Tyrone Swoopes finally finds his place at Texas as Charlie Strong blends old and new; Punt, Pass & Pork
AUSTIN, Texas — Tyrone Swoopes trotted on the field during Sunday's second quarter and the noise swelled. After a moment, only one sound filled Texas Memorial Stadium.
How many in that stadium-record crowd of 102,315 screamed Swooooooooooooooooooopes? How many of them screamed Booooooooooooooooooo?
Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes did not care to parse the responses to his insertion in the Notre Dame game. "The Swoopes chant and booing," he said, "I can't really tell the difference." He probably could guess which direction most of the yellers leaned anyway. He had deleted the Twitter and Instagram apps from his phone a week earlier for that same reason. "I didn't want to see it," Swoopes said. "Didn't want to mess with it."
Swoopes, through little fault of his own, had become the symbol for all the failures of the end of the Mack Brown era. The prevailing wisdom heading into Sunday's season opener went something like this: If Texas needed Swoopes to try to beat the Fighting Irish, it probably would spell doom for the Charlie Strong era as well. A four-star recruit from the tiny north Texas town of Whitewright, Swoopes, who is now a senior, completed the Brown-era rite of committing in February of his junior year of high school. Everyone looked at his 6' 4", 240-pound frame and saw another Vince Young. Few considered that Swoopes's Whitewright High School team had gone 1–9 playing in Class 1A his senior year. Few considered that Swoopes's admitted aversion to the spotlight might hinder his ability to lead one of the most passionately followed teams in any sport on earth. He looked like Young in a uniform, and that was good enough.
By this past off-season, all hope for Swoopes as the Texas quarterback had dissipated. But hope for Strong remained. Freshman quarterback Shane Buechele had won the hearts and minds in the stands in the spring game, and by the end of preseason camp he'd also won the starting job. Last week, Strong called Buechele's mom to break the news that her son would start. She cried. Swoopes probably didn't cry when he learned he wouldn't start. He would have a package, a defined role that required him to be less a playmaker and more a blunt instrument. This clearly suits him. Strong wasn't lying when he said Buechele and Swoopes would both play.
Still, it probably would have shocked everyone who has suffered along with these Longhorns that Strong went to Swoopes before Sunday's kickoff and said this: "You're going to have an opportunity to win this football game for us." But that's exactly the opportunity Swoopes got. And as he crashed over the goal line for the second of his two overtime rushing touchdowns, he proved Strong's prophecy correct. "I believed him," Swoopes said after the Longhorns' 50–47 double overtime victory.
For this thing to work, for Strong to prove that he deserves to stay the coach at Texas, he still must marry the remnants of the Brown era to the superior athletes he's recruited since his arrival. The Longhorns clearly are built for the future. Sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson is the defense's best player. As of Sunday, Buechele appears to be the offense's best player. But Texas can't improve on the 11–14 record Strong posted in his first two seasons without the seniors providing something. And if Texas couldn't get better now, Strong likely wouldn't be around to coach all that talent he's acquired in 2017.
Beating the Fighting Irish doesn't prove Texas is a national title contender again. There's no guarantee the Longhorns can compete in the Big 12. But with the first whiff of a competent offense since Colt McCoy got hurt in the BCS title game following the 2009 season, there is finally hope. "Our fans really needed that," Strong said. "We've been down for so long, and people have been talking about us. It was a night for us to just make it right—at least for one game."
Now they have to do it for multiple games, and Sunday's result suggests they can. For it to work, Buechele will have to build on a debut in which he completed 16 of 26 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Jefferson, who finished with six tackles and a sack but blew up several more plays with no statistical reward, will have to continue to lead by example on the field. And Swoopes, who would love to start but doesn't mind all the attention heaped upon Buechele, will have to keep on truckin'.
They call the Swoopes package the 18-Wheeler because he wears No. 18 and because when the 249-pounder hits a safety or a linebacker, it's the human equivalent of a semi hitting a Geo Metro. Three years of evidence have proven Swoopes's arm is suspect at best, but Notre Dame couldn't bring him down even when the Irish knew exactly what he would do. "He's a beast, man," offensive guard Kent Perkins said.
There is a wide gulf between the two-quarterback system Notre Dame attempted to employ Sunday and the one Texas successfully employed. For the Irish, DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire shared the same playbook. Coach Brian Kelly had said he couldn't decide between the two, so he would play both. This suggested the two were interchangeable, and anyone with even the most rudimentary football knowledge could see Sunday night that they were not. Kizer was so clearly superior that Zaire's continued presence in the game into the third quarter made no sense.
The system Texas used was different. Buechele ran the offense. He looked born for the scheme first-year coordinator Sterlin Gilbert brought from Tulsa. Gilbert apprenticed under Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery and Syracuse coach Dino Babers. Both of them learned the offense from its inventor, Art Briles. What Texas ran looked exactly like what Briles ran at Houston and Baylor and Buechele, with his soft touch passes and lightning-quick decisions, seems the ideal player to run it. If Buechele is injured and Swoopes has to run the entire offense, it won't work so well. But in the 18-Wheeler, Swoopes can come into the game behind a heavy set and run into a seven- or eight-man box. Thanks to the read option's ability to take away one defender—the guy getting read—without blocking him, Swoopes is running behind eight blockers against six or seven defenders. (Why doesn't the defense just put nine or 10 men in the box? Because even you or I could hit a receiver at that point, and if he breaks a tackle, he's gone.)
So when Swoopes entered in the second quarter, Notre Dame was helpless. His first two carries gained 11 yards. His next two gained 18. Buechele came in to finish the 16-play, 88-yard drive, knocking the Irish even more off balance. Strong has seen one of these arrangements up close before. In 2006, he was co-defensive coordinator on a Florida team that started senior quarterback Chris Leak and used freshman Tim Tebow mostly when the Gators needed to bludgeon a defense and gain a few yards on third or fourth down. Since then, Oklahoma has used a similar arrangement with Landry Jones and Blake "Belldozer" Bell. Oklahoma State used Mason Rudolph for the first 80 yards of the field last year and used J.W. Walsh in the red zone. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy loved the arrangement so much that he's said he plans to recruit for it in the future.
This works perfectly for Swoopes—who carried 13 times for 53 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday—because it allows him to do a job he's good at without the visibility of being the starting quarterback. "You might not be in the spotlight," he said. "I don't want to be in the spotlight anyway." It also allows Swoopes to finish what he started. "It's just the person I am," he said. "It's the way I've been raised. I've never checked out or given up on anything I've done." Swoopes never considered leaving Texas, even though the very idea of him playing caused some Texas fans visible angst. "I never thought about that," he said. "I invested so much here. To go somewhere else, I'd pretty much be a freshman with less eligibility. So that never crossed my mind. I just stuck with it and tried to tough it out."
His teammates appreciate that mindset. "Things don't always go his way. But this man, I never see him pout," tailback D'Onta Foreman, who rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown against the Irish, said of Swoopes. "I've never seen him throw attitude or a temper tantrum. I just see him go out there and work hard every day."
Strong noticed, too. That's why he hadn't given up on Swoopes even when nearly everyone else in burnt orange had. During the team walk Sunday, Strong told Swoopes to walk with him. "I don't want you to be upset the young guys in there," Strong recalled telling Swoopes. "But you're going to have your chance. You're going to have this opportunity. But you're a special person to handle this situation the way you're handling it."
When the opportunity arose, Swoopes lowered his shoulder and plowed ahead. When he landed in the end zone after his third and final touchdown, his teammates mobbed him. Swoopes hated it. He couldn't breathe. He only wanted to do his job without all the attention.
But he certainly completed the task. By the time Texas lined up for that final play, everyone knew exactly what Swoopes would do—including the Irish. "No doubt," Perkins said. "That's the 18-wheeler. He's going to get them yards."
And when Swoopes plunged across the goal line, a noise rang out.
This time, they were absolutely saying SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPES.
For those who have forgotten, this ranking is based only on what teams have done this season—with one exception this week that can't be helped. The teams listed here will change frequently and sometimes wildly, but by season's end, they'll probably look an awful lot like the College Football Playoff selection committee's top four. Hooray for larger sample sizes.
1. Alabama (1–0)
Jalen Hurts appears to be the quarterback of the future for the Crimson Tide, and if the true freshman refines some of the raw talent he showed off Saturday in a 52–6 pasting of USC, Alabama will have a shot at yet another national title. And even if Tide coaches still feel the need to continue the quarterback competition a little longer, that ferocious defense can pick up the slack.
2. Florida State (0–0)
O.K., I'm still speculating here. I blame my editors. They wanted this column before the Seminoles faced Ole Miss in Orlando. So by Monday night, I may have a different opinion. For now, I'm still betting on a freaky defense and the idea that new starting quarterback Deondre Francois will take some pressure off Dalvin Cook.
3. Michigan (1–0)
It was only Hawaii, but the Wolverines were certainly clicking Saturday when they beat the Rainbow Warriors 63–3. UCF should put up a better fight on Saturday. An improved Colorado will be a more intriguing test in Week 3.
4. Stanford (1–0)
My hunch is that we'll find out as the season goes on that Kansas State is pretty good. New Stanford starting quarterback Ryan Burns didn't do anything spectacular, but he was ruthlessly efficient as he replaced the perpetually underrated Kevin Hogan. Burns completed 14 of 18 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown. He showed that when a defense sells out to stop Christian McCaffrey, he could find an open receiver.
A Random Ranking
We'll honor the memory of the recently departed Gene Wilder by ranking his top five roles.
1. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein (Make sure to pronounce it correctly. It's Frank-en-steen.)
2. Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
3. The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles
4. Skip Donahue in Stir Crazy
5. Leo Bloom in The Producers
Big Ugly of the Week
Penn State kicker Joey Julius
Can I make a kicker the Big Ugly of the Week? Hold on, let me check the rules. Wait. Don't I make the rules for this column? I do. So congratulations, Penn State kicker Joey Julius. You're 5-10 and 258 pounds. That beef plus this hit makes you a worthy recipient.
First and 10
1. The weekend's results have shaken up any preseason hot seat rankings. And while there is a lot of football left to be played, Strong suddenly seems a lot safer and LSU's Les Miles suddenly seems a lot less safe. Miles won some political capital while fighting off a coup attempt late last season, but he may have squandered much of that with a 16–14 loss to Wisconsin at Lambeau Field.
Take nothing away from the Badgers, who played outstanding defense even though LSU swiped coordinator Dave Aranda in the off-season. Still, the Tigers have better athletes at nearly every position. There is little excuse for LSU's inability to move the ball. Perhaps most frustrating for LSU fans is Miles's obvious unwillingness to change the offense and Brandon Harris's lack of growth at quarterback. The Tigers looked way too much like the team that couldn't score in consecutive losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss last year. That stretch nearly got Miles fired. If this continues, LSU will lose more games. If that happens, Miles may not be able to win the power struggle.
2. Nebraska staged a moving tribute to late punter Sam Foltz during Saturday's win against Fresno State.
3. And because people are horrible, Foltz's brother's house and car were burglarized this weekend.
4. Florida rechristened its field as Steve Spurrier-Florida Field on Saturday. The guest of honor, who has returned to the school in an ambassador role, did not disappoint.
5. The last time South Alabama coach Joey Jones was part of a team that won an SEC game, he was a receiver on the Alabama team that beat LSU in 1983, which was Ray Perkins's first year as Alabama's coach. Jones played some pro ball and then spent 18 years as a high school coach. He worked one year at Birmingham Southern before he was hired in 2008 to build the South Alabama program from scratch.
Saturday, Jones's Jaguars showed how far they've come with a 21–20 win against Mississippi State in Starkville. South Alabama sophomore quarterback Dallas Davis, making his first career start, threw for 285 yards and squeezed a touchdown pass to Gerald Everett into a tight window with 57 seconds remaining. The Bulldogs had a chance to win with a field goal in the closing seconds, but Westin Graves doinked a 28-yard attempt off the left upright with seven seconds remaining. "To get that win, it just validates things," Jones told me Sunday on my SiriusXM radio show.
The Jaguars had trailed 17–0 at halftime, and it seemed the Bulldogs were on their way to covering a 28-point spread. But Jones hadn't used the line as motivation, and now he's glad he didn't. "If I brought it up, it might have scared them to death if they knew we were four-touchdown underdogs," Jones said. Now the Jaguars must turn the page. On Saturday, they open Sun Belt Conference play against Georgia Southern. Jones believes his team is mature enough to move on past the biggest win in program history. "They're pretty level-headed," Jones said. "And they're ready to do some great things."
6. Navy freshman quarterback Malcolm Perry started Saturday in the stands wearing dress whites and watching his teammates play Fordham. He finished the game on the field. After starting quarterback Tago Smith went down in the second quarter, the Midshipmen needed a third quarterback in case something happened to backup Will Worth.
As news spread that Perry had come in from the stands, the person running Navy's Twitter feed got a little salty. (Apparently, Keenan Reynolds features published in national magazines are easily forgotten.)
More national media tweeting about our fourth string QB (he is on the team folks was sick) than they did about 11 win Navy team last year— Navy Athletics (@NavyAthletics) September 3, 2016
The Twitter feed lightened up when someone realized good publicity is good publicity. The feed even alerted fans when Perry entered the game in the fourth quarter for what would be a touchdown drive.
7. An earthquake hit Oklahoma on Thursday morning. One state away, Arkansas offensive line coach Kurt Anderson offered an explanation.
Sorry folks we had an early morning OL walk thru. May have felt like an earthquake.— Kurt Anderson (@OLINEPRIDE) September 3, 2016
8. Cancer couldn't keep Pittsburgh tailback James Conner off the field, and Villanova's defense couldn't keep him out of the end zone.
9. Everybody had a good chuckle when students stormed the field following a Kansas victory against lowly Rhode Island on Saturday. The win was the Jayhawks' first since Nov. 8, 2014. And while the celebration may have seemed silly on the outside, it was quite serious for Kansas coach David Beaty, who was hired to clean up the mess left by Charlie Weis and did a fantastic job keeping his team together through a winless 2015.
10. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin hasn't forgotten when and where USC fired him, which made getting a game ball from Saturday's 52–6 win against the Trojans extra sweet.
What's Eating Andy
What in the world could I possibly complain about? I've covered two games this weekend, and I've got one to go.
What's Andy Eating
There are some ideas that, in hindsight, seem so obvious that we wonder why we didn't think of them sooner. The tagless T-shirt and the Dip & Squeeze ketchup packet probably should have hit the market 30 years ago. Instead, they are relatively recent innovations. The employees at Hanes and Heinz who didn't come up with these ideas probably felt pretty silly when someone said "Hey, why don't you just do this?"
That's how I felt Friday as I sat at Babe's Chicken Dinner House in Roanoke, Texas. My server, Alysen, had placed fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and a bottle of Frank's Red Hot sauce on the table minutes earlier and had returned to check on my progress. (She'd already brought two rounds of biscuits. More on those later.) Before Alysen left to take care of her other tables, she offered one piece of advice. "Instead of the gravy, put some of the hot sauce in the mashed potatoes and mix it up," she said. So I spooned some of the creamy potato puree on my plate. I picked up the bottle. I sprinkled. I mixed. Then I took a bite. Two thoughts raced through my mind.
1. This is amazing.
2. How have I never thought to do this before?
I posted this epiphany on Twitter. I expected to take abuse from people who couldn't believe my hot sauce naïveté; I put it on all manner of foods, but putting it on mashed potatoes had never crossed my mind. Instead, I was shocked to learn that other than a few truly enlightened folk, most people were exactly like I had been. It had never occurred to them, either. Now they all wanted mashed potatoes.
Luckily, I already had some. Babe's has expanded throughout the Metroplex, but the location on Roanoke's Oak Street—a dining haven not far from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport—is the original. It is brilliant in its simplicity. Diners have three options.
1. Do you want fried chicken or chicken fried steak?*
2. Do you want biscuits?
3. Do you want a salad?
Let's tackle each question.
1. Alysen would suggest the chicken fried steak. It's her favorite, and she also mixes that hot sauce into the gravy before spreading it on the steak. Alysen lives many, many levels above the rest of us. I ordered the fried chicken because I prefer fried chicken to chicken fried steak, and I regret nothing. The chicken at Babe's has salty, crunchy skin and moist, tender meat. Each order ($13.99) comes with a breast, a thigh, a leg and a wing along with the aforementioned corn, mashed potatoes and gravy. It also comes with biscuits if you want them. The batter on the chicken tends to crumble a little, and the bits left on the plate should be rolled into a spoonful of your hot-sauced mashed potatoes.
2. Of course you want biscuits. The answer to this question is always yes. The biscuits at Babe's are big and fluffy, and each table is equipped with butter, honey and syrup. The only real danger here is eating too many before the chicken comes.
3. I'm not anti-salad. I love salad in most situations. But you came to eat fried chicken and biscuits. Let's not waste everyone's time.
Next door to Babe's is the Oak Street Pie Company. If you haven't eaten too many biscuits, you'll want to top off your fried chicken dinner here. The place has all the standards, but the pie of the month for September immediately caught my eye. It was Mexican Hot Chocolate, a chocolate pie that uses the cayenne pepper-infused chocolate popular south of the border. The cool, creamy chocolate has a spicy kick at the front of each bite, making it a perfect candidate for a la mode treatment. Put some vanilla ice cream on the back of that spoon and a sweet, cold blast will join the party the chocolate started.
As I drove away from Oak Street, I wondered if the first person who thought to drop a scoop of vanilla ice cream next to a slice of pie wondered why no one had come up with the idea sooner. Probably so. But there probably was another angel like Alysen out there to spread the idea and teach us all how to live just a little bit better.