In efforts to turn around last year’s disappointing 6-7 record, Texas football coach Charlie Strong has not been shy about test-driving fresh ideas and fresh faces.
The Longhorns head into the Sept. 5 season opener against No. 11 Notre Dame with a new offense (spread), lots of first-year starters (multiple freshmen, total TBD) and a more open line of communication between players and coaches than a year ago. Although Texas is unranked heading into the opener in South Bend, Ind. (6:30 p.m., KXAS/Ch. 5), such meager projections are not prevalent within the locker room.
“Expectations are high,” said running back Johnathan Gray, a senior from Aledo preparing for his second season under Strong. “We want this team to be a better team this year, to put Texas back on top. To win games and have more of a competitive edge.”
Gray said Strong laid a foundation for off-season improvement by capping spring drills with a unique motivational twist. Strong invited several team leaders, including Gray, to his office for what players envisioned as one-on-one meetings. Instead, each player met face-to-face with all coaches, including graduate assistants, and engaged in frank discussions about ways to improve personal and team performance.
We need to go out and we need to go play well. They understand the magnitude of that game [against Notre Dame].
Coach Charlie Strong
“One player was in the hot seat,” Gray said. “You got the true answer out of all the coaches. And I think that’s what this team needs to understand … what we need to do to fix the bad things.”
Gray said he welcomed the feedback, including personal criticisms, and looks forward to unveiling his off-season tweaks against an opponent to show “how I can help this team.” Strong is counting on the rest of his team leaders to do likewise after a disappointing debut campaign marked by more player dismissals (9) than victories (6). Strong also vowed this season will not feature more losses than wins.
“We have to have a winning season,” Strong said, noting that last year’s 6-7 mark “will never be good enough” at Texas. “You’re always looking for leadership. You’re looking for discipline. It’s all about competing. You’re here to compete for championships.”
Whether Texas can contend for a Big 12 title in a league that includes No. 2 TCU, No. 4 Baylor and No. 19 Oklahoma is open to debate. But the Longhorns plan to exceed middle-of-the-pack projections by being more productive in their new spread offense.
Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, who threw almost as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes (13) while posting a 5-7 mark as last season’s starter, is expected to start against Notre Dame. Strong said Jerrod Heard, a redshirt freshman from Denton Guyer, also will take snaps against the Irish, but Swoopes has shown more in fall camp.
Strong is adamant that Swoopes (6-foot-4, 248 pounds), a dual-threat player who ran a spread offense in high school, should improve his production this year because he’ll be more comfortable and more confident running an offense similar to what he ran in high school.
9Dismissals from last year’s team in Charlie Strong’s first year.
“For him, it’s all confidence,” Strong said. “At that position, you have to win the team. Right now, the way he’s carrying himself through camp, he’s trying to win the team, and he’s doing a good job with the way he carries himself. He’s not throwing interceptions. He’s putting the ball in the right people’s hands.”
Swoopes, an emergency replacement in last year’s lineup after starter David Ash retired in September from chronic concussions, will be protected by a veteran offensive line this season. Four starters return in the trenches. Gray (637 rushing yards, seven TDs), a five-star signee, is back to full speed after undergoing surgery for a torn Achilles tendon in November, 2013.
“Last year, going into the first half of the season, I had aches and pains in my Achilles. It wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do,” Gray said. “Toward the end of the season, it felt great. Now, I’m just ready to get back on the field and ready to be 100 percent Johnathan Gray.”
Because of graduation, Texas’ defense will feature six new starters. Linebacker Malik Jefferson, who enrolled in January, is among several freshmen expected to shoulder major roles. Other freshmen expected to surface on the opening-week depth chart include defensive backs John Bonney, Holton Hill, Davante Davis and Kris Boyd. Strong said he has an idea who will start “on both sides of the ball” but has identified Jefferson as the only freshman likely to line up with the first unit against Notre Dame … until further notice.
“Malik is going to be key for us there,” Strong said.
Safety Dylan Haines, a junior who had more tackles (73) and interceptions (4) last season than any returning Longhorn, pointed to the proliferation of talented freshman defenders as motivation to veteran players.
“You have to be head and shoulders above a freshman because they are an investment and have four-plus years to play,” Haines said. “Some of these juniors and seniors only have limited time to play. So, yeah, it motivates the upperclassmen. You can see them pushing and working hard in practice.”
Ideally, Strong hopes all the fresh faces and fresh ideas mesh to trigger a turnaround season at a power program that won its last conference title in 2009. Strong acknowledged the opening matchup against Notre Dame will set a mental tone for his players for the rest of the season.
“We need to go out and we need to go play well,” Strong said. “They understand the magnitude of that game. It’s going to be an unbelievable game for us. Very challenging.”
Just like most of the games that will follow for a team seeking to bury the bad vibes from last season’s 6-7 record.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
Last year’s record: 6-7
Bowl result: Lost to Arkansas 31-7 in Texas Bowl
Opener: Sept. 5 at Notre Dame (6:30 p.m., KXAS/Ch. 5)
Players to watch: RB Johnathan Gray, LB Malik Jefferson, QB Tyrone Swoopes
Tarrant tie: DT Hassan Ridgeway (Mansfield)
Big 12 countdown
The Star-Telegram will spotlight each team leading up to TCU’s season opener at Minnesota on Thursday.
Tuesday: Texas Tech
Thursday: Oklahoma State
Saturday: Kansas State
Tuesday: Iowa State
Wednesday: West Virginia