Charlie Strong, Notre Dame’s defensive line coach under Lou Holtz (1995-96) and Bob Davie (1997-98), enters the 2016 season – his third as Texas’ head coach following a successful stint at Louisville – clinging to an influx of talent the last couple of years.
No Texas head coach since the 1930s has strung together three losing seasons. After a 6-7 mark in 2014 and a 5-7 record in 2015, Strong faces not only the ignominy of a third year of inconsistency, which now jeopardizes his job, but opening with an opponent – Notre Dame – that lambasted the Longhorns a year ago, 38-3.
“You don’t dwell on it and I’m not even concerned about it,” said Strong of the pressure he faces to remain Texas’ head coach. “It’s never about me and I’m never going to make it about me.
“The only thing I’m concerned with is getting this team ready to play this season. That’s what our focus is all about.”
Strong, who helped develop outstanding defensive linemen at Notre Dame such as first-round draft choice Renaldo Wynn, Melvin Dansby and second-rounder Anthony Weaver, is preparing his defense for the two-headed quarterback attack of DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire.
With Kizer still in an understudy role, Zaire sliced and diced the Longhorn defense in last year’s season-opener, completing 19-of-22 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns.
Now Strong’s defense must not only be ready for Zaire, but also Kizer, who led Notre Dame to nine victories in his first 10 games of extended action.
“Zaire played very well against us last year and made some unbelievable throws,” Strong said. “When Kizer took over, he was able to lead that team. So you have two quarterbacks with outstanding leadership ability. The offense has confidence they can move the ball with either one.
“They have different styles, which is going to be our biggest challenge. Not only that, but they have a unbelievable offensive line with (Mike) McGlinchey and (Quenton) Nelson, both pre-season All-Americans.”
With a defense that allowed 219 yards rushing per game and surrendered 30 points or more in six of 12 games, Strong knows it will be a long night for the Longhorns if they don’t improve one particular aspect of their game. It’s a pretty important one.
Texas finished 105th in the country last year on third down, allowing a 44.2 percent conversion rate. Strong attributes it to the inability to make fundamental plays on the money down.
“We have to improve our tackling,” said Strong, whose defense allowed Notre Dame 8-of-14 conversions on third down a year ago. “We didn’t tackle well and gave up too many big plays. We weren’t able to get off the field on third down and that’s where we have to make the biggest improvement.
“You play well on first and second down, and then third down has become an Achilles Heel. We have to improve our fundamentals and make sure that when we get in a situation to make a play or two, we do it.”
Notre Dame is not the most ideal opponent against which to make such strides.
“They’re a physical team,” Strong said. “It’s a very tough matchup for us, similar to last year. They lost some key players, but they also return some key players. I don’t see them missing a beat on offense at all.”
For the Longhorns to narrow the gap against the Irish – let alone win the game – senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes and true freshman Shane Buechele, both of whom are expected to play against Notre Dame, must produce more than the 163 yards of total offense Swoopes and Jerrod Heard, now a receiver, managed against the Irish in ’15.
Strong will not announce the starting quarterback until the Longhorns run into Texas Memorial Stadium Sunday night. Buechele has made it an interesting battle, due largely to his “gym rat” frame of mind.
“He just loves ball and loves competing,” Strong said.
From there, Texas will pin its hopes on 250- and 235-pound running backs Chris Warren and D’Onta Foreman, who combined for 1,151 yards rushing in 2015.
Against Notre Dame, Warren and Foreman had just six carries for nine yards. The rest of the season, they averaged 6.9 yards per carry.
“You have to be physical at the point of attack,” said Strong, who admitted that his young but talented offensive line, led by talented sophomores Patrick Vahe and Connor Williams, were plagued by injuries during the pre-season.
“We have two good running backs, so we have to make sure we run the ball. But we’re kind of banged up (along the offensive line). We’re hoping that by the time we get to game time, we have some guys back.”
Much like Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is counting on the third year in the system showing more tangible dividends, Strong is clinging to the notion that his third year at the helm will yield greater productivity.
“We’re been here three years now, and everyone knows one another,” Strong said. “We have a team that is hungry and a senior class that has provided unbelievable leadership. We have more players, even though they may be young.
“We’re building and it’s all coming together for us.”
Will it be in time for Sunday night’s clash with the Irish?