The legendary Chip Brown of Horns Digest (our Texas sister site), the authority on all things Longhorns and Big 12 since 1988, joins us to answer some questions about the California-Texas tilt this Saturday at 7:30 p.m., on ESPN.
BearTerritory: The hiring of Sterlin Gilbert was surrounded by a veritable circus, but, since he joined Charlie Strong's staff, he's been anything but a sideshow. How much of Art Briles's system is in what we're going to see from Texas, and how much is Gilbert's own?
Chip Brown: Most of it is the Briles' system. Gilbert was a GA on offense at Houston under Briles before coaching in the high school ranks in Texas and then joining Dino Babers, a former Baylor assistant coach under Briles, at Eastern Illinois (where Gilbert was OC and QB coach to Jimmy Garrapolo) and Bowling Green. Gilbert was at Tulsa under Philip Montgomery last season. At each stop, the points per game has increased by an average of 12 points in Gilbert's first year running the offense.
The goal of what has been dubbed the G-Force Offense under Gilbert is to run the ball 60 percent of the time. It seeks to accomplish that by having two receivers capable of getting deep lined up out at the number to spread the defense out. And then the QB reads the box at the snap. If it starts to fill up with seven or more defenders, QB Shane Buechele will pull the ball from the RB and throw a quick pass out wide or deep, depending on the defense's coverage.
BT: There have been whispers that Jerrod Heard may cameo at quarterback, and after 527 yards of total offense last year against the Bears, I can't say it would be a surprise. How has he taken the move to wide receiver, and how would he conceivably fit into a rotation with Shane Buechele and Tyrone Swoopes?
CB: Heard suffered an injured throwing shoulder in the spring at quarterback. And after watching Buechele light it up in the spring game at QB, he said he started to think of moving to WR. He wanted to be on the field, and his move has proven to be a hit. He caught two TD passes on his birthday last week against UTEP.
Heard also took a Wildcat QB snap and ran for 5 yards. It's very possible Heard will take some more Wildcat QB snaps.
BT: Swoopes has almost exclusively been the early-years Tim Tebow of this offense, coming in to run, run, run. How is he as a passer?
CB: Swoopes is a career 56 percent passer with 17 TDs and 12 INTs. He completed 50.5 percent of his passes last season (47 of 93), so he's not going to light the world on fire as a passer. But when he gets into rhythm, he can put up some pretty good numbers.
In a 20-17 loss to UCLA in 2014, Swoopes was 24 of 34 passing for 196 yards and 2 TDs with 0 INTs. Lately, however, he's been the Tebow-like runner in what Texas calls the 18-Wheeler Package (because he wears No. 18). He rushed for 12 TDs last season while averaging 6.1 ypc. He's rushed 15 times for 56 yards (3.7 ypc) with 3 TDs this season (all three TDs came against Notre Dame).
BT: Outside of Malik Jefferson, who should we be on the look out for on defense for the Longhorns?
CB: Last week, two OLBs who Charlie Strong specifically directed coaches to use - sophomore Breckyn Hager (No. 44) and freshman Malcolm Roach (No. 32) - made plays. Hager led the team in tackles (8) with a sack. And Roach was all over the field.
DT Chris Nelson (No. 97) is disruptive and DE Charles Omenihu (No. 90) is starting to emerge as a consistent playmaker. MLB Anthony Wheeler (No. 45) is a thumper. But the strength of the defense is in the secondary, where Texas has three corners capable of playing in the NFL in Davante Davis (No. 9), Holton Hill (No. 5) and Sheroid Evans (No. 1). Safeties DeShon Elliott (No. 4) and Kevin Vaccaro (No. 18) are big hitters, and S Dylan Haines (No. 14) is a ball hawk (9 INTs the past two seasons).
BT: What was the feeling around the program following the loss to Cal a year ago? It seemed to me, from afar, that they were about a year away, and that in a year's time (right about now), they'd be a force to be reckoned with, purely based on the athleticism on the roster.
CB: The loss to Cal after Nick Rose's missed extra point was a gut punch for a young team. That game was followed by a loss to Oklahoma State in which Texas gave up a 27-24 lead with less than two minutes left, punctuated by a dropped punt snap by P Michael Dickson with 36 seconds left to play.
That gave Oklahoma State the ball at Texas' 18, helping set up a game-winning FG for the Cowboys with :06 left in a 30-27 OSU win.
Texas couldn't get out of its own way, at times, last year. This season, coming back to beat Notre Dame in 2OT with the kind of QB play the Longhorns are getting from Shane Buechele has the team believing it can do big things this season.
BT: A year ago, Charlie Strong was on shaky ground with some Texas fans. How has his footing changed since then?
CB: As long as he keeps winning games, he'll be fine. That win over Notre Dame was HUGE! It gave fans belief that Strong could win a big game he wasn't supposed to win at a time when the fan base really needed something to believe in as it pertains to Strong.
If last year's 24-0 loss at Iowa State was the low point, the win over Notre Dame - even more so than the win over OU last year - has been the high point thus far.
BT: What would you say is the Texas defense's greatest strength, and its greatest weakness?
CB: The secondary is the strength. The front seven getting used to each other still - and the big plays that have gotten through in the running game - have been the weakness (including the 51-yard TD run last week by UTEP RB Aaron Jones).
BT: Any injuries to be aware of?
CB: I think if everyone who is expected to return from injury does indeed return from injury this week, Texas will play with a lot of confidence and with a chip on its shoulder after losing in heart-breaking fashion to Cal last year.
Texas is a different team with Shane Buechele at QB. His incredible touch on deep-ball touchdown passes to John Burt, Armanti Foreman, Dorian Leonard and Jerrod Heard the past two games have struck fear in defenses and filled teammates' with all kinds of belief in Texas' offense.
D'Onta Foreman is far and away the best RB on the team. When he's on the field, the offense is at its best.
The defense, which gave up 219 yards per game rushing last season (111th nationally of 127 FBS teams), seems to be improving against the run thanks to the improving play of DTs Chris Nelson (No. 97), Poona Ford (No. 95) and DT Paul Boyette Jr. (No. 93).
Sophomore LB Malik Jefferson, the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player Of The Year, is getting better and better and made several big plays/hits vs Notre Dame and will be counted on to pressure Cal QB Davis Webb.
Texas' DBs should be a good matchup for Cal's receiving corps, led by Chad Hansen.
TEXAS 45 ... CAL 31null