Charlie Strong and the year two question: When will Texas be a contender again?
AUSTIN, Texas—The last time Charlie Strong's team took the field, the beating it took was so thorough that the opposing coach called the victory "borderline erotic" months later. Texas gained 59 yards in a 31-7 Texas Bowl loss to Arkansas. On the ground, the Longhorns traveled a net of six feet. Bret Bielema's satisfaction was certainly understandable.
The debacle weighed heavy on the Texas program this off-season. The shame of it helped push players through workouts. The Longhorns didn't want to dwell on the performance, but they also didn't want to forget.
And heaven forbid they repeat it. A scheduling choice made when Texas was fresh off an appearance in the 2010 BCS title game and Strong was a first-year head coach at Louisville will put the Longhorns in South Bend, Ind., on Saturday. There, they will face a Notre Dame team every bit as good as or better than the Arkansas team that annihilated them to end last season. Strong won't have an off-season to pick up the pieces afterward, so he knows his team cannot afford another total system failure.
"I look at how last season ended," Strong said of his 6-7 debut campaign in 2014. "We can't start off like last season. Because everything you've built up to this point is gone in a matter of three and a half hours. Now you're talking about trying to regroup and get them to go play 11 more."
When Strong accepted the Texas job in January 2014, he probably never imagined making a statement like that heading into his second season. He was supposed to come to Austin, breathe life into the giant and have the program ready to dominate by now. After all, Texas had good players. Hadn't the recruiting rankings said so? According to Rivals.com, the Longhorns signed the No. 3 recruiting class in '11 and the No. 2 class in '12, meaning the veterans Strong inherited when he took the job should have been capable athletes—even if they hadn't been developed effectively in the waning years of the Mack Brown era.
That obviously wasn't the case. When Texas takes the field at Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday, a true freshman (Connor Williams) will likely start at left tackle. Another true freshman (Patrick Vahe) will likely start at right guard. Yet another (Malik Jefferson) may start at middle linebacker. A freshman starting at cornerback or wide receiver—and the Longhorns could play a few of those, too—for a major program is understandable, but playing true freshmen at the three aforementioned positions at the same time is almost unheard of, especially at a school like Texas. Still, Strong has to do it, because he has to put his best 22 players in the starting lineup.
And, yes, quarterback Tyrone Swoopes remains on that list.
Though Swoopes has been pushed in camp by redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, Strong believes the junior gives the Longhorns the best chance to win. Perhaps no Texas player had his confidence crushed last season like the oft-criticized Swoopes, who threw 13 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions as a sophomore. But the new up-tempo offense Texas installed this off-season might better suit the skill set of the 6' 4", 243-pounder from tiny Whitewright, Texas. Or it might not. Swoopes was the better leader this off-season, and that helped him stay ahead of Heard. But how Swoopes reacts in the face of a loaded Notre Dame defense should offer a window into how much he has grown in the months since the loss to Arkansas.
Strong and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson have hedged their quarterback bets, though. They have yet to see Heard in a game, and they intend to give him opportunities against the Fighting Irish. What will they get? They have no idea. "Heard may run out there and go about 60 [yards], but the next play he might throw it to them and they may go about 60," Strong said. "He will jump out there with a lot of confidence. Whatever happens after that is going to be interesting."
Indeed. Sometimes coaches don't know exactly what they have in a quarterback until they see him play in a live situation. At Texas A&M in 2012, Jameill Showers threw the prettiest ball on the roster. Johnny Manziel made the offense go. That's why Manziel won the starting job, but Aggies coaches had no idea they had a future Heisman Trophy winner until they saw Manziel dancing around in a 20-17 loss to Florida. Texas hasn't had a quarterback capable of consistently making the offense go since Colt McCoy left after the '09 season, and the failures to secure and/or develop the next great Longhorns signal-caller have been thoroughly documented. Maybe the quarterback Texas seeks is a rejuvenated Swoopes. Or maybe it's Heard, who could be more of a gamer than a practice player. Or maybe it's Kai Locksley, the true freshman out of Baltimore who the Longhorns would prefer to redshirt.
Or maybe that player isn't on the roster yet. Strong believes he is one more recruiting class away from getting the Longhorns where they need to be. That may not be what anyone in burnt orange wants to hear, but it's a fairly realistic assessment. Strong is also being realistic when he says this of the Notre Dame game: "I don't want to just put it all on the quarterback."
The Texas defense should help. The Longhorns were actually quite good on that side of the ball last season, but defenders could only do so much opposite an offense that always seemed a turnover or three-and-out away from handing the opponent prime field position. The new offensive scheme should help. The Irish have no video of what Texas will run in South Bend, so the Longhorns could surprise Notre Dame for a score or two before defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder can make the proper adjustments. Maybe tailbacks Johnathan Gray and D'Onta Foreman will find room up the middle. Maybe senior receiver Daje Johnson, finally off his coach's bad side, will get the ball in space and create something. Maybe freshman wideout John Burt will take the top off Notre Dame's defense.
Or maybe, despite Strong's most fervent hope, it will come down to the quarterback. Because in the same interview in which he expressed his desire to relieve the pressure on Swoopes and Heard, he identified shutting down quarterback Malik Zaire as the key to shutting down Notre Dame's offense. Strong knows exactly how much a quarterback matters, but saying that out loud would create more strain on his unproven players under center. With a new offense, Strong can't know what he's going to get from those two until Saturday night.
Strong appreciates the predictions of gloom and doom for this season. They give him an easy method to motivate his players. He also knows his own history. His second recruiting class at Louisville brought Teddy Bridgewater, DeVante Parker, Lorenzo Mauldin, Calvin Pryor and Gerod Holliman. Maybe Williams, Vahe, Jefferson, Burt and their classmates can change the fortunes of their program the way that group changed Louisville's fortunes. Of course, it should be noted that Louisville went 7-6 in that group's freshman season—the same record the team had the year before. The true breakthrough for that class came in 2012, when the Cardinals went 11-2.
Strong was encouraged during a special teams meeting early this preseason when Gray, a senior, stood up and asked why he wasn't playing on any of the units. Senior cornerback Duke Thomas echoed that sentiment, and suddenly most of the starting position players were clamoring for spots. That produced fierce competition for positions on special teams. Meanwhile, the bravado of the freshman class forced older players to improve or risk getting benched.
This is how a paradigm shift begins, but Strong knows all of that progress can be undone in less than four hours in South Bend. If the Longhorns have truly improved, they'll need to show it under the lights with the nation watching. Otherwise, they risk sliding back into the same pit they climbed out of this off-season.
A random ranking
With the 2015 season upon us, I've been thinking about openers. So, I've ranked the 10 best opening sequences in movie history.
The montage of Ellie and Carl's life together tells a more complete, satisfying story in four minutes than 90% of the movies ever made tell in their entire running times. If you get through it without crying, you might not have a soul.
2. Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Of course I had to have at least one Quentin Tarantino movie on this list. The Kill Bill saga begins in black and white with Uma Thurman on the ground, covered in blood and wearing a bridal veil. Bill—we know this because his name is monogrammed on his handkerchief—tells Uma he still loves her character. As she tells him the baby is his, Bill shoots Uma in the head. Roll opening credits. (Spoiler alert: She doesn't die. Everyone else isn't so lucky.)
3. The Last Boy Scout
I didn't say the movie had to be good. This one is average at best, but it may have the most bananas opening scene ever filmed. (It also gets massive bonus points for a Verne Lundquist cameo.) Tailback Billy Cole is having the game of his life. It is probably his team's final possession. The quarterback hits him on a swing pass. He breaks a few tackles like Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl and then pulls a gun from his waistband and starts blowing away defenders. When he reaches the end zone, he utters a pithy one-liner and turns the gun on himself. That escalated quickly, but you should expect no less from a movie that ends with Bruce Willis throwing the bad guy through a set of rotating helicopter blades.
4. Star Wars (I guess we're supposed to call it Episode IV: A New Hope now) The now-iconic scrolling text rolls up, and a spaceship comes into view. Then it keeps going, and going, and going. Whoever owns this ship is a baaaaaad dude.
5. The Godfather
First, "I believe in America" is the perfect opening line for this trilogy. Undertaker Amerigo Bonasera utters these words as the prelude to a story about his daughter getting beaten by two men and the light sentence they receive. As he tells the story, the camera pulls back to reveal the home office of Vito Corleone. And on this, the day of his daughter's wedding, he is happy to honor requests for real justice.
6. Citizen Kane
This guy is obviously important, and he is obviously dying. Now who the heck is Rosebud?
Hey, Drew Barrymore is in this movie. Man, that dude on the phone is creepy. Wait, they wouldn't kill off Barrymore in the first five minutes after skewering various horror movie clichés while still making the scene genuinely terrifying, would they?
8. The Lion King
I want this sound to play every time I get out of bed.
9. Raising Arizona
It's an introduction to H.I. and Ed in the mug shot room, but it's also a primer on the bizarre universe of the Coen Brothers. This isn't their first movie—that would be Blood Simple—but if you like these few minutes, you'll also love Barton Fink, The Hudsucker, Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. You probably won't like Burn After Reading.
10. The Muppet Movie
It's Kermit the Frog singing "The Rainbow Connection." That's pretty much all toddler Andy needed.
1. Virginia Tech's quickly scuttled plan to fine players out of their cost-of-attendance stipends for various on- and off-field infractions wasn't, in and of itself, a bad idea. Financial incentives, whether positive or negative, tend to alter behavior. The problem is that Hokies coaches haven't been paying attention to the news surrounding the governance of major college athletics.
The NCAA and the conferences are trying very hard to pretend that major college football players aren't employees in a multibillion-dollar enterprise—so hard that they have made this fantasy the backbone of their defense in various antitrust lawsuits. While fining players might be perfectly reasonable if said players were employees protected by labor laws, it's a horrible idea when the governing body of college sports is about to go to federal court again and try to make a judge believe these not-in-any-way-different students are simply engaging in a fun extracurricular activity that happens to make the people in charge a boatload of money. It's already a laughable defense, but it becomes much harder to sell when the coaches treat the players exactly like employees.
2. Steve Sarkisian swears it has nothing to do with the fallout from Sark After Dark, but offensive coordinator Clay Helton will call plays for the Trojans this season instead of the head coach. Sarkisian told reporters this plan has been in the works since the spring. Whether that's true is irrelevant. No matter the reason, this development should excite the USC fan base.
The last time Helton called plays was during the final nine games of the 2013 campaign, following the firing of Lane Kiffin. That period is better remembered as the most fun the Trojans have had since Pete Carroll coached the team. With a roster decimated by injuries and NCAA sanctions, Helton helped interim coach Ed Orgeron go 7-2. That stretch included a win over eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford.
3. Blake Sims beating out Jacob Coker to become Alabama's starting quarterback last season has colored the way we look at graduate transfers. But the truth is most coaches won't bring in a graduate transfer quarterback unless they are reasonably certain that player will win the starting job. That's why Vernon Adams winning the job at Oregon after only two weeks with the team shouldn't surprise anyone.
Ducks coaches were on the lookout for potential graduate transfers before last season ended. When they zeroed in on Adams, then at Eastern Washington, they knew they had a potentially special player. In two games against Pac-12 opponents, Adams has thrown for 886 yards with 11 touchdowns and run for 123 yards with two touchdowns. That was with FCS-level teammates. Now imagine what Adams might do with Oregon-level teammates.
4. An injury such as the one Ohio State sophomore receiver Noah Brown suffered last week at practice is terrifying for the player and that player's family. Read this excellent Bill Rabinowitz story from The Columbus Dispatch about how the "Buckeye Mommies" helped make a tough time easier for Brown and his mother.
Ohio State has some of the best chemistry of any team I've seen, and proactive parents are a huge reason. The Buckeyes have a lot of team moms, and the players know they're loved and will have someone to help them even if their own parents are far away. That can make a huge difference for a program.
5. Pretty much every Power Five team produces a preseason hype video. Not many are produced by a player from that team who also writes and performs the song. So, enjoy the handiwork of Auburn redshirt freshman linebacker Deshaun Davis.
6. Watching walk-ons get scholarships never gets old. This time, it's Stanford senior linebacker Craig Jones.
7. What else doesn't get old? Watching linemen do the worm.
8. LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told reporters on Friday that he was recently treated for prostate cancer but now has a "clean bill of health." Cameron did not miss any practices while undergoing treatment, and said he won't be limited when the Tigers open their season this Saturday against McNeese State.
9. Great idea, Ivy Leaguers. But what happens when Dartmouth's robot tackling dummies become self-aware?
10. I'm a little late to this, but I can't resist a good Ric Flair impression. Texas junior linebacker Peter Jinkens might have the best one in college football. Now the Longhorns just have to start beating the best.
What's eating Andy?
What could I possibly have to complain about? We get football games on Thursday. Nothing can bring me down.
What's Andy eating?
A restaurateur either has to be stupid or great to open a taco shop across the street from Fuego.
For those who haven't had the pleasure, Fuego is a 24-hour taco joint located at the corner of Texas Avenue and University Drive in College Station, Texas. It serves a staggering variety of quality folded tortilla creations quickly and for a reasonable price. There should be a Fuego in every college town, and the existence of the actual Fuego should suck the air out of the taco market in the general vicinity. (Not to mention the existence of a new branch of Torchy's, the Austin-based fast-casual taco behemoth, a little further down Texas Avenue.) Yet chef Peter Madden, a staple of the local dining scene thanks to his full-service place in nearby Bryan, opened Mad Taco a few months ago on the side of University Drive opposite the Aggies' favorite taco shop. This idea is utterly insane, and will only work if the tacos are excellent.
It's going to work.
How much does Madden believe in his food? My visit last week provided a window.
I try never to tell anyone where or when I'm visiting a restaurant I'm going to write about in this column. I want the exact experience a reader would get when they go to a place I've written about. If the service or food is horrible, I want to know so I can warn you. And if the employees know they're being written about on SI.com or any other national platform, they might provide a different experience to me than they would to the average diner. The man behind the counter at Mad Taco had no idea the place was getting reviewed when I asked if I could get half an order of Par-Gar (parmesan-garlic) fries and half an order of Chili-Cilly (chile and cilantro) fries so I could try both. "I can't do that," he said. "But I can give you one order on the house so you could try them both." Before I handed him my credit card, I placed a chocolate-chile cookie on the counter. "I'm going to give you that on the house, too," he said. "I want you to try it."
The staff at Mad Taco didn't want me to try these items because they knew I'd write about them. They wanted me to try them because they knew they tasted great. They knew that when I or any other new visitor tasted them, we would tell friends about them. If I lived in College Station, that order of fries and a cookie would multiply into more customers who would taste the tacos and the fries and the cookies and return.
Of course, none of this hospitality would matter if the tacos didn't pass muster. Fortunately, they were excellent. Instead of using a flour tortilla, they come wrapped in tamale bread. Corn tortillas are also available, and I usually prefer corn. But the thicker tamale bread proved the perfect foil for the chile oil that comes on most of the tacos. It soaked up the oil without getting soggy, giving every bite an extra kick.
I tried a braised pork taco, a jerk pork taco and a short rib taco. The jerk pork taco, which was the only one that didn't include the chile oil, is comparable to the jerk chicken-fronted Brushfire at Torchy's, but the Brushfire also includes mango to add sweet to the savory and the spicy. The other two tacos I ordered have no analogue nearby. The tamale bread and the chile oil produced a taco with the heft of a gyro. This is not a bad thing. Thick chunks of braised pork or short rib made each one feel like a meal even though the braised pork taco costs $3.55 and the short rib taco costs $4.50. The roasted tomato salsa on the short rib gave it just enough sweetness to check all the flavor sensation boxes.
The man behind the counter was correct to encourage me to try both varieties of fries. I'm normally vehemently against skinny fries, but the fresh ingredients covering these fries created a one-time exception to my fry thickness standards. The Par-Gar fries were salty and savory with slivers of fresh parmesan and garlic. The Chile-Cilly fries were coated in that chile oil and sprinkled liberally with fresh cilantro, which makes just about everything better.
The man behind the counter was correct about the cookie, too. Those who love chocolate bars that contain just a hint of chile will adore these. They're big, soft and chocolaty. But just before the chocolate kicks in, the chile applies a little heat. The brief rise in temperature makes the eventual arrival of the sugar that much sweeter.
The folks at Mad Taco believe in their offerings for a good reason. They're delicious. If I lived in College Station, I'd tell everyone I knew. Instead, they'll have to settle for me telling you. Opening a taco shop across the street from Fuego requires stupidity or greatness, and it's quite obvious after visiting that in this case it's the latter. It also probably helps to be a little Mad.