Ever since he got the Texas job, Charlie Strong’s vision for the Longhorn offense has come across as… hazy? Muddled? Scattered?
He walked into the cradle of the spread and immediately set about trying to run the same pro-style offensive attack that brought him such success at Louisville. When that didn’t work, he reversed course after one year and decided that Texas would indeed run an uptempo spread scheme. What he and the rest of the nation saw in UT’s loss last weekend at Notre Dame were the same plays that were being run a year ago, except this time at a faster pace.
The result: a scant 3.13 yards per play on offense and a total of three points in a blowout loss to the Fighting Irish.
Strong acted decisively Tuesday in demoting his longtime offensive lieutenant Shawn Watson and alleged co-coordinator Joe Wickline after one game this season. Now, he’s putting the reins in the hands of receivers coach Jay Norvell.
No one who witnessed the Longhorns’ ineptitude in South Bend would argue that the offense appeared to be on the right track under Watson. Give Strong credit for cutting his losses.
The arguments in favor of Strong giving the job to Norvell seem fairly clear. First, he’s not Watson. It’s easy to see how staying with Watson could spiral into a malaise that affected the entire Texas team. Simply making a change also should help keep the burnt orange faithful at bay for the time being.
Second, Norvell has seven years of spread experience under his belt from his stint as Oklahoma’s receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator. Few programs have done more than OU to contribute to the rise of the spread offense nationally, and Norvell had a hand in making all those high-octane offenses go. With his experience in the Big 12, Norvell might have a better handle on attacking Texas’ conference opponents than Watson did.
However, if Strong is expecting Norvell to work miracles, he might want to find some new religion.
The reality is that while Norvell carried the co-coordinator tag with the Sooners for four years, he was effectively second-in-command to Josh Heupel. Norvell provided some input regarding OU’s scheme, but he didn’t have much of a role in calling plays on game day.
In fact, Norvell’s last stint as an offensive coordinator at UCLA in 2007 didn’t go so well. Running a West Coast offense, the Bruins finished 99th nationally in scoring offense at 22.4 points per game. They ranked 67th in the country in Offensive S&P+, Football Outsiders’ measure of offensive efficiency. At the end of the season, the UCLA administration handed the coaching staff their walking papers following a 6-7 finish.
What Norvell can do is install a stripped-down version of the spread that would give UT a chance to find out what it has in backup quarterback Jerrod Heard. It also would give the Longhorns a better chance of winning games based on the performance of the O against ND.
Whatever the short-term implications of the move may be for Texas, Strong’s decision raises a more important question: What has he been doing for the last nine months?
Although you could argue that Strong brough Norvell on staff in January as insurance in case Watson failed, Strong’s dismay at the offense’s performance versus ND would also indicate he didn’t see the implosion coming. That seems curious, to put it mildly.
More importantly, demoting Watson just one game into the year is tantamount to saying that the Longhorns wasted an entire offseason of preparation. If Strong wanted to go all-in with the spread after last season, he could have cut ties with Watson then and found a guru to handle the transition. Instead, he essentially gave the incumbent coordinator a one-game audition to showcase nine months of scheming.
Norvell may light a fire under the Texas offense and make Strong look like he had all of this figured out from the start. The move may buy Texas’ head coach more time to get the Longhorns turned around. But it should raise concerns on the 40 Acres about Strong’s vision and management of his program.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.