Charlie Strong Is Playing The Long Game—And Winning
Yes, a true freshman looked like the star of Sunday night’s game against Notre Dame. But Charlie Strong has coached up the dregs of Mack Brown’s recruits.
There have been a few false starts to the Charlie Strong redemption song. Remember the late-season three-game winning streak that made the 2014 Longhorns bowl-eligible? Or what about last year’s stirring upset of eventual NCAA playoff participant Oklahoma?
Each time, the Longhorns fell on their faces after those feints at prolonged success. The 2014 team ended the season on two sour notes—humiliations at the hands of TCU and Arkansas—and two weeks after last season’s drubbing of OU, the Horns were pummeled on Halloween by Iowa State, leaving behind a zero as big and glaring as the Great Pumpkin on the Jack Trice Stadium scoreboard.
The Iowa State loss was one of three such coach-killing losses Texas endured last year, but there was also a second straight beat-down at the hands of TCU, and the season opener against Notre Dame—a match-up in which the Horns were outclassed in every phase of the game in a deceptively close 38-3 mismatch.
Not this year. During Sunday’s season opener, the 2016 Longhorn team had an answer for every NFL-level touchdown pass Irish QB DeShone Kizer laid out. New offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s relentless pace kept the befuddled Irish on their heels all night. A two-headed hydra of a quarterback attack unleashed fire all night long. And as ballyhooed as Strong’s last two recruiting classes have been, it was a combo of afterthoughts and the dregs of Mack Brown’s final class who came through the most in this game.
Each year the Longhorn Internet—most notably Barking Carnival—bestows a mythical “Gaskamp Award” on a Texas senior who finally breaks through after years of minimal production. On Sunday, the gridiron was littered with Gaskamp candidates, especially if you broaden the field to include juniors and sophomores once thought to be certain transfers.
With his two first-down catches, one in the game’s crucial first overtime, senior wide receiver Jacorey Warrick matched his total of 35 yards for all of last season. On a key first-half drive, junior wide receiver Jake Oliver, a guy with exactly zero career catches through two seasons, brought the Longhorns to within inches of pay dirt on the second of two clutch grabs. Athletically gifted but injury-wracked cornerback Sheroid Evans, now in his sixth year on the 40 Acres, stifled his assigned receivers for most of the night. Filling in for the injured Dylan Haines, Kevin Vaccaro, little-known little brother of older brother Kenny, made a play or two. Guard Alex Anderson, who a year ago was reportedly moments away from leaving the program, filled in more than adequately when Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickerson went down, his development a credit to new offensive line coach Mark Mattox.
And, of course, there was Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard, twin symbols of the Longhorns’ long run of bad quarterbacking that began on January 7, 2010. Swoopes threw only one pass all night, and that was an incompletion. Heard didn’t toss a single one, because he had volunteered to move to wide receiver, and all he did was come within a shoestring tackle of scoring on 70-plus-yard pass from the true freshman who supplanted him under center. And yet the two of them, along with true-freshman Shane Buechele, were key components in the Horns’ victory.
Even with all of those Gaskamp contenders, Strong’s more recent recruits also found ways to excel. Linebackers Anthony Wheeler and Breckyn Hager look like keepers. Chris Warren III got a touchdown run. In his first-ever start, defensive tackle Chris Nelson was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week. The Foreman twins came through big—fireplug D’Onta with his unshakable aptitude for six-yard runs up the gut, and lithe Armanti with a precision toe-dragging TD grab of a perfectly-placed long Buechele toss. Electrifying sophomore wide receiver John Burt beat his man on routes both short and deep with ease all night long.
And what can be said of Buechele that hasn’t been said already? Last Thanksgiving weekend he was suiting up for the Arlington Lamar Vikings and losing a hard-fought battle to Mansfield High School, eventual state runner-up. And there he was on Sunday night, in front of the largest crowd in UT history, facing down the most storied program in NCAA football, looking for all the world like he was still back at Arlington Lamar, calling signals against some district mullet squad. The kid has the calm of a MASH surgeon under bombardment.
Then there’s Malik Jefferson, who just might be an athletic abnormality. You don’t often see a 240-pound linebacker running down an unimpeded college running back from an elite school from behind, a full 55 yards past the line of scrimmage, but that is exactly what Jefferson did in the first quarter to Irish halfback Tarean Folston. And whether clogging up the middle or rushing off the edge, the Predator helped ensure that Irish luck would not prevail in the end.
Which is not to say that it didn’t look for a minute there like Notre Dame would pull off some leprechaun faerie magic that has made for a solid history of Longhorn domination. (Coming into this game, Texas was 2-9 versus the Irish, including that 38-10 dismantling in the 1978 Cotton Bowl that cost Earl Campbell’s Longhorns a National Championship.) Late in the game, the Irish successfully returned a blocked kick, and it seemed like time to just be grateful that such a young Texas team had hung tight with a powerhouse for so long. Surely the Irish, behind their invincible Kizer, were about march across DKR like Wilhelm did Belgium and bring about Longhorn capitulation.
Nope. As the French did to Kaiser Bill’s legions at the Marne almost exactly 102 years before, the Horns D stepped up and took the game to overtime, and then held the Irish to a field goal in the second overtime period. Swoopes dove in for what looked like a Friday Night Lights game-winning touchdown, and that was all she wrote: Texas–50, Notre Dame–47.
Opposing coaches have to dread what Strong is building. Where Mack Brown could rarely get two competent quarterbacks to stay on the team at the same time, Strong has three, two of whom have swallowed their egos for either a position change, in Heard’s case, or reduced playing time, in Swoopes’s case. Even more amazingly, all three of those QBs found ways to be heroes on Sunday night, in a game that ended with the team bearing their beloved coach—the one who some pundits controversy mongers claimed had “lost the locker room” just ten or so months ago—aloft in riotous celebration.
And though about ten of them saw action, Strong’s highly-regarded true freshmen hardly even broke a sweat. Much of the credit for this win is due the reclamation projects and redemption stories—Oliver, Warrick, Anderson, Evans, Swoopes, and Heard. But the wolf pack of lean and hungry recent Strong recruits lurks in reserve, watching, learning, and waiting eagerly to be unleashed.
That is how long-haul powerhouse programs are built. You don’t throw true frosh out there unless absolutely necessary, and if you coach up the upperclassmen on hand you don’t have to. Everybody on the team has bought into what the staff is selling. And when you upset teams like Notre Dame, everybody shares in the joy, from formerly forgotten upperclassmen, to budding frosh and soph stars, to the redshirts on the bench and the recruits in the bleachers.