One of the premier college football opening weekend games will take place in South Bend, Ind. when Texas faces No. 11 Notre Dame.
In the days leading up to kickoff, much of the discussions will be focused around the on-field matchup between the Longhorns and Fighting Irish. However, something more significant than the outcome of the game itself will transpire Saturday evening.
When Texas takes the field in South Bend, college football will get a sneak peek into the Longhorns’ future with Charlie Strong at the helm.
Strong’s message to his experienced players was very clear throughout fall camp: Either prove you are head and shoulders ahead of the competition at your position, or you will be replaced by an underclassman.
He held true to his word.
The season opening depth chart features 24 freshmen Longhorns – 17 of those are true freshmen Strong and his staff signed in 2015.
There’s a chance not all 17 will enter the game, but the guys who do play will give Texas fans something they were not able to witness in 2014: A glimpse of the type of players Strong is seeking to help return Texas football to prominence.
“A year ago, I was really just trying to figure out my team and I didn’t know how we were going to take the field. I didn’t think we prepared the right way to go win games last year. You don’t wake up on Saturday morning and say it’s time to go play,” Strong said.
“It has to come with confidence, but it also has to come with guys who buy into it and put in the time. Don’t wait to come over here at 2:30 when we call meetings. If you want to sit down with a coach, sit down with a coach. If you want to watch film on your own, come in and do it. The preparation is totally different now than it was a year ago."
Strong made it clear he would do things his way when he was hired at Texas. While he brought in almost an entirely new coaching staff and purged the program of players who did not abide by his rules, it was not enough to change the outcome of his inaugural season.
Player dismissals, injuries, division amongst the team, inexperience at key positions and players not buying in are some of the more widely discussed issues that resulted in the Longhorns 6-7 record in 2014. But a significant reason for the season outcome was not something Strong – nor any other coach – could control.
Strong was almost like a substitute teacher for Mack Brown’s students in 2014. Sure there was decent talent on the roster and a handful of guys who fit the Charlie Strong mold, but it was not enough to make up for the fact that he was essentially coaching another man’s team.
It was nearly impossible to have an accurate depiction of what Strong can do at Texas without a complete recruiting cycle under his belt. That ends this weekend.
“Now that you have a whole new class coming in, the team feels like those are our guys,” Strong said. “This is a freshman group that have worked really hard, and they want to play. This is a group that is very talented, so it doesn’t concern me. I’m really excited just to see how we’re going to play and how hard they are going to play.”
Expecting perfection from inexperienced players would not be wise. Young players will make rookie mistakes.
Rather than solely focusing on the missteps, pay attention to what underclassmen can do right. The progress of the young Longhorns this season could play a significant role into what the future holds for Texas football, and ultimately, Strong’s fate as the Longhorns head coach.
And it all begins this Saturday.