'Horns should be fine moving forward.
This is the risk programs run when they clean house. These teenagers develop close relationships with the assistants that recruit them and tend to get cold feet when that assistant leaves the program. How else do you explain 4-star safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner flipping to Boise State?
The same thing is happening at Texas now that defensive-line coaches Oscar Giles and Bo Davis are out, and more could be on the way with Duane Akina moving on as well.
Luckily, Texas should be able to recover from losing tackles Trey Lealaimatafao, Courtney Garnett and Zaycoven Henderson. The 'Horns are a favorite to land former Louisville commit Poona Ford, and Chris Nelson just received a scholarship offer as well.
Landing either keeps the Longhorns on higher ground. Must-haves like Lorenzo Joe, Derick Roberson and Jerrod Heard are still on board, and adding JUCO tight end Blake Whiteley is a huge coup for the offense.
The priority list here revolves around keeping Alaka's visits from turning into another decommitment while adding Ford and/or Nelson. Get that done and Strong's first Longhorn class can be considered a success.
With five starters succumbing to season-ending injuries in 2013, the Longhorns have to get some of their best players healthy this offseason. Starting with their top offensive player.
Josh Cochran has decided to call it a career due to a chronic shoulder issue. Defensive tackle Chris Whaley has exhausted his eligibility. David Ash is expected to return this spring, but could lose his job to Tyrone Swoopes.
Even with those three starters possibly done as Longhorns, the team is still waiting on two crucial pieces to return to action in 2014. Weak-side linebacker Jordan Hicks and running back Johnathan Gray are both working on a return from season-ending Achilles injuries. And the 'Horns could really use both at full strength.
Gray's timely return is a virtual certainty. His work ethic was a constant object of praise from the previous coaching staff, and the second half of his career will greatly impact his NFL future. With the return of Gray's big-play ability, along with the return of the powerful Malcolm Brown, Strong would have the foundation for his 2014 offense.
Hicks, on the other hand, is more of a mystery. The former 5-star recruit has missed 19 of 26 games over the past two seasons, having lasted no more than four games in either season. But his production is undeniable, recording 96 tackles with nine for a loss over his last 13 games.
Getting these two healthy will pay major dividends on the 2014 season and would be an early endorsement for the new strength and conditioning program.
Get Daje Johnson Back on Track
Those of you who watched the BCS Championship game saw Levonte "Kermit" Whitfield change the game with a 100-yard kickoff return. The announcers referred to his 4.37 speed as being the fastest of his recruiting class and lauded the explosive element that he brought to the team.
If you are a Texas fan that is aware of Daje Johnson's 4.34 speed, you let out a nice groan during this statement. Not a jealous groan, but a groan that reflected your irritation with the fact that Texas' blazing fast weapon has been suspended three times in two years.
Yup. The only player in school history with a punt return and rush of 80-plus yards can't stay on the field, and it robs Texas of an explosive element it needs. As we all saw on national television, that type of speed is as rare as it is difficult to contain.
The 'Horns have talent across their skill positions, but none boast Johnson's all-purpose ability. The hope is that the new staff can get him focused, because the right offensive mind could turn him into a big-time talent.
Figure out the Secondary
Half of the Longhorns' secondary have exhausted their eligibility with no top-end recruits to immediately take their place. In a pass-happy conference, that is a lot to remedy in one offseason.
Texas dodged a bullet when Quandre Diggs, along with Malcolm Brown and end Cedric Reed, announced that he would return for his senior season. Without him, Duke Thomas would be its only returning starter at defensive back.
Diggs, and his versatility on the back end, gives the 'Horns some flexibility as they figure out the safety position. The more experienced Mykkele Thompson has been inconsistent throughout his career, while Leroy Scott and Adrian Colbert have yet to seize hold of the position. Diggs could make the change, but Texas also lacks for depth at corner.
Newly hired defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is also the defensive-backs coach, so he will be judged by how he handles this situation. Given his track record with guys like Joe Haden at Florida, he should be up to the task.