Texas Football: What to Expect from Longhorns' New Play-Caller Jay Norvell
Push finally came to shove for Charlie Strong, who has named Jay Norvell the new play-caller for the Texas Longhorns.
What that means for the rest of the season remains to be seen.
Ranking in the nation's bottom three in scoring offense, total offense and yards per play (per cfbstats.com), it was obvious that Texas had to replace Shawn Watson. During his 14 games as the play-caller, the Longhorns have scored 10 points or less six times, losing by 20-plus points each time.
Now Strong's tied his future at Texas to Norvell, who was hired this spring to coach the wide receivers. The former Oklahoma, UCLA, Nebraska and NFL assistant will finally take this offense back to the spread in hopes of riding Texas' team athleticism to some points.
Charlie Strong on Jay Norvell: "We talk about an up-tempo offense. That's what everyone wants to see."
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of time to implement the revamped attack, and the pending schedule makes a 1-5 bye-week record all too possible. The change can only make this team better, but will it be enough to stave off disaster?
What Will Change?
For all of the talk this summer about moving to a spread attack, we saw nothing of the sort against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In truth, it was the same offense, except the drives were ending even faster due to the up-tempo pace.
As USA Today's Paul Myerberg puts it, it was "akin to fixing a broken bicycle chain by pedaling faster."
Rest assured, Norvell's offense will actually be different. Why? Because that's the main reason (per 247Sports' Jeff Howe) that he was hired in the first place.
From 2008 until last season, Norvell served in several roles on the Oklahoma Sooners' own take on the spread. Along with Jeff Traylor and offensive line coach Joe Wickline, the hire was intended to increase Texas' offensive explosiveness, especially with regard to the quarterback run game. With Norvell at the controls, we'll finally see some of those concepts in action.
That means far fewer slow-developing pass plays with deep drops. No more complicated reads for the quarterbacks, no more watching the offensive line struggle to hold long blocks and no more wondering why Johnathan Gray isn't getting the ball.
This will be a run-oriented attack with quick-hitting pass plays designed to get Texas' athletes in space. Who will lead it is another question.
Which Quarterback Will Run the Show?
A quick-hitting, run-first offense is the perfect fit for Jerrod Heard's dual-threat skill set. With Norvell calling the shots, one has to believe he'll finally get his chance.
As long as there is character there, a guy who really cares, he'll find himself to a very good place if you have faith, patience and trust and you can keep motivating him. That's why I've always been a Tyrone [Swoopes] fan because Tyrone is that guy. He's got high character, and I understood where he came from. He came from a small program. He got thrown into a tough situation last year and just all of the different pieces. That's the faith, patience and trust. It's a process, so we help him find his way through it.
Unfortunately, we're still seeing the same Swoopes that crashed and burned at the end of 2014. He's constantly running for his life, whether he needs to or not, and seems rushed when he gets an opportunity.
A lot of that is Watson's fault for asking Swoopes to take these deep drops and dissect the defense. He doesn't have the offensive line for that. And if he did, we haven't seen anything that says he'd suddenly become a star.
Norvell's more simplified approach might make things easier on Swoopes, but Heard's the better fit. Without much time to install anything beyond the basics, having Heard's dual-threat ability would keep the defense honest. Moreover, it would give Texas a chance to see if the redshirt freshman has a real future at the position.
Swoopes will keep his job for the next couple of games, but one more big loss should push him to the bench until further notice. Expect Heard's role to increase against the Rice Owls before he takes over for the Week 3 meeting with the California Golden Bears.
Who Stands to Benefit Most from the Change?
The quarterback and offensive line aren't the only beneficiaries of the switch to Norvell. The entire offense has a chance to take a step forward in this attack.
Strong on Johnathan Gray getting 8 carries vs. Notre Dame: "We've got to get the ball in his hands. It's very obvious."
First off, Gray will never again see single-digit carries in his final season at Texas. This offense will be built around the run, especially getting him in space as well as situations where he can cut and go. He tore it up in a similar system as a sophomore, and he'll be just as good this time around.
The other two players to watch here are Daje Johnson and Armanti Foreman. Texas figures to lean on the short game through the air, namely by way of screens and quick slants, and they're the team's best receivers in space.
Johnson's already established himself as the chief option on these types of plays. The senior led the team with six catches against Notre Dame, nearly breaking one off for a 60-yard score. He's going to get plenty of more chances to do that under Norvell.
Foreman should also see an uptick after getting shut out in South Bend, Indiana. He has a similar skill set to Johnson, with probably more potential on deep routes, and has a strong relationship with Norvell dating back to his recruitment (per 247Sports). Don't bet on him going catchless again this season.
Lastly, this is a system in which John Burt can really come into his own. As noted by Horns Digest's William Willkerson, the freshman was constantly getting open against Notre Dame despite the struggles of his teammates. He should see a lot of one-on-one matchups moving forward, so there's more where that 48-yard catch came from.
How Will the Recruits React?
Strong's risked a lot of his recruiting equity by making such a big change this early in the season. But reading the reactions of his recruits, it's something they expected from the Longhorns head coach.
Star quarterback recruit Shane Buechele has already taken the initiative to get on campus and see what's up. According to SB Nation's Wescott Eberts, he'll sit down with both Norvell and Watson to discuss potential concerns moving forward. There's no cause yet for alarm, but it's very important to make sure the face of the class is on board.
Otherwise, the coaching move has been met with optimism. 247Sports' EJ Holland reports that commits Tope Imade, Peyton Aucoin and Gerald Wilbon all trust Strong's decision-making and merely want to see the team improve.
Receiver commit Reggie Hemphill-Mapps is a little more to the point. "Hopefully, we start getting dubs," the 4-star wideout said.
We'll see what happens if Norvell struggles, but a change had to happen after what Texas' commits and targets alike saw on Saturday. Still, there will have to be real progress to keep things from falling apart on the trail.
Will It Save the Season?
Will naming Norvell the play-caller save Strong's second season? Or will it be just another nail in the coffin? At this point, all that's certain is it had to happen.
After putting up just 17 points across three awful losses, it was obvious Watson had to go. He wasn't willing to build his scheme around his personnel, and that stubbornness will keep him from calling plays for a long time.
But that doesn't mean Norvell's a home run. He hasn't called plays since 2007, and Blatant Homerism's Allen Kenney didn't have much to say to SB Nation's Wescott Eberts about his tenure on the Oklahoma sideline.
There's also the fact that there's not a whole lot of time to install a scheme. Aside from this weekend's much-needed matchup with Rice, the Horns have an absolutely brutal schedule coming up and don't get a bye until mid-October. They're learning on the fly, so growing pains are going to be there.
That said, most of Texas' players have experience with the spread from high school, and several members of the staff have considerable experience with its concepts. That's especially true for tight ends coach Jeff Traylor, who has been right there with Norvell in implementing the new attack (per Horns Digest's Chip Brown).
So while there should be no doubt that the offense will get better, that doesn't mean it's going to be good. This is a lot to ask of a young team, especially one that just turned in such a brutal performance.
If Texas can steal a game from Cal, Oklahoma State, TCU or Oklahoma, there's enough time for this move to salvage a bowl-eligible season. Otherwise, this team is looking at a 1-5 start, and Strong will have a really tough time coming back from that.