Say this much for the recruiting skills of Texas football coach Charlie Strong: the guy flips teenagers’ commitments in crunch time like a pancake cook at your local IHOP.
A late surge of fresh faces, many of them on the offensive side of the ball, allowed Strong to unveil a 29-member signing class Wednesday that most analysts place at the top of the Big 12 pecking order and on the borderline of the nation’s top 10.
Strong’s final-week flurry of six newcomers included three high-profile Wednesday additions (running back Chris Warren, defensive back P.J. Locke, receiver/kick returner Ryan Newsome of Aledo) and allowed the Longhorns to replenish the roster with at least one four-star signee (per Rivals.com) at every position group except defensive tackle.
“We were able to fulfill our needs at each position,” said Strong, whose haul included nine players listed on other schools’ commitment lists at some point in the recruiting process. “Our staff was just relentless. They were not going to take ‘no’ for an answer.”
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But when it comes to the Longhorns, a 6-7 team with a dismal offense last season, the bottom-line gauge for recruiting success boils down to one position.
“If they don’t solve the quarterback issue, it doesn’t matter what they do in recruiting at any of the other positions,” said Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director. “If the quarterback position does not get solidified, none of the other stuff will matter.”
Texas’ lone step in that direction Wednesday came with the addition of quarterback Kai Locksley, a four-star prospect listed as an “athlete” on the Rivals site. Locksley, who played receiver in one postseason all-star game, reneged Monday on his commitment to Florida State, which signed two other quarterbacks Wednesday.
Locksley is the lone addition to a Texas quarterback cupboard that includes two returnees from last season: Tyrone Swoopes, who struggled while posting a 5-7 record as the starter, and Jerrod Heard, a freshman who was redshirted.
The returnees will battle for the starting spot in spring drills, Strong said, with Locksley (6-foot-3, 188 pounds) in position to earn immediate playing time if he dazzles in fall drills. Strong indicated the Longhorns’ offense will have more spread elements next season, with all three candidates considered dual-threat quarterbacks.
Although Strong called linebacker Malik Jefferson “the marquee player” of Wednesday’s class, he pointed to Locksley as perhaps the most critical signee because of Texas’ unsettled quarterback situation and the defection of Zach Gentry, a longtime commit who signed with Michigan.
“We had to get us a quarterback; we needed some depth,” Strong said. “Kai can beat you with his feet or his arm, but he has some work to do.”
Translation: Even Strong is not sure he has the long-term answer to the Longhorns’ quarterback riddle. But Locksley, son of former New Mexico football coach Mike Locksley, adds another option to the mix.
Strong also did not rule out the possibility of adding a transfer quarterback who graduates from another school with immediate eligibility, saying he plans to keep “one or two” scholarships open for potential additions.
Strong was more effusive in praising newcomers at other positions, with Jefferson (6-2, 222) — the team’s lone five-star addition — at the top of the list. The Mesquite Poteet product is expected to solidify a linebacker corps in need of new starters.
In Strong’s estimation, Jefferson solidified Wednesday’s class by breaking a commitment to Texas A&M and helping lure other elite players to Austin. The impact was most pronounced on defense, where Texas landed five defensive backs and five linebackers who could make immediate contributions next fall.
“There’s got to be a marquee player. That was Malik Jefferson,” Strong said. “When he jumped on board, that got us jump-started.”
Eventually, Texas landed 10 players from out-of-state schools. That is four more than last season, when Strong took over the program a month before signing day.
Wednesday’s haul included five signees from Florida, a state where Strong and his staffers have deep connections with high school coaches. The move offered the latest reminder that Strong will build his program much differently than predecessor Mack Brown, who relied on homegrown talent and long-term commitments.
Brown’s classes from 2006-11 included a total of four final-week additions. Strong unveiled six of them Wednesday and made it clear he was excited to flip nine players who broke pledges to other programs.
“You never take ‘no’ for an answer until the paperwork is faxed in,” Strong said.
Newsome, who backed away from UCLA, said he liked that Texas coaches “never stopped recruiting me” after he made a public declaration in favor of the Bruins. That persistence paid off in a much-improved talent haul over last year’s initial effort of the Strong era, although the quarterback spot remains an unsolved riddle.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Strong said, deflecting a question about whether Texas now has enough talent to challenge for a Big 12 title. “We have a ways to go.”
But the Longhorns are closer than they were a month ago, thanks to some late commitment flips by Strong and his staffers.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760