This spring is a critical time for Charlie Strong now in his third season in Austin
Charlie Strong bounced underperforming holdovers from Mack Brown’s tenure, brought in talented recruits and hired a high-priced offensive architect to take the Texas Longhorns’ attack into the 21st century.
He has changed plenty in a program that was in dire need of a makeover when he got the job after the 2013 season. So far, though, he hasn’t changed enough to lift UT out of the funk that subsumed the program in Brown’s final years.
Three years probably isn’t enough time for any coach to complete that kind of full-on rebuild, but good luck convincing Texas’ well-heeled boosters of that. Fair or not, UT’s head coach has officially reached put-up-or-shut-up territory in Austin.
Frankly, Strong has some serious work to do to keep his job. Sterlin Gilbert, a disciple of Baylor head coach Art Briles, is installing a high-octane spread offense despite not having an experienced quarterback who fits the system well. Equally troubling, defense is Strong’s calling card, and that side of the ball was a mess in 2015.
The Longhorns need these 15 spring practices as much as any program in the country.
5 Storylines to Watch in Texas' Spring Practice
1. Is Gilbert installing or surviving?
From a timing standpoint, Texas finds itself in an awkward place when it comes to transitioning to a new offense. Everything about the project before Gilbert suggests that 2016 should be a write-off. The ‘Horns have a new offensive line coach, the best quarterback for their open job is likely a true freshman and the best that can be said about their skill position players is that some have shown flashes of promise.
Unfortunately, Texas needs wins this fall – probably at least eight if the staff wants to stay employed. That means Gilbert may need to get resourceful for a season, rather than jump right in with getting the new offense in place.
2. The quarterback derby
Obviously, Gilbert’s ability to install his offense depends on how well UT’s quarterbacks adapt to the new scheme. In what has become a familiar theme in Austin that means the job is open yet again this spring.
Upperclassmen Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard don’t really fit well as Air Raid QBs, but the guy behind center in the Longhorns’ opener will likely come from those two. How long that lasts may depend on how long it takes to get touted true freshman Shane Buechele ready for action.
3. Who is catching their passes?
An equally significant concern for Gilbert is the paucity of identifiable game-breakers at the skill positions for the ‘Horns. Consider that talented sophomore John Burt, Texas’ leading returning receiver, caught all of 28 balls a year ago. Likewise, junior Armanti Foreman has a total of 21 grabs in his two seasons on the 40 Acres.
To make this O hum, new wide receivers coach Charlie Williams needs to find some reliable targets from an abundance of unproven options.
4. Solidifying the front seven
Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford’s unit struggled to stop the run in 2015, allowing a full half yard more per rushing attempt than a year earlier. As such, the fact that the front seven is losing four contributors – linebacker Peter Jinkens and linemen Hassan Ridgeway, Shiro Davis and Desmond Jackson – may be more blessing than curse.
This should open the door for youngsters such as linebacker Anthony Wheeler and defensive end Charles Omenihu to take a much greater role in the action this fall. They can start by making their marks this spring.
5. Coaching chemistry
For a guy who is going into his third season, Strong has plowed through his fair share of assistants. The shakeup this offseason led to turnover at four of five offensive coaching positions.
Even if Strong managed to upgrade at every spot, getting the entire staff on the same page can still be difficult. Luckily, Strong’s assistants have a few months to get things figured out.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Texas in the Big 12
Player for player, the Longhorns have the deepest and most talented team in the Big 12. The problem for head coach Charlie Strong is that his squad likely lacks the personnel at QB and WR to throw his new offense into overdrive and challenge for the conference crown.
Texas will field a better defense this season. Until proven otherwise, though, the ‘Horns likely won’t have the firepower to keep up with the rest of the league’s relentless offenses.
— 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.