As someone who built a career on finding weak links in opponents’ offenses, Texas football coach Charlie Strong understands the bullseye he has placed on two incoming freshmen projected to start Saturday in the offensive line against No. 11 Notre Dame.
The target extends to seven freshmen starters in the Longhorns’ lineup, as well as the 22 newcomers on the depth chart for Saturday’s season opener in South Bend, Ind. (6:30 p.m., KXAS/Ch. 5). But Strong, a longtime defensive coordinator, acknowledged the biggest challenges fall on left tackle Connor Williams and right guard Patrick Vahe, two starters who spent last season playing for their respective high schools.
“As a defensive coach, if I see two freshman linemen, I’m going to blitz you every snap and see if they can block you,” said Strong, who expects his young linemen to receive similar tests from Notre Dame coaches. “When you go on the road and you’re playing in an environment that we’re playing in, those two freshmen linemen, it’s a concern because you just don’t know how quickly it’s going to tick for them.
“But I always say this: When you’re at the University of Texas, it’s what you sign on for. You sign on to play in big games, and this is a big game for us. If you’re talented enough, you can go get on the field.”
Strong is banking on the talents of Williams, Vahe and two other starters from February’s signing class (LB Malik Jefferson, WR John Burt) to maximize the Longhorns’ opportunity to prevail as a double-digit underdog against a team that harbors College Football Playoff aspirations. Among the 22 freshmen on the depth chart, other key contributors project to be cornerback John Bonney, linebacker Edwin Freeman, linebacker Anthony Wheeler, cornerback Davante Davis and punter Michael Dickson.
That’s only a partial list and it does not include quarterback Jerrod Heard, a redshirt freshman who has been told he will get some snaps in relief of starter Tyrone Swoopes as coaches seek to improve depth at their most troubling position during last year’s 6-7 season.
The youth movement has led defensive tackle Desmond Jackson and other senior leaders to remind the newcomers that production, not potential, remains the measuring stick in efforts to turn around a traditional power program that has averaged 5.6 losses per season since claiming the 2009 Big 12 championship.
“We all know that last year didn’t meet our expectations,” said Jackson, who sustained a season-ending foot injury in the third game last year. “We went into the off-season trying to come up with a new mindset as a team. After hitting rock bottom for a little bit, guys … feel more like brothers.”
The older players, Jackson said, have offered this reminder to their younger counterparts: “Stay hungry and humble.” Running back Johnathan Gray, a senior from Aledo, considers the message received. He also expressed no reservations about running behind two blockers who played high school football at this point last season.
“Not at all,” Gray said. “Watching these guys, how they’ve grown since they’ve been here, they’re ready, they’re hungry, they’re nasty and they’re mean. So as a runner, you love that out of your linemen. They’re showing signs of maturity every day. And they’re willing to do whatever they need to get the job done.”
But Texas’ youth movement touches all positions. A breakdown of freshmen expected to contribute on offense against Notre Dame includes three receivers, three offensive linemen, Heard and running back Chris Warren.
The list is even longer on defense. Jefferson, who enrolled in January, joins redshirt freshmen Bonney and Freeman in the starting lineup. Nine other freshmen are in the mix to contribute to a unit that lost six starters to graduation. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said he’s been particularly demanding on his younger players.
“When we watch film, I tell the kids to be their own worst critic,” Bedford said. “If you are going to be your own worst critic, you have a chance to be successful.”
Jefferson, who will start at middle linebacker, understands the focus that will fall on him and his fellow freshmen.
“I’m really nervous, honestly,” Jefferson said during fall camp. “I’m ready to get on the field because I know it’s going to be crazy. I’m going to be excited to be out there in my first college game and give it my best.”
As one of 22 freshmen on this week’s depth chart, Jefferson will be far from the lone Longhorn clinging to that sentiment today.
Among the 22 freshmen on Texas’ depth chart for today’s game at No. 11 Notre Dame, seven are listed as starters:
Connor Williams, LT
January enrollee took part in fall drills
Patrick Vahe, RG
Joined team in June for summer workouts
Malik Jefferson, LB
Enrolled in January, starred in spring game
John Burt, WR
All-State HS player last season in Florida
John Bonney, DB
RS freshman will play CB and nickel spot
Edwin Freeman, LB
RS freshman opens at weak-side LB
Michael Dickson, P
Aussie learned to kick playing Australian Rules FB