In a must-win year for coach Charlie Strong, the pressure is on in Austin. The Longhorns definitely gained some positive momentum after bringing in some blue-chippers on signing day this past spring, but will that be enough? New coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was brought aboard to bring significant improvement to the offense, and there's quarterback uncertainty exiting spring ball. The defense should be solid, especially with the development of sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson. Alumni are getting antsy and this season will be a sign of where things are going- either north or south, there is no in between.
Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:
Previewing Texas’ Offense
Charlie Strong and Texas had to give new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert a guaranteed three-year deal at $850,000 annually, in part because back-to-back losing seasons have raised doubts about Strong’s own job security. But if Gilbert, an Art Briles disciple, can get anywhere close to an offense resembling Baylor’s, it will have been money well spent.
In many ways, Gilbert and laser-armed freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, the top QB recruit in Texas in 2016, hold the keys to putting the Longhorns back on the path to prominence — and possibly to Strong’s survival. It’s clear Strong likes Gilbert’s simplified, up-tempo scheme with Buechele, an early enrollee who lit up spring football, running it. “Players know players — and they’ll tell me, ‘Shane’s a baller.’ He’s going to play in the fall,” says Strong of Buechele, the son of former Texas Rangers infielder Steve Buechele.
Outside receivers John Burt and 6'6", 212-pound early enrollee Collin Johnson have what it takes to spread defenses from sideline to sideline. That should help make defensive fronts vulnerable to the Longhorns’ “Thunderstorm” running back combination of 238-pound junior D’Onta Foreman and 255-pound sophomore Chris Warren III.
Previewing Texas’ Defense
, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
The good news is Texas desperately needed defensive tackles in the 2016 recruiting class — and landed five highly recruited prospects: four-stars Jordan Elliott, Chris Daniels and Marcel Southall as well as three-stars D’Andre Christmas-Giles and Gerald Wilbon of Louisiana. The bad news is — because of thin numbers — some or all are going to be relied upon immediately by a defense that gave up 219.2 yards per game on the ground last season.
“The defensive line is a big concern,” Strong says. “Those freshmen are going to have to come in ready to play.”
Sophomore ends Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager as well as linebacker Malik Jefferson, a Freshman All-American in 2015, should be able to generate a pass rush — so long as the defense can get into obvious passing situations.
The secondary is overflowing with top-end talent. Sophomore cornerbacks Davante Davis and Holton Hill both played fearlessly as freshmen. Versatile sophomore linebacker Anthony Wheeler and hard-hitting sophomore safety DeShon Elliott appear poised for breakout seasons in 2016.
Previewing Texas’ Specialists
Poor special teams have played a role in at least three losses over the past two seasons under Strong (UCLA in 2014, Cal and Oklahoma State in 2015). The third-year head coach didn’t exactly comfort fans after spring practice when he admitted he still needed a field goal kicker because three walk-ons failed to impress.
Clearly, Strong believes that Gilbert’s new offense — most likely with Buechele at QB — is going to be a huge upgrade over last year’s three-and-out-a-thon. In the spring, Buechele’s accuracy, moxie and poise set him apart from senior Tyrone Swoopes and sophomore Jerrod Heard.
Texas fans are hoping for the same type of turnaround TCU experienced when Gary Patterson ditched his run-first, pro-style offense and brought in Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie as co-OCs to spread things out. The Horned Frogs, 23–3 since the move, went from 25.1 points per game in 2013 to 46.5 points per game in 2014.
If the Longhorns could get even half of that increase on offense and be solid on defense and special teams, there’s a lot of young talent that could turn 2016 into a surprise year in Austin. The first five games will determine if the Longhorns are finally contenders. Texas opens at home against Notre Dame and plays road games at Cal and Oklahoma State before facing Oklahoma in Game 5.