1. The 3-3-5 “stack”
For those of you that don’t understand what the formations in Madden mean, the first number represents linemen, the second linebackers, and the third defensive backs. Now, even a casual football fan can look at this setup and realize against an offensive front featuring, let’s say, five offensive linemen (as is standard), two tight ends and a fullback in front of the running back, Texas has a big problem up front.
Pioneered this century by former West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel during the Rich Rod glory days, the formation is meant to extenuate speed against spread offenses, in which plodding downhill linebackers and stacked fronts are exposed to smurf “playmakers in space” on the outside.
The problem is, while this may have worked well in practice against West Virginia’s “finesse” (to put it nicely) offense and that of the Big East/AAC, a downhill bruising attack absolutely destroys the overmatched defensive front. Just ask Rich Rod about the Michigan years.
The same is true in the Big 12, where, though the spread is prevalent, upper echelon teams such as Oklahoma and TCU still feature a power rushing element in their respective offenses, allowing them both to pummel the undersized Longhorn front. Seven blockers will take on six defenders, three of which are linebackers greatly outmatched size wise, while the defensive backs, typically 6-10 yards off the line of scrimmage, are forced to come up to make the tackle on what is typically a much larger runner.
This, quite frankly, is a recipe for disaster, and it is inexplicable that Strong refuses to scrap the formation on first and second down. If you’re a safety having to come into the box play after play to stop the run, you’re incredibly vulnerable to play action over the top. Nothing demoralizes a team like seven-minute drives of 5-7 yard runs, a reoccurring highlight of Strong’s first two years in burnt orange.
2. The quarterback “competition” is a circus
Is it too soon to recognize Austin as the place highly rated quarterbacks careers go to die? Last season the Longhorns limped to 5-7 behind Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes, two highly-touted signal callers who were supposed to “shine” under the fast-paced attack of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who was “reinventing” the Longhorn attack.
Fast forward one week into the season, and a 38-3 drubbing at the hands of Notre Dame (good news, Texas faithful, you get to start the year with the Fighting Irish again!) and Watson abruptly lost the keys to the “reinvented” attack, with Jay Norvell taking over the play calling duties.
Things didn’t get much better, though, with Texas posting just its third losing season in the last quarter century, capped with an asterisk-inducing “win” over rival Baylor, who were forced to play their 4th string quarterback due to an injury bug only outdone in its horror by the actual conduct of the Baylor players and administration.
The Longhorns return both Swoopes and Heard in 2016, but host a new option in freshman Shane Buechele. Perhaps in a not-so-subtle showing of his increased desperation, Coach Strong recently did not rule out Buechele playing this season, expressing a current desire to forfeit the opportunity to redshirt the talented signal caller.
That should tell you all you need to know about the offseason progress of the returning quarterbacks and the sizzling heat on Charlie Strong and the rest of his staff (which includes another new offensive coordinator in Sterlin Gilbert). Year three may be Strong’s last.
3. Your coaching staff is in over its heads
Strong was always an odd choice for the Longhorns, a school rooted in tradition and with its own billion dollar media network. They needed a well-spoken and charismatic coach, and Charlie, though reportedly a man of integrity, does not fit the bill. Ever since the stammering self-doubt he expressed in his introductory press conference, the Longhorn faithful have yearned for the George W-esque savvy of retired Mack Brown, something that seemed impossible during the end of his waning tenure.
The staff itself can feel the heat, with already a third offensive coordinator taking over play calling duties during the Strong era, and yet another “reinventing” of the Longhorn attack on the horizon. Continuity and stability are crucial to not only recruiting, but success on the field, as emotion and confidence matter far more in college than the NFL.
Recruiting has been ok, but, in fairness, the factory that is Texas high school football makes bad recruiting in Austin almost impossible. Strong closed well last cycle, but has still lagged behind the prime era pace of Mack Brown, as in-state rivals have only grown stronger (at least until the likely collapse of upstart Baylor).
On the field, you can literally see the splintering of the staff, as there was arguing on the sidelines throughout blowout losses to Notre Dame and TCU, two of the worst defeats in the last half century for the Longhorns. At times, players have joined in on the ruckus, having to restrain coaches and vice versa during 50-7 drubbings and obvious confusion.
To his credit, Strong has openly shouldered the blame, refraining from throwing players and coaches under the bus, at least publicly. But the coaching turnover and struggle to find an offensive coordinator show the reality of the Texas football staff as Strong’s seat increases its sizzle.
Reasons for Hope:
1. Freshman phenom QB
You never know with this until a kid gets on the field. Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel changed the college football history books forever, true freshman Chad Henne led Michigan to a Rose Bowl, Josh Rosen at times was unstoppable, and Aaron Murray damn near won a SEC Title. It can happen.
The Longhorns certainly have a plethora of options, with my favorite of the bunch being redshirt Kai Locksley, with his dual-threat ability and football pedigree (his father Mike Locksley was the New Mexico Head Coach), I expect him to be the most college-ready of the young bunch.
The status quo of Swoopes and Heard can’t generate much hope from the fan base. A young guy stepping up and leading the Longhorns could be just the spark they need.
2. Malik Jefferson
Jefferson, the Big 12 preseason player of the year, is an absolute star. Still only 19 years old, Jefferson flashes elite pass rushing ability and the athleticism to play sideline to sideline at over 240 pounds. A likely first round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Jefferson was a Freshman All-American in 2015 and looks to build off of what was the best first season for a Texas linebacker since Derrick Johnson.
Jefferson could be the cornerstone of an athletic and experienced Longhorn defense, with 11 underclassmen playing significant snaps last season and eight returning starters, Texas has good reason for optimism on at least one side of the ball.
3. The Big 12 is not good
Outside of Oklahoma and TCU, it is hard to say what kind of team anybody has in the conference. Baylor, once penciled in as a sure loss, is completely fucked, with new coach Jim Grobe abruptly tossed into the fire mid-offseason. With an almost completely lost recruiting class paired with a litany of transfers, and the definition of “turmoil” surrounding the program, nobody has any idea what will happen with the Bears.
We do know, however, that Kansas and Iowa State are terrible. West Virginia should be ok, with Dana Holgorsen coaching for his life and the Mountaineers returning 17 starters, but again, the questions are more prevalent than answers.
It is reasonable to expect the Big 12, outside of Oklahoma and TCU (who has to break in a new quarterback, remember) to be the worst conference in the Power 5, a major break for the still inexperienced Longhorns and their almost-fired coaching staff.
The Strong era comes to an end with Tom Hermann likely on his way from Houston to Austin as his replacement, though the Texas faithful will once again inadvertently negotiate an extension and raise for Nick Saban at Alabama. The Texas defense will be better, finishing in the top 5 of the conference, but again the offense is a complete dumpster fire, playing musical chairs with young quarterbacks and burning redshirts the next coaching staff will forever resent.
Texas again starts with a loss to Notre Dame, before winning two in a row entering Big 12 play after a win vs. California. Things get ugly in conference, though, with losses to Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas Tech, and TCU, ending Texas’ first back-to back losing seasons in any of our lifetimes.
Coach Strong, though a good coach and at times phenomenal defensive coordinator, never fit the media personality and charisma necessary for the head man of a program with its own media network and entrenched boosters financing the nation’s most profitable athletic program. Strong’s stammering introductory press conference raised some red flags, but his continued struggles with the media, alumni, and most importantly on the field, doom the Strong era in Austin.
If I’m Purdue, I get on the phone with Strong’s representatives and make a respectable offer. His toughness and hard-nosed defense would play well in the more plodding Big 10, and his experience in Texas and Florida could make inroads for new pipelines of recruiting for the desperate Boilermakers.
Although he’s one of my favorite “good guys” in all of college football, the Strong era ends like so many Longhorns offensive series during his tenure: 3 and out..
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