Texas Football: 5 Reasons Why Charlie Strong's 1st Season Has Been a Success
The Longhorns are 5-5 and will need to beat either Oklahoma State or No. 4 TCU to earn a berth in a bowl game.
No matter how the final two games turn out, Charlie Strong's first season has been a success and should have Longhorn fans excited for the future.
Before the pitchforks come out, consider what the former Louisville coach inherited. Texas had lost any sense of identity under Mack Brown, earning a reputation for being soft. Only one Longhorn has been a first-rounder in the NFL draft since 2011, and not one heard his name called in 2014.
Now look at what Strong has lost since his arrival. He's been forced to either suspend or dismiss 11 players who refused to follow the rules, his starting quarterback retired from football following a Week 1 injury and he's had to start at least five different iterations of offensive linemen, per 247Sports.com's Jeff Howe.
In the midst of all that chaos, Strong has endeared himself to his team, developed a raw athlete into a dangerous quarterback, coached up one of the nation's best defenses and turned unknowns into weekly stars.
That's success in every sense of the term.
His Relationship with the Team
Casual observers will see the above video and see a 5-5 team that's a little too excited for a home win over West Virginia. At best, they'll see one that's just now starting to believe in its new coach.
The truth is that this team bought in long ago, even when Strong was axing its members left and right. Senior cornerback Quandre Diggs has been the clearest example of this team's attitude toward Strong, voicing his support since back on Big 12 media days.
He's just being himself. He does things his own way that some of y'all don't like, which he doesn't care and we don't care. We are just going to do what that man says. He has a winning track record and that's what important to us. We trust him and as long as he trusts us, we are going to go out there and play hard for him.
And play hard they have. We will discuss this in later slides, but the defensive improvement has been astounding, and it's because Strong has reached past underachievers like Mykkele Thompson, who did this on Saturday.
All of that is a result of the closeness this team feels to this new staff. And it starts with Strong, who showed once again how much he cares about his players when discussing Cedric Reed's three-sack performance against West Virginia, via Texas' official site:
He always says, Coach, what's wrong. I said, "Ced, just go play. You worry about too much and you see too much. Just trust your eyes and go play." Then he just finally opened it up, and that was just so fun. I was just so happy for him.
Strong cares about this team and its members who have worked hard for him. That will pay major dividends moving forward.
The Development of Tyrone Swoopes
All of a sudden, the Longhorns have themselves a pretty decent quarterback in Tyrone Swoopes. Credit Strong and his staff for turning the raw sophomore into one.
As a freshman who should have been redshirted, Swoopes completed just six of his first 13 passes for 26 yards, good for a whopping two yards per attempt. He wasn't much better running the ball, either, carrying it 20 times for 79 yards.
Then Swoopes looked shaky in the spring game, starting 2-of-9 with an interception against the second-team defense.
Now, nine starts into his sophomore campaign, Swoopes has already pulled off feats on par with some of Texas' greats. He's just the third quarterback in Texas history to put up 800 yards of offense over a two-game stretch, per SB Nation's Michael Pelech, highlighted by a 416-yard day against Iowa State in which he led a remarkable game-winning drive.
He's struggled of late, but Swoopes remains on a path to success under quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, as explained by the San Antonio Express-News' Mike Finger (subscription required). If nothing else, the big sophomore is proof that the Horns finally have the staff to reverse the program's luck with the game's most important position.
The Improvement of the Defense
The 2013 edition of the Longhorn defense was as middling as it gets, ranking in the Big 12's bottom five in most team categories, per Big12Sports.com, and giving up 30-plus points six times.
Now, under Strong, it's one of the nation's most fearsome units.
Through 10 games, the Horns rank fourth in the nation in yards per attempt, per cfbstats.com, and have allowed more than 30 points just three times this season. Texas is also set to repeat as the Big 12's best pass rush, on pace for 36 sacks after piling up 39 a season ago.
Behind the play of All-American candidate Malcom Brown, this Longhorn team has also become incredibly stingy in the red zone. Texas now ranks 16th in the nation in red zone defense, per NCAA.com, holding opponents to 11 field goals inside the 10-yard line, according the team's Twitter account.
Strong is known for his defensive acumen, and he's already adding to an impressive resume in Austin.
The Emergence of Unexpected Stars
In the short time he has been head coach, Strong is maxing out a majority of the talent he has at his disposal, creating some unexpected stars in the process.
The most obvious beneficiary of the new staff is John Harris, the team's leading receiver. Entering 2014 with just nine career receptions for 190 yards, the senior is on pace to hit 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns on 60 grabs.
On the defensive side of the ball, the light has switched on for third-year tackle Hassan Ridgeway, who leads the team with five sacks. Behind him, walk-on Dylan Haines and 3-star true freshman Jason Hall have taken over at safety, while redshirt freshman Naashon Hughes and former tight end Caleb Bluiett see regular duty along the front seven.
The emergence of these players has made all the difference on both sides of the ball and is the chief reason the Horns are still in play for a bowl appearance.
The Arrow Is Pointing Up
When you look at the Longhorn depth chart and what this team will have next year, it's easy to see that Strong has the arrow pointing up.
No matter what, Texas will return an experienced quarterback and its entire offensive line next year. That's another full offseason for Swoopes to learn this offense (provided he can hold off Jerrod Heard) and for his young offensive line to get comfortable under coordinator Joe Wickline.
The impact of that continuity cannot be overstated, no matter how many starters the Longhorns lose. And with the way Strong coaches defense, it'd be downright disrespectful to say he can't overcome the losses of draft-eligible Malcom Brown or the do-it-all corner Diggs.
This season has been a year of growing pains for Strong's program, but it's in as favorable a position as it's been in quite some time.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats and information courtesy of TexasSports.com.