Strong released his depth chart on Monday and it included nine true freshmen. Four were put in starting positions with another five listed in prominent roles.
Strong is confident his young players are ready for primetime.
“There’s an old saying where freshmen just want to play, sophomores want to start, juniors want to win and seniors are worrying about, you know, their career after football,” Strong said. “This is a group that is very talented so it doesn’t concern me. I’m really excited about just to see how we’re going to play and how hard they’re going to play.”
Texas finished seventh in the Scout team recruiting rankings in 2015. That class of 28 prospects included one five-star prospect and 14 others who earned four-star rankings.
Strong doesn’t believe he’s demanding too much from players who attended high school proms just a few months ago.
“It’s not a lot to ask,” he said. “I always say this, ‘When you’re at the University of Texas this is what you sign on for.’ You sign on to play in big games and this is a big game for us. If you’re talented enough and you can go get on the field let’s put them on the field and that’s what we’ve done. This is a freshman group that worked really hard and they want to play.”
Jefferson, a former five-star prospect, was Scout’s top outside linebacker and the No. 4 prospect in the country. He is listed as the starter at Middle Linebacker.
Burt, a former four-star prospect, earned the starting nod at Z-receiver and Williams and Vahe will start at left tackle and right guard, respectively. Burt was a four-star prospect while Vahe earned three stars from Scout.
Strong knows his young offensive linemen will be tested early by the Irish. He has game planned to minimize the pressure they face.
“I said when you go on the road and you’re playing in an environment that we’re playing in, those two freshmen linemen, it’s a concern because you just don’t know how quickly it’s going to tick for them,” Strong said. “If they bring pressure, and I always say this, here I am a defensive coach, if I see two freshmen linemen I’m going to blitz you every snap and I’m going to see if they can block you. We just got to be ready to make sure we can balance our offense and make sure that we don’t allow them to pressure and put the pressure on those two guys.”
Wide receivers DeAndre McNeal and Ryan Newsome, running back Chris Warren III and quarterback Kai Locksley all are listed third on the depth chart. McNeal, Newsome and Warren could see action while Locksley is likely to be redshirted behind starter Tyrone Swoopes, a junior, and redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard.
McNeal was a four-star linebacker who converted to wide receiver during camp.
“DeAndre, he’s an athlete,” Strong said. “The thing we like about McNeal is that he’s strong. He’s big. He’s physical. He’s strong and can go up and get the football. He’s done a good job. The thing about him, you can play him inside and outside and also we can still take him and put him in the backfield and let him be a guy who can move around for us.”
Defensively, the Longhorns have five true freshmen listed as backups and two others likely to see action.
Cameron Townsend (Strongside Linebacker), Anthony Wheeler (Weakside Linebacker), Davante Davis (Cornerback), Kris Boyd (Cornerback) and P.J. Locke (Free Safety) are listed as backups. Charles Omenihu (Fox End) and Holton Hill (cornerback) are listed third and fourth on the depth chart at their positions.
“It’s a very young, talented group,” Strong said of his freshmen on defense. “You look at Malik and you look at the three corners there, even with P.J. coming in there in the secondary, it’s a really good, strong freshmen group. Omenihu has done a great job with the defensive front and then you look on offense with Connor Vahe, with Burt.
“It’s so funny. We talked about that this morning in the staff meeting. I said to the offensive staff you’re going to walk in there with Vahe, we’re going to walk in there with Connor Williams. We have a lot of guys on offense, a lot of young talent, and then on defense we’re looking at Malik and some of those corners, some of those defensive backs are going to play. Even on the kickoff I have some young players out there. They’ve earned that right. They’ve worked hard. We feel like we coached them well enough so just go play. Go compete and play hard.”
Texas returns 11 starters, including six on offense and five on defense. Strong is banking on his newcomers to complement his veterans, even if they play with abandon.
“Sometimes with a young guy he just don’t know,” Strong said. “He’s just going to go out there and just do what you ask him to do because he just don’t know, where a lot of time with vets they’ve kind of seen it and they’ve been around so they kind of pace themselves. Young players, they don’t pace themselves. They just go at it and they want to start so they try to do everything they can to get on the field.”