If Shawn Watson isn’t building the offense around the plays true dual-threat, freshmen QBs Jerrod Heard and Kai Locksley are most comfortable running starting today, then Charlie Strong may well be forced to turn to someone other than Watson to run the Texas offense.
The offensive line – with two talented-but-green, true freshmen starters – can’t protect the passer well enough right now to keep playing Swoopes. And Swoopes is not a running quarterback.
So trying to run read-option plays with him is pointless.
Swoopes still struggles to make the correct reads in the run and passing games. The junior QB still feels the rush before it gets there - even when he still has time to step up in the pocket and deliver a pass on time.
And when things got tough Saturday night, Swoopes was on the bench with his head down - not walking the sideline and reassuring his teammates everything was going to be OK. In short, a repeat of last year, when he started 12 games.
So without embarrassing Swoopes and burying his confidence (even more than it probably already is), start structuring the offense around Heard and Locksley. Give them the first- and second-team reps – and go.
Charlie Strong said Saturday night, “If you can’t run the ball, you have no chance. We have to run the ball.”
This offense can’t run the ball without the QB being a running threat (Heard or Locksley). Not right now. Not behind this learning-on-the-job offensive line, featuring two true freshmen (LT Connor Williams and RG Patrick Vahe).
Correct that – this offense can’t run the ball without first trying to give it to their senior leader Johnathan Gray.
At halftime of Saturday night’s game – with Texas trailing 17-0 - Gray had three carries for 18 yards (6.0 ypc), and Swoopes, who is trying to become a running QB, had eight carries for 26 yards (3.2 ypc).
Gray finished with 8 carries for 40 yards (5.0 ypc). Eight carries.
How does that happen?
Watson’s answer to everything after the game was to keep working and grinding and growing Texas’ young players.
But when Watson calls a game that doesn’t give Gray his first touch until there’s 1:02 left in the first quarter (an 11-yard run) with Texas already down 14-0, you have to question everything.
Strong has made it clear he wants to run the ball - and from his public comments - he wanted a spread-to-run focus to the offense. To do that, the QB has to be a running threat the defense fears. Not a running threat the defense begs to keep the ball.
Just like the end of last year, the offense was a three-and-out machine Saturday night (and wasn't trying to change that by running the ball with its most experienced back). The defense, which had plenty of struggles of its own, was on the field way too long (more than 11 minutes in the first quarter alone).
Even Texas' first drive to points - a 41-yard FG by Nick Rose with 8:36 left in the third quarter - took only 1:23 off the clock.
It was a five-play, 49-yard drive - 48 yards of which came on a diving catch of a Swoopes' pass by freshman WR John Burt.
Burt's catch gave Texas the ball at the Notre Dame 24. Instead of utilizing Gray, the back averaging 5 yards per carry at that time (perhaps even as a receiver), freshman RB Chris Warren got two straight carries for 1 yard.
Then, Swoopes' third-and-9 pass was high and incomplete to Armanti Foreman in the flat as Burt was breaking free in the end zone on a post route against single coverage. Suggestion to Swoopes: Look for No. 1 the same way you looked for No. 9 (John Harris) last year.
Strong has said the position coaches are responsible for when their players play.
That sounds like a recipe for confusion.
RB coach Tommie Robinson likes to rotate a lot of guys into games. But when Gray breaks his first run for 11 yards, and it doesn't come until the 1:02 mark of the first quarter - after Texas was already down 14-0 - something's got to change.
Heard may or may not be the answer. But he's an elusive runner, a two-time state champion at then-Class 4A Denton-Guyer, and he's got some moxie, some charisma, some juice - as Strong likes to say.
Texas won’t survive with Swoopes at QB.
Watson sure won’t.
And - fair or not - Texas faithful will forgive Strong for trying to win with Heard. They will not forgive him for losing with Swoopes. They've already seen too much. They've forgotten his solid performances against UCLA, Iowa State and Oklahoma State last year and can only remember TCU, Arkansas and Notre Dame.
In UT's last three games, the Longhorns have scored 20 combined points and been blown out by an average of 32 points.
The perception nationally now is that Strong is tone-deaf to anything going on offensively on his football team.
Strong didn’t help himself when asked to evaluate Swoopes’ play against the Irish by saying he didn’t get a real good look because he was “pissed off” about the defense and spending time with that unit on the sideline trying to get them organized.
Those close to Strong say he’s reluctant to work with coaches he’s not comfortable with. Strong won with Watson (and Teddy Bridgewater) at Louisville.
But Strong fired Mike Sanford mid-season in 2011 to bring in Watson. And now you wonder if he’s back in the same position – only this time possibly letting go of Watson for someone else – or at least having a different assistant call plays (possibly former OU co-OC Jay Norvell or even Jeff Traylor, who ran SMU coach Chad Morris' offense at Gilmer).
If Strong doesn't get more in tune to the offensive side of the ball - and make sure what he wants is actually being put on the field - it might not matter who is calling plays.
Watson and an offensive staff with two coaches who were fired after last season had a month to prepare for the Texas Bowl and produced 59 yards in a 31-7 blowout loss to Arkansas.
Watson and an offensive staff with two new coaches had nine months to prepare for Notre Dame, and looked like it had 24 hours, running 52 plays for 163 total yards with eight three-and-outs in 10 possessions (none with a time of possession longer than 2:35).
As of right now, Texas is tied for dead last in FBS in scoring offense with Kent State and Akron.
And Saturday night's 38-3 outcome was without Texas committing a single turnover. Imagine the outcome of Saturday night’s game if Texas had turned the ball over?!
Actually, forget that.
For Texas to run the ball, the QB has to be a threat to run, so Watson and Co. - at Strong's urging - better be moving in the direction of Heard and Locksley as of now.
I think that's what most everyone was already expecting.
But the last few weeks, there were rumblings the only thing new about this year's offense was the rapid tempo (reported by HD as training camp drew to a close).
Those fears were confirmed Saturday night.
If the direction doesn't change quickly, 2015 - the year UT needed to find an offensive identity - could blow up against a front-loaded schedule (Rice, Cal, Oklahoma State, at TCU and OU up next) before mid-season.