The countdown to a pivotal football season for Texas coach Charlie Strong begins Monday with the first practice of spring drills for a team coming off a 5-7 record, but boosted by February’s strong recruiting class.
As the Longhorns prepare to take the field, they will feature: five new assistant coaches, four quarterbacks vying to be the starter, three returning rushers who averaged at least 6.1 yards per carry last season (minimum of 70 carries), two consecutive losing records and one fresh play-caller on offense.
Strong, who has posted a combined mark of 11-14 in his first two seasons in Austin, realizes more will be asked of this team from a won-loss standpoint than the two that preceded it.
With three recruiting classes under his belt, the personnel on the field this spring will reflect Strong’s vision for the program and will have minimal ties to former coach Mack Brown. Ditto for the offensive and defensive schemes it employs.
After signing his second consecutive recruiting class judged by analysts as the Big 12’s best in February, Strong made it clear that he plans to play lots of freshmen next season.
Four January enrollees will get an early start on peers by taking part in spring drills: receiver Collin Johnson, linebacker Demarco Boyd, offensive lineman Zach Shackelford and quarterback Shane Buechele, an Arlington Lamar graduate who will be given a chance to compete for the starting job under new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert.
“I don’t really talk to players about redshirting because if they’re good enough we’re going to play them,” Strong said about his newcomers. “We know how important winning is and we know we have to win some football games. We just have to continue to work, continue to build and continue to put them in the right place.”
That, in a nutshell, is his goal for the Longhorns’ 15 spring workouts that will conclude with the Orange-White game in Austin on April 16. Below are five storylines to monitor as the Longhorns prepare for Monday’s first workout:
How will the new coaches mesh together as a staff? For Strong, that is Job One and it is an ongoing process. Most of Texas’ fresh faces will work on the offensive side of the ball, where Gilbert was hired away from Tulsa to install a run-friendly spread offense similar to the one Baylor uses under coach Art Briles. Gilbert, who will coach the quarterbacks, brought along offensive line coach Matt Mattox, a former co-worker at Tulsa who will serve as the Longhorns’ running game coordinator. Other new offensive assistants are running backs coach Anthony Johnson and wide receivers coach Charlie Williams. Strong’s staff overhaul also included the addition of defensive backs coach Clay Jennings.
Who wins a wide-open race to be the starting quarterback? That will be the most-watched development of the spring. The list of candidates includes Buechele, redshirt freshman Kai Locksley and the two returnees who shared snaps last season, Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes. With Gilbert installing a new offense, there is no edge in experience for the returnees, and Strong stressed that Buechele, a four-star signee, “is going to have a chance to compete” for the starting job. He anticipates a relatively quick resolution to the process, despite the proliferation of candidates.
“With Sterlin and the new offense, you are going to be able to know right away whether a guy can do it or not,” Strong said. “And they are going to be given a chance to go out and compete, so we will see. It will be easy. You have two guys that played, with Swoopes and Heard. So you like to see what really happens now with Buechele in there. It will be a very competitive position.”
Where will newcomers make the biggest impact? Texas added five defensive tackles, an area of need, but none of the fresh faces will be part of the daily mix until voluntary summer workouts in June. An impact newcomer taking part in spring drills is WR Collin Johnson (6-foot-5, 200 pounds), son of former Longhorns’ All-America defensive back Johnnie Johnson. He’ll add an upsized target to a group of receivers that needs more playmakers. Strong said WR Davion Curtis, a freshman expected to arrive in June, should have a quick learning curve as well. Boyd, a January enrollee, could claim a linebacker role in spring drills. The same is true for Shackelford, another January enrollee, with vacancies at center and deep snapper.
Which freshmen will step up fastest on defense? No one will know until fall. But names to track, along with Boyd, include LB Erick Fowler, S Brandon Jones, DT Jordan Elliott, DT Marcel Southall and DT Chris Daniels, a Euless Trinity product.
Who emerges as the starter at running back? Strong plans to play multiple backs, regardless of the pecking order. But returnee Chris Warren III (470 yards, 6.6 per carry, four touchdowns) made a strong statement with a 276-yard effort in last year’s regular-season finale against Texas Tech. D’Onta Foreman (681 yards, 7.2 average, five touchdowns) is the top returning rusher and coaches like fellow returnee Kirk Johnson (5.5 average last season in limited duty) and freshman Kyle Porter, who will join the fray in June.