When spring ball starts for the Texas Longhorns program, the nation will get a shot to see just what Charlie Strong can do with the current roster. After spending the winter workout period behind closed doors, spring fever will be the first time folks get to see bodies in motion.
As the nation wonders about depth chart battles and who will play quarterback, Strong has his own work to do to turn Texas into the program that he wants it to be.
For Strong, that will be about teaching the 'Horns how to practice while working his installs in an effort to identify his players on the team.
Teaching collegiate athletes how to practice is one of the more difficult and underrated elements of the college game—especially when the coach is transitioning into a new program with a different culture. Although Strong and his staff have started setting standards of acceptability during winter workouts, the true bar will be set when the kids hit the practice field.
At its core, practice is about effort, execution and intensity.
Practice is a place where the word "tempo" is a multifaceted ideal that applies not only to the pace of drills or movement of players from station to station, but also to the approach to specific sessions. Tempo takes effort. Tempo requires execution to work. Tempo works hand in hand with intensity.
Different coaches work different tempos, and for Strong, getting Texas to work at his desired tempo will be the first step.
Some coaches work at a slow, instructive tempo, turning practice into an affair that requires acute attention to detail and deliberate actions. Other coaches work quickly, opting for more reps and using the time in the film room to correct mistakes while still getting plenty of work out of the athletes.
Most coaches blend these elements, using some periods to teach and others to maximize reps.
For Texas, finding Strong's blend will be the first job, and that starts with him getting them to work at his tempo. That means going full speed when expected, then throttling down speed while maintaining intensity during teaching moments. It also means working "thud" and scrimmage tempos to show physicality for the new coach.
Strong's teams play a physical brand of football and they're built around the desire to dominate an opponent physically for 60 minutes.
The new coach is going to get that out of Texas first by teaching the players to practice in a physical fashion. Expect plenty of thud-tempo, full-speed, pad-on-pad contact while staying off legs from the Longhorns as linemen, linebackers and running backs prove their worth.
To go along with tempo comes effort, one of the cornerstones of a physical football team. Strong preaches a high effort level and getting high effort in games requires high effort in practice.
Effort is as essential a core value to a team as trust, integrity and academics. Without effort, foundations cannot be built. Without effort, three-yard gains turn into seven-yard pickups for first downs on a defense trying to get off the field. Without effort, running backs get stopped on 3rd-and-short.
In addition to effort, execution will be big this spring for the Longhorns.
Texas is getting a new defense, offense and attitude, and both sides of the ball have to be installed in spring. That means installation packets, teaching time, film review and reps to get players up to speed. Execution starts in the film room and then manifests itself on the practice field.
Offensive coordinator Joe Wickline and assistant head coach for the offense Shawn Watson will be pushing to not only get on the same page, but to get each offensive player up to speed with the new system.
There will be heavy mental reps in the film room, including teach tape and correction of practice film, plus plenty of on-the-field reps as coaches try to evaluate the athletes.
Installs are the basis for the offense and defense, and in spring, with a new coaching staff, from an X's and O's standpoint, install is the most critical element to players understanding the scheme. Strong has to get the the players programmed because once the spring season expires, the players will be tasked with doing their own work on improving within the scheme.
Through execution and teaching his players to practice, Strong is going to ultimately find his guys.
Players who he truly believes in as leaders. Players who he knows he can count on to give good effort and set the right tone for the program. Players who can fill out the depth chart and be relied upon to do their job.
"His guys" is what Strong's program is going to be about and identifying those players will be critical this spring. At Louisville, Strong built a foundation, with deep footing, on players whom he trusted and knew cared about the program.
Now, in his first year at Texas, he has to find those kids on the roster while working to recruit more of them into the program.
Although there are smaller, more specific notes on Strong's list, such as finding a quarterback, the big points for Strong are the most important. He has to teach this Longhorns team how to practice his way in addition to learning the specifics of the scheme.
Through that process, Strong will check off his most critical box: finding players he can trust to help lead the program.