Charlie Strong ready for next step in rebirth at Texas; Punt, Pass & Pork
AUSTIN, Texas—Charlie Strong swears he didn't want to tear anything down last season, even if that's what it looked like. Every time he kicked another player off the team at Texas, it seemed he wanted to burn the remnants of the Mack Brown era so the Longhorns could begin anew once the ashes were blown away. That may not be what Strong desired, but it's basically what he got.
“Guys made the decision they didn’t want to be a part of the program," Strong said. "They made that decision when they’d been given opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to make it right. When you have a set of players who are doing it right, then how can you allow other guys who want to do their own thing?”
Strong wanted to send a large group of senior contributors off with a winning final season. But as the misbehavior mounted, he had to make a choice. Should he let it slide in the hope of winning two or three more games in 2014? Or should he take drastic action to establish a standard so he wouldn’t have to keep dealing with the same issues in later years? “Kids are smart," Strong said. "They’re going to always sit back and watch how you handle a situation.” Strong felt that if the Longhorns saw him let banned behavior slide in ’14, they’d assume he always would. “It undermines everything," he said.
So, Strong kept chucking players—including his two best offensive tackles (Desmond Harrison and Kennedy Estelle)—and Texas slogged its way through a 6-7 campaign that ended with the Longhorns running 43 plays for a whopping 59 yards in a 31-7 Texas Bowl loss to Arkansas. Strong wanted better for Quandre Diggs, Jordan Hicks, Steve Edmond, Jaxon Shipley and the rest who had toiled for Texas without ever winning anything of note, but he felt he had to do what was best for the long-term health of the program. “I just feel bad because I wanted those guys to go out the right way,” Strong said. “I wanted them to enjoy their last year and that didn’t happen.”
What happened was a frustrating but instructive season. For example, Strong and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson came to Austin assuming the Longhorns could thrive using the same conservative, clock-milking offense that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater ran so capably at Louisville. That attack was the perfect complement to Louisville’s smothering defense, and the Cardinals went 23-3 in Watson’s two full seasons as the primary play-caller. At Texas, David Ash had the arm and temperament to run the scheme to Watson’s satisfaction. The transition wouldn't be easy because of depth issues on the line, but the offense would work. Then Ash, who had missed most of the 2013 season because of concussions, suffered another one in the opener against North Texas. Making matters worse, center Dominic Espinosa—the team’s top remaining lineman—was lost for the year to an ankle injury suffered in the same game.
Suddenly, the Longhorns had two scholarship quarterbacks, neither of whom was comfortable in a pro-style offense. Like most Lone Star State quarterbacks of their generation, sophomore Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Jerrod Heard grew up in the shotgun running the spread. Heard wasn't quite ready to play, so he redshirted. Meanwhile, Swoopes attempted to run an offense to which he was ill-suited behind a line that could barely function. “There was no help for him at all," Strong said. "You didn’t have an offensive line that could protect him. You didn’t have an offensive line that could open holes for the running backs. So, just load the box. They ain’t going to be able to move the ball.”
That Texas won six games under these circumstances is a testament to the veterans the Longhorns had on defense. But Strong realized how unfair it had been to put his players in that position in the first place. He, Watson and co-offensive coordinator Joe Wickline decided this off-season to switch to a style that fits the quarterbacks they have on roster and the ones they'll recruit in the future. “In this state, it’s 98% spread in high school," Strong said. "Why take a player who has run that through his middle and high school years and try to change him?”
That switch has energized the competition between Swoopes and Heard this spring. They have split first-team reps, and Swoopes has fended off his younger teammate so far. "I don’t know that Heard has done anything yet to unseat him as a starter," Strong told reporters after Saturday’s spring game. "I said he’s closed the gap, which is what you want." The competition will almost certainly continue into preseason camp. “You want the competition to continue," Strong said. "It needs to continue so they’ll continue to work.” In fact, Strong wishes the Longhorns had more position battles like Swoopes-Heard across the depth chart. “Here, you should have competition like that at every position," Strong said. "That’s why you have to recruit—to get back to that. It was here before. If it’s been here before, it can be done again.”
Watson and Wickline will have to choose between two distinct personalities. Swoopes has tried to correct every mistake and run every play as designed. Heard enjoys improvising. "He’s one of those guys where nothing really fazes him," Strong said. "Tyrone has game experience. He wants to make sure everything is right. With Jerrod, his mindset is, ‘I know I can get it right.’”
If the Longhorns still had last year's offensive line, Heard might be the obvious choice. Plays were bound to break down, especially after Espinosa's injury. Strong points out that the losses of Espinosa and Ash crippled the offense’s on-field leadership. On the field, Strong says, leadership has to come through the middle, meaning the quarterback, center, middle linebacker and free safety have to take on outsized roles. (The reason is practical; players in the middle can communicate with everyone.) Texas started true freshman Jason Hall at free safety in 2014, so when Ash and Espinosa went down, senior linebacker Edmond was the only one in those critical positions with any real experience. “It was just one of those years," tailback Johnathan Gray said. "They’re still your teammates, and you still have to fight behind them. With the injuries and the suspensions, you just had to fight through it.”
The Texas line now has the experience it lacked last year because center Taylor Doyle, left guard Sedrick Flowers and left tackle Marcus Hutchins learned about everything that can go wrong in 2014. Thanks to the arrival of two juco transfers (Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nicholson) and two early enrolling freshmen (Garrett Thomas and Connor Williams), the line might also have depth. That across-the-board competition Strong desires? He may soon get it on his line. Wickline has made it clear to veterans that newcomers have arrived looking to take their jobs.
If the line improves, everything else should improve as well. The Longhorns have speed outside in the form of receivers Daje Johnson and Armanti Foreman, and the new offense and superior blocking should allow either of the quarterbacks to get the ball to those playmakers in space. That should cut down on those loaded boxes, which should help Gray find more room between the tackles.
The mood in the program is quietly optimistic, but everyone seems to understand where Texas currently sits in the Big 12 pecking order. Take away the brand-name prestige, and the Longhorns are looking up at programs like Baylor and TCU, which simply evaluated recruits better and then coached them better in the waning years of Brown's tenure. Oklahoma, which didn't fall as far as Texas, is in a similar position after retooling its coaching staff.
Texas can get back, but maybe it had to hit rock bottom before it realized how much work needed to be done. That point probably came during the smothering loss to Arkansas. “It shows how far the step back we had taken was," Strong said. He has yet to show his players the grisly footage, but he will. “They’re going to get a chance to look at it," he said. Maybe after watching that snuff film, they'll know they have the chance to contribute to the rebirth of Texas football.
A random ranking
Here are the top five breakfast cereal mascots.
1. Possible PED pusher Tony the Tiger
2. Lucky the Leprechaun, who will never get hired as a security consultant
3. Toucan Sam, who always seemed a little bit smug
4. Trix Rabbit, who prepared children for a lifetime of crushing disappointment
5. Count Chocula, who dominated lesser cereal monsters Franken Berry and Boo-Berry
1. Cardale Jones was the only member of Ohio State’s accomplished quarterback trio to play in Saturday’s spring game, but it didn’t take long before someone asked Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer how much time he would spend trying to choose a starter from the group that includes Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller.
“I won't spend much time at all about that, other than making sure that Braxton's getting the proper treatments and J.T. Barrett's moving forward,” Meyer told reporters after the game. “And then how we're going to work this summer as far as those kids throwing together.”
Meyer also made an excellent point. If all three quarterbacks are still in Columbus and healthy when preseason camp opens, it’s going to take some creativity to figure out how to divide the reps to give each player a fair shot at winning the job. “I'll come up with some kind of system throughout training camp that we’re going to chart everything that everyone does,” Meyer said. “And we've kind of done it, but not to the degree that we’re going to do it this year. Because you have to be right on now. This can't be, ‘Well, I'm going with him because it's my gut feeling.’ Those gut feelings [have] got to be statistical analysis and data.”
Later, Meyer said he and his staff would need to be frank with the quarterbacks during the process of choosing a starter. “I want to be able to look those people in the eye and say, ‘This is where we’re at’ and not be a shocker when it happens.”
No matter how it shakes out, it’s going to be a fascinating situation to watch between now and August.
2. Meyer probably already knew this before Saturday, but Jones can throw a ball 74 yards in the air.
3. The Big Ten has released its white paper advocating for freshman ineligibility for athletes, and as we discussed in previous columns here and here, it will generate considerable debate over the next few months.
Reading the paper, it became clear that former Florida president Bernie Machen was correct in his assessment of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s motive in pursuing a return to the freshman ban that was eliminated in the early 1970s. Delany, whose truthful testimony in O’Bannon v. NCAA unintentionally torpedoed the fairy tale the NCAA’s lawyers were trying to spin that education is more important than athletics at the highest levels of college football and men’s basketball, is trying to throw what Machen called “a Hail Mary” to try to shift the academic-athletic balance back in the opposite direction.
“If we cannot defend—through an examination of actions and results as opposed to words—that education is the paramount factor in our decision-making process (rivaled only by the health and safety of our student-athletes), then the enterprise stands as a house of cards,” the paper says. “Accordingly, the more educationally sound the collegiate experience, the more sustainable intercollegiate athletics becomes.”
This idea faces an uphill fight because opponents—including those in the SEC—contend that schools have already taken measures to ensure athletes are ready for college coursework. A new policy that takes effect with the classes entering college in 2016 will ban those who don’t meet certain academic benchmarks from playing as freshmen. Essentially, the underprepared will get an “academic redshirt.”
Delany is correct that making freshmen ineligible would help change the perception that the millionaires running college sports are nothing more than profiteers who aren’t concerned about whether the players really get an education. His contention that deeds—not words—are the only way to change that perception is spot on.
4. But that’s also why Delany’s plan has so little chance of passing.
Football coaches would scream if this idea took effect, as it would gut rosters they already consider thin, and football and basketball coaches would bristle at the idea of basically paying for a year on campus without the expectation of contribution on the field or the court. Plus, how much time would the freshmen actually get back? They would still have to take part in every meeting, practice and weight session. All they’d miss would be the games—also known as the fun part. To make the plan truly work as Delany wants, coaches would have to ease the time commitments they ask of their players. They aren’t going to do that without serious arm-twisting. They’re more likely to simply raise the number of “voluntary” sessions.
Words are easy. Deeds are hard. That’s why most of these guys usually just keep talking.
5. It has become a tradition in recent years for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier to wear out a sportswriter in the weight room in advance of an upcoming birthday. So Spurrier, who turns 70 on Monday, put beat writer Josh Kendall of The State in Columbia, S.C., through his routine recently.
The takeaways? We should all hope to toss around dumbbells as well as Spurrier at that age. Also, South Carolina strength coaches deserve raises for putting David Lee Murphy’s “Dust on the Bottle” on the Gamecocks’ weight-room soundtrack.
6. Michigan officially announced its summer camp schedule, and its coaches will work camps in six states that aren’t Michigan. The Wolverines’ staff will work camps in Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Texas in addition to the usual slate of camps on the Ann Arbor campus.
This should be a good test to see how college football’s rule-makers operate in the new world. The SEC bans such camps, so obviously that conference’s coaches are unhappy because others are encroaching on their territory. So, what should schools do to resolve the situation?
• The old, restrictive approach (a.k.a. the wrong way): Satellite camps are banned and each school must stay within its own state.
• The new, permissive approach (a.k.a. the correct way): SEC presidents vote to eliminate that league’s dumb rule, and teams hold camps wherever they please.
If this is all really about the kids, giving a player in California or Alabama a chance to meet Michigan coaches without forcing his parents to pay to fly him to Ann Arbor is a positive. The only people who’d want the ban are those who aren’t particularly worried about the kids.
7. Florida coach Jim McElwain faces enough problems with a thin offensive line, but now he must deal with a much more serious situation. McElwain must decide what to do with redshirt freshman cornerback J.C. Jackson after Jackson’s arrest over the weekend in connection with an armed robbery.
Jackson, who is one of the best pure athletes on the Gators and who would have certainly contributed in 2015, is accused of leading two men to an apartment occupied by acquaintances of Jackson. Jackson left, according to a Gainesville police report, and then one of the two men pulled a gun and the men robbed the occupants of the apartment of cash, marijuana and video game systems.
If the accusation is true, it’s tough to imagine McElwain keeping Jackson. And even if McElwain did want to keep Jackson, an administration still stinging from the bad p.r. generated by several poorly thought out second chances offered during the Urban Meyer era might not give McElwain a choice. Rich Dombrowski, who coached Jackson at Immokalee (Fla.) High, did not seem optimistic about Jackson’s future when quoted by Scott Butherus in The Naples Daily News.
“He was by far the best athlete I’ve ever been around as coach,” Dombrowski told the paper. “Now, a complete waste of talent, in my opinion, but I’m not shocked.”
8. SI.com’s Brian Hamilton was on hand for a quaint spring game on Notre Dame’s practice field that did little to answer the question of whether Everett Golson or Malik Zaire left spring practice leading the race for the starting quarterback job. Read about it here.
10. This week in Jim Harbaugh …
Just a little consultation with the Michigan ultimate frisbee team, because every squad can learn more about character and cruelty.
What’s eating Andy?
Nothing. I’m on vacation. Punt, Pass & Pork will return on May 11.
What’s Andy eating?
Following the carnivorous binge at Killen’s Barbecue that I chronicled last week, I swore I’d treat my body a little better. Enjoying all the road has to offer makes for fine column fodder, but it also makes for a swollen gut. So, for the five days after consuming that meal, calories were counted. Salads were ordered. Carbohydrates were limited to the complex. With no Punt, Pass & Pork to write for two weeks, I figured I could keep things light for a long stretch and drop a few pounds.
Then I found myself in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami on Friday night at a de facto bachelor party for my friend Steve. Steve was one of the last dominos to fall from our group of friends at my college newspaper, and the occasion had to be feted. But I was only going to offer moral support. I had eaten my allowance for the day. And those drinks? All empty carbs.
But Carlos Frias, a brilliant scribe who has somehow convinced the Palm Beach Post to pay him to write a lot about beer, had planned the night well. He steered us toward places where none of us had to be The Old Guy In The Club. And he included one stop on the itinerary he knew would knock me off the wagon.
That’s how I wound up staring at the menu at Coyo Taco a few minutes shy of midnight. We had arrived about a half-hour earlier to find a line snaking around the building. We walked past that line and through a door marked “Employees Only.” This led to a hallway, which led to a tight, dark, wood-paneled bar that played reggae and served carefully crafted tequila concoctions. Non-Bob Marley reggae blasted as I watched a bartender who looked as if she’d just walked off the set of a Pitbull video muddle jalapenos for a drink called a Fuego. She rimmed the glass with habanero powder and then poured the makings of a premium margarita over the jalapenos. The heat of the peppers amplified the chill of the triple sec, lime juice and tequila. By the time my glass was empty, the crowd from the taco area had begun to pack the secret bar that wasn’t much of a secret.
Still, I planned to behave from a culinary standpoint. One tequila drink would not impair my judgment. One glance at that menu would. The first item on Coyo’s menu is the Carnitas de Pato. That’s right, meat of the duck. The very first item the place presents to the world is duck confit dabbed with Serrano salsa and wrapped in a just-made corn tortilla. I didn’t stand a chance. Before I knew it, I had ordered two duck tacos, two Alambres (steak and bacon tacos), two Camarons (shrimp and mango slaw tacos) and an ear of Mexican street corn.
The duck taco belongs in the leadoff spot, because it grabs the taste buds in the same way it grabs the eye in its position on the menu. The salsa cuts the richness of the duck, and the entire package blends perfectly with each bite. I liked the steak and bacon and the shrimp tacos, but I should have ordered six duck tacos. Or maybe I should have ordered 10.
Of course, if I had ordered 10, I might not have been hungry for my final failure of willpower. After one more stop, we arrived at a bar that offered eardrum-crushing bass designed to drown out conversations and help young people make some poor decisions on the dance floor. I am not a young person. Plus, I'd seen something far more interesting parked in front of the bar, and it beckoned. For less than the price of a mixed drink at most of the surrounding bars, the Ms. Cheezious truck offered custom grilled cheese sandwiches and melts. As we’ve discussed before, the only people who don’t like grilled cheese are the lactose intolerant and the insane.
Ms. Cheezious offers diners several of its own creations, including the Frito Pie melt (chili, American cheese, jalapenos, onions and Fritos on sourdough) or the Goat Cheese and Prosciutto (those two items with tomato and arugula on marble rye), but diners are encouraged to build their own sandwich. I didn’t want to overdo it, so I ordered a melt with cheddar, bacon and spiced apples on sourdough. This may sound odd, but my reasoning was sound. If cheddar can enhance an apple pie—and boy, does it ever—then apples can enhance the venerable grilled cheese. Bacon, meanwhile, enhances everything.
The sandwich confirmed my hunch. The tart apples provided an ideal foil for the savory melted cheese and bacon. The sourdough kept the festivities from getting too sweet. There would be sweetness aplenty the next night at the wedding—congratulations, Steve and Pattie—but that post-midnight snack needed an edge. I’m back on salad duty now, and I regret nothing.