Can Charlie Strong Turn Texas Around?
No one needed to have a big National Signing Day more than Texas coach Charlie Strong. After a flurry of elite prospects picked the Longhorns in February, the sputtering program received an adrenaline shot as it heads into Strong's third season as the head coach. Will that momentum be enough to help Strong "flip this thing," as he termed it, after finishing 5–7 in 2015? The answer will come this fall.
Strong recently sat down in his office for a lengthy Q&A about the state of the Texas football, the offense's uptick in tempo and whether he has managed the program well during his first two seasons in Austin.
Campus Rush: The theme of your spring was an increase in tempo. Are you pleased with way things went?
Charlie Strong: You know, what has happened now is the tempo is so fast and offensively they get lined up but the defense has to get on the line also. The field is shortened, where the quarterbacks are able to make reads and checks. It's all about getting the ball out of your hands. It's not holding the ball; it's getting it out.
What helps us is we have a run game, too, so we can run the football and we can throw it. We have two big ol' backs who are strong and physical (Chris Warren and D'Onta Foreman). I'm very happy with the way it's going. It's all about going against one another, so you don't know 'til you line up. But we're making progress.
CR: For two years, this program has lacked a clear identity. Will your new offense help forge one?
Strong: In this state, that's offensively what everybody does. So our identity now is when you go recruiting, when you bring talented players into your program, now they're used to the system. Whereas before, we were trying to make them adapt to what we had. The [benefit of] running the system we're doing now [is] junior high, high school [players]—now they don't change once they get to college. And that's what this conference, that's what everybody is.
I guess I look at it like, sometimes everybody just thinks we're out there throwing the ball every snap. No, no, no. It's not just about throwing the ball. It's about adjustments. It's taking advantage of what the defense gives you. We want to run the football. We want to attack people. In order to be aggressive and in order to be physical, you have to run the ball.
CR: You signed an important 2016 recruiting class that included four early enrollees, three of whom could push for playing time. Did you like what you saw out of that group this spring?
Strong: I think that out of the early signees we've had here, maybe five or six ended up being starters. Malik Jefferson was an early signee. So now in this group you have Collin [Johnson], you have [Shane] Buechele, you have [Zach] Shackelford and you have [Demarco] Boyd. So one of those guys—possibly two of them—will end up playing a lot for us, maybe three out of four. The early signees help. We needed a center, so to get Shackelford in there really helped us.
And we needed competition at the quarterback position, so to get Buechele in there helped us and helped him. And the wide receiver position, you see a guy who is a playmaker for you because there's Collin. He's 6' 6", 200-something [pounds], and he plays big. Now when you get that class here in June you're able to start and just go to work. It's a class that is loaded with a lot of defensive linemen, which we needed, and we still got some offensive linemen coming with it.
CR: I saw where you recently mentioned that you were close to being able to "flip this thing." Given the recruiting momentum at Texas, how close are you to turning the corner?
Strong: We're close, and what happened was a professor asked me, "Coach, why is it the Southeastern Conference out recruits you guys?" And I said to him, "Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I know this: We were 6–7 [in 2014] and we were 5–7 [in '15], and we had two top recruiting classes. Once we flip it and get this program heading in the right direction, we're going to steamroll people in recruiting."
I still think we're probably a few players away. We're young, but we're talented. It's all about us coaching them. We can get it flipped. It's players that we recruit now who are gonna help us, and they know that.
But we're not far away. You catch a break or two. Even—I go back to last season. You think about it, you miss the extra point against Cal [in a 45–44 loss on Sept. 19]. You drop a point against Oklahoma State [in a 30–27 loss a week later], and who knows what will happen because you're playing with momentum? So, some of those games that you lost you may not lose, because now you got a little something to them.
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CR: You have 15 returning starters: seven on offense, seven on defense and the punter. Now that your guys are basically on campus, are you comfortable with how everything is coming together?
Strong: I probably made the mistake that for some kids, when they come in here, it's overwhelming. You're already scrutinized, and you've been through the recruiting process, so everybody wants to make them this instant success right off because of how big the program is. And you just—you have to give kids a chance to come in and get comfortable. Once they get comfortable it's like, now you start coaching them and letting them see how it really is.
I think that a lot of them come in with pressure. The thinking they have there is, I got to go. No, no, no, no. You just need to come in and let us coach you. We will head you down that road. But I'm comfortable with this team, going into our third season, and you just know now these are our guys, get them going. I mean, University of Texas, but we got to get them going.
CR: What is your level of urgency going into this season?
Strong: I always say it's always fourth-and-one around here. There's a sense of urgency, and there should be. Because when you have an elite program, so much is expected. You want that. You want the standards, and you want high expectations. You want that for your team. I think the players, they're so unhappy about being 5–7 that it eats at them. Some days, I remind them of it when they piss me off. I say, "You act like a 5–7 team" or "We work like a 5–7 team."
They feel a sense of urgency. Once it's felt by the players, I think then it just seeps through the whole team.
CR: You've overhauled your offensive staff, and coordinator Sterlin [Gilbert's] hire was the most intriguing move of the college football off-season. How has everything come together on that side of the ball?
Strong: Sterlin and [offensive line coach Mike] Mattox have worked together, so those two guys are really comfortable with one another. And [tight ends coach] Jeff Traylor is—when you get guys who are pros and who are mature like [receivers coach] Charlie Williams and [running backs coach] Anthony Johnson, who played here, that room has changed because you've got a system in place. So once the system is in place, then it's not hard, because this is exactly what we're going to do and this is how it's going to be run. You got a run-game guy with Matt, you have Sterlin running the offense, and the other guys just coaching. There are no egos involved, because I think everybody understands the sense of urgency.
Even from the defensive side, those guys understand, hey listen, in order for us to be successful we have to play good defense, but also we got to make sure we get the ball back for our offense.
CR: How much have you learned about running a program during your first two seasons here? Texas is certainly a different beast than Louisville.
Strong: When you come in—and you're right, it's such a large program and there are so many people you have to tap into—there are alums you have to call and you need to make a connection with them. In the very beginning, I didn't have that. I didn't make that connection. I said, "Listen, I [have to] get the program going." And then there are high school coaches. You have to make sure Texas high school coaches stay involved.
But you have a job to do, and you don't want to get pulled from all those different angles. Still, there are people you know, Hey, we need to keep these people involved, and make sure you're running the team.
And so from running the team, you know what I always say? It's almost like you buy a new car. And you just clean that car the whole time. You keep it. It always shines. From the outside it looks really good. You got to lift that hood up sometimes and look at the engine. So from the outside, everybody sees this big ol' pretty car. But you still got to lift that engine up. That's where the engine is, that's what we make sure we gotta keep clean. You know from the outside it's going to stay clean. But we got to change that oil.
Being here the first two years, it was, you had to get your staff right, make sure we had the right staff on board. Then you have to make sure, hey, it's about the players. Are they willing to adapt to what we're trying to get them to? The goal at the end of the day is making sure they all get in alignment, make sure they all become better people. That's what you want to see happen.
I got a ton of respect for coach [Mack] Brown. For one man to sit in this chair as long as he did, I said, "Wow. Here?" He needs to be more than inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. And that's why I lean on him so much, because of what he's been through. It wasn't so much that you had to come in and change a lot. It's just that false sense you get when you hear so much about a program and you want to come in and be like, "We can't do this. We can't do that." It was about fixing what needed to be fixed, then move forward.
CR: Coaches use the word alignment a lot. The administrative alignment here was—and some would say still is—a bit muddled. How does that affect you day to day? And how are things pushing forward?
Strong: With [athletic director] Mike Perrin, with our president, our chancellor, everyone's aligned. With the chancellor and president aligned with the AD, I can go to Mike and I can ask for things. [We] talk probably once or twice per week. We're always talking. If there's something he's uncomfortable with or something I'm uncomfortable with, I can make that phone call.
So, the alignment is getting there. And the special people—I'm getting what I need. If I say, "Hey, I need this." Boom, O.K. If he says he needs it, let's get that done.
CR: Is there a player or two who will epitomize the next era of Texas football? Which hard-nosed guys really fit your style?
Strong: Well, you have to look at Malik [Jefferson] because of what he did last season. That's someone we can build on, and he's just going to get better and better. And then a guy that probably doesn't get enough credit but deserves a lot is D'Onta Foreman. Big running back, strong and powerful. He's a guy now.
CR: I have to ask you about the quarterbacks.
Strong: (Smiles) That's first time I've heard that.
CR: The early buzz this spring was that Tyrone Swoopes fits well in this offense.
Strong: It's been amazing to see his development and how this offense has really helped him. And I think he has a point to prove and wants to show everybody he can do it. But to get pushed the way he's getting pushed right now by Buechele, to get pushed the way he's getting pushed by [Jerrod] Heard is only going to make him better. It's making all three better because it's a competition there. It's a really good competition.
The thing I like about Sterlin is he changes it up. One day Swoopes may be with the ones. The next day Buechele is with the ones. Then one day Heard is with the ones. But he changes it up, so it's not always like Swoopes stays with the ones and then he looks the best. So I just think that with Swoopes, his confidence is getting bigger and he's been getting to build it.
CR: Tyrone's physical tools have always been there.
Strong: Oh my god. He looks physically—he's pretty on the hoof now.
I just think with him, he's got to believe in himself. At that position you have to believe, because the ball is in your hands. You'd better be confident. I think last season when that package went in for him that he started having that and started playing a little differently.
CR: Buechele on the hoof doesn't blow you away. He's 6' 1", 190 pounds?
Strong: Yeah, he's about 6' 1", 190.
CR: What does he bring?
Strong: He's always been a quarterback. You can tell, with his dad being in baseball, that he's been around. Nothing fazes him. He's like a gym rat, because he knows in order to be really good, I have to really study the game. He studies the game. I'm surprised he hasn't walked up here yet, but he's always around. And he's a very intelligent young man.
He understands. And he's been in this offense. Now, it wasn't run exactly the way it's run now, but he's been in it, where he's gotten rid of the football and knows where to put the ball. He just understands the game.
CR: We'll close by giving you some credit. You predicted Villanova would win the NCAA tournament going into the Final Four. What stood out about the Wildcats?
Strong: I just look at them as a veteran team that plays defense. And I thought physically they were going to beat teams up, which they did, and they had enough playmakers where they could make the shots. It's just how hard they played. And they played together. I think Jay Wright did an amazing job with that.