Brian Kelly can relate to Charlie Strong.
When Kelly arrived at Notre Dame five years ago he faced a rebuilding job both physical and psychological. The Irish had been infected by entitlement, an affliction that takes seasons to cure, not just one spring practice. The incumbent quarterback didn’t fit the system. Hope centered on a young five-star linebacker.
Strong inherited something similar in Austin after the Mack Brown era became bloated in a state where everything is naturally bigger. Instead of fitting Dayne Crist into the spread, Brown tried to get Tyrone Swoopes to play pro-style. Now, instead of banking on Manti Te’o, Strong is hoping five-star freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson can give the Longhorns a new defensive soul.
“They lost their edge,” said Chip Brown of Horns Digest. “Last year what really frustrated Charlie was there weren’t more guys just fighting to the death. When things went wrong or the offense stalled, guys started let their heads drop.”
It took Kelly two seasons before a staff overhaul and quarterback change helped Notre Dame into the BCS National Championship Game. Strong needed just one season to realize he needed an audible, changing to a run-based spread offense while retuning his staff. The roster’s blood letting, with nine players dismissed by September, also appears over.
Irish Illustrated’s off-season look at Notre Dame’s opponents kicks off with the Longhorns as Strong’s program hunts for progress, with expectations tamed by a 36-28 record the past five seasons. That includes Strong’s debut season that ended 6-7 with a blowout bowl loss to Arkansas when Texas managed just 59 yards total offense.
Texas was gutted at the offensive skill positions this off-season and could ultimately change the one starter who does return in quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. Billed as the next Vince Young out of high school, Swoopes got his shot in the opener after head injuries forced the retirement of David Ash. Swoopes started the next 12 games but didn’t do enough to keep Jerrod Heard off this back this spring.
In losses to Baylor, Oklahoma, TCU and Arkansas, Swoopes went 76-of-137 for 735 yards, three touchdowns and eight interceptions. Heard is coming off a red-shirt but sparked the offense during the spring game as a run-first option if the Longhorns are serious about shifting their system to a grounded spread.
“I think Heard did close the gap over the last two weeks of spring ball,” Brown said. “Charlie said that and I believe it. The light started to go on and he built some confidence.
“Texas needs Heard to win the job because he’s the better runner.”
Swoopes will enter camp as the starter and figures to arrive at Notre Dame Stadium with the job. Keeping it after the opener is the bigger question.
Regardless of who takes the snaps, Strong knows the offense must evolve, especially coming out after halftime. Texas didn’t score a touchdown in the third quarter of its final 11 games and got shut out in that quarterback eight times.
The mandate for Strong this season is both clear and modest. Make a decent bowl game. Beat one of the four marquee programs on the slate: Notre Dame, Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor.
The Longhorns were blown out by the Horned Frogs and Bears last season by a combined 76-16 score. They hung with the Sooners but couldn’t overcome allowing two non-offensive touchdowns. And Texas is an early 12.5-point underdog to Notre Dame, despite the Irish collapsing in November before a rebound bowl win.
“It’s step two of rebuilding because of the schedule,” Brown said. “Eight wins would be a good season. If they get past that, wow, you’re seeing a lot of good, young talent on this team. People want to believe it can be better because they’re tired and exhausted of crappy football.”
Beyond the trip to South Bend, Texas travels to Baylor and TCU while getting Oklahoma at the Red River Shootout in Dallas. The Longhorns get Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home but must head to West Virginia in November. Everything else is must win: Rice, California, at Iowa State and Texas Tech.
Imagine the hype around Manti Te’o or Jaylon Smith if they enrolled early, then starred in their first spring game. That’s the kind of perspective now applied to Malik Jefferson, ranked as the nation’s top linebacker prospect last year. His Austin debut included the explosive athleticism that made him a Top 5 recruit nationally.
“He made the play of the spring game,” Brown said. “He came on a blitz, realized it was a bubble screen behind him, changed direction and smashed the receiver after he caught the ball. He forced a fumble and the defense scooped and scored off it.
“He’s just a big, physical, fast kid and is always around the ball.”
Texas lost its top player at all three levels of the defense, including first-round pick Malcolm Brown at defensive tackle. The turnover could hurt most at linebacker where 278 tackles must be replaced between Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond.
Duke Thomas and Dylan Haines return in the secondary after a combined 24 passes defended last season, which included seven picks. In terms of pass rush, more than 20 sacks must be replaced in the front seven.
“They’re really veteran on the defensive line, that’s the strongest position on the team,” Brown said. “At linebacker, you could see three freshmen playing. That’s how good these guys have been in Ed Freeman (red-shirt freshman), Anthony Wheeler (incoming freshman) and of course Malik.”