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Texas Football: 5 Reasons Why the Longhorns Should Be Optimistic About 2016

Zach SheltonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2016

Texas Football: 5 Reasons Why the Longhorns Should Be Optimistic About 2016

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    Can Charlie Strong get his first winning season as Texas' head coach in 2016?
    Can Charlie Strong get his first winning season as Texas' head coach in 2016?Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Texas Longhorns failed to finish with a winning record (5-7) for the second time in Charlie Strong's two-year tenure. But with a new offense, young talent on defense and another strong recruiting finish, the Horns could finally get over the hump in 2016.

    Optimism has been hard to come by when it comes to Texas. It's been six years of mediocre-at-best football on the 40 Acres, and even the administration seemed to lack faith in its initially half-hearted effort to ink a new offensive coordinator.

    But in supporting Strong in his effort to hire Tulsa's Sterlin Gilbert, those same administrators have given this program a chance to show real progress.

    Not only does Gilbert bring a proven offense to the table, but he should also set up one of Texas' quarterbacks up for success in 2016. With the young talent returning on both sides of the ball and Strong's knack for getting it done on the recruiting trail, this coming season has a chance to be a big one.

The Implementation of a Proven Offense

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    In Sterlin Gilbert, the Longhorns finally have an offensive coordinator who can implement an offense that can produce points in bunches. That alone should provide hope for the future of this team. 

    Just about anything would be better than what Texas did on offense over the past two seasons. Shawn Watson's system, and the broken pieces it left behind for Jay Norvell and Jeff Traylor, has produced a measly 23.8 points per game in the Strong era. Over that span, the Horns scored 10 points or fewer seven different times, including two shutouts.

    Gilbert's track record shows those days are coming to an end.

    In just one season at Tulsa, Gilbert took the Golden Hurricane from 94th in points per game  in 2014 to 25th in 2015 by the end of his tenure. Prior to that, his work allowed Bowling Green to put up 30 points per game with backup quarterback James Knapke running the show.

    Year after year, fans in Texas have seen Art Briles' offense routinely put up 40-plus points per game at Baylor. Now, Texas has a Briles disciple who is ready to do the same in Austin, and he will make an immediate difference in 2016.

The Return of Almost the Entire Defense

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    Texas loses four starters from its 2015 defense. But thanks to the massive youth movement on that side of the ball, the Horns return almost all of their two-deep heading into next season.

    With junior Hassan Ridgeway heading to the NFL, the Longhorns will lose just five key contributors from last year's defense. That leaves 25 defenders who saw action last season, including 17 members of the two-deep roster, and will return for a unit that finished in the middle of the pack in the Big 12, per CFBStats.com.

    While last season's defensive showing didn't quite measure up to that of the 2014 unit, it's important to remember the youth of this group. By the end of 2015, three true freshmen had earned starting roles, and all but one 2015 defensive commit was seeing regular action on a weekly basis.

    Considering that freshman All-American Malik Jefferson was the only high schooler to enroll early, the trust these young players earned is impressive. With a full offseason to build on impressive debuts, this group should improve in 2016. 

Real Competition at Quarterback

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    Without a clear-cut leader in the clubhouse, Texas needs as much competition as it can get at the quarterback position.
    Without a clear-cut leader in the clubhouse, Texas needs as much competition as it can get at the quarterback position.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Ideally, Sterlin Gilbert would be able to start his career at Texas knowing exactly who his quarterback will be. In lieu of that, he gets to pick his guy from a five-man competition that will kick off as soon as spring practice begins.

    Gilbert has quite a set of options to choose from this offseason. He will have experience in Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes, coachable athletes in Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick and pure arm talent in early enrollee Shane Buechele.

    This is a far cry from last season. Given Locksley and Merrick were raw freshmen, Swoopes and Heard were the only real options, and there's reason to believe the latter never got a fair look, as noted by the San Antonio Express-News' Mike Finger.

    The job is now truly wide-open, and most importantly, each player believes he has a chance to earn it. On Monday, Locksley shared how he's preparing for the opportunity during the national championship game via his Twitter account.

    The takeaway here is Gilbert will get to evaluate each of these players, choose his guy and turn him loose in one of the most quarterback-friendly offenses in the country. The Longhorns finally have options, and that will help them turn this passing offense around.

A Potentially Great Running Game

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    Warren (pictured) and Foreman will form one of the best running back duos in the country.
    Warren (pictured) and Foreman will form one of the best running back duos in the country.Michael Thomas/Associated Press

    Texas' ability to run the ball was its only elite offensive trait in 2015, and nearly every component of that attack returns this season.

    Despite a passing attack that put up less than 150 yards per game, the Longhorns running game flourished last season. Per CFBStats.com, the Horns finished in the top 25 nationally with 224.8 yards per game on 5.1 yards per carry.

    Next season, this group could be even better.

    Just in the backfield, the Longhorns return one of the scariest duos in college football. Both D'Onta Foreman and Chris Warren weigh in at over 230 pounds yet still turned in runs of at least 80 yards last season. As a one-two punch, these two are going to pummel defenses while setting themselves up for even more big runs.

    Up front, Texas also boasts some of the best young talent in the game. Freshman All-American Connor Williams started every game at left tackle, while left guard Patrick Vahe ran with the ones in every game he played. Playing in what Inside Texas' Ian Boyd calls "probably the easiest offense to play OL for in all of college football," the arrow for these two and the entire front line is only pointing up.

    Considering the probable usage of the quarterback run game, this group should be a blast to watch in Gilbert's new-look offense.

The Recruiting Class Is Trending Up

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    On the surface, Texas' 2016 recruiting class is a developing disaster. Per 247Sports, the Longhorns are barely a top-35 class with less than one month to go and have struggled to stay in the top 50 throughout the process.

    But with a big recruiting weekend around the corner, the class is going to end up just fine.

    Strong's first two recruiting classes have featured explosive finishes, and this one will be no different. Jean Delance's commitment at the Under Armor All-America Game was the first domino to fall, giving the third-year head coach the elite lineman he desperately needed during the dead period.

    With the no-contact phase at an end, Strong can focus on the 19 visitors coming to campus Saturday. 247Sports' EJ Holland has the full list of recruits who will be in attendance, but pay special attention to Chris Daniels, Stephon Taylor, Jeffrey McCulloch, Erick Fowler and Brandon Jones.

    Will Strong land all of the big-name targets he's pursuing as we get down to the wire? Of course not. But as he's shown these past two years, he's going to make noise and bring in some good football players.

    This is easily going to be a top-25 class.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats and information courtesy of TexasSports.com.

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