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CHRISTMAS COMES TO AUSTIN
When your last name is Christmas, it might help explain how you can repeatedly stare down adversity and always maintain an upbeat, positive outlook.
“Coach (Charlie) Strong talks about how I’m going to be delivering presents and stuff,” said incoming Texas freshman defensive tackle D’Andre Christmas-Giles. “People grab onto my last name and make fun of it. I love it.”
On the field, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound, late-blooming star at New Orleans’ St. Augustine High School, is a disruptive force. An unmistakably explosive first step leaps off of his game film – along with beyond-his-years hand work that keeps most offensive linemen from getting a firm grasp on him.
“I love Christmas’ first step,” said fellow incoming freshman DT Gerald Wilbon, also from Louisiana. “He’s big and explosive. He can move because he’s athletic.”
Of five freshmen defensive tackles making their way to Texas in June, Christmas-Giles may be the most complete package in terms of explosiveness, technique and motor.
D’Andre is expected to play the three-technique, which is the pass-rushing DT who lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard (where it’s harder for the offense to double team).
“He’s got a motor,” Wilbon said. “He’s always going, and that’s what sets him apart.”
When you ask D’Andre - whom Strong refers to simply as “Christmas” - what sets him apart as a football player, he talks about his “mindset.” And you soon realize he’s talking about a mental toughness hardened by real life.
“Obviously, I’m quick off the ball and have good hands,” he said. “But, honestly, I think it’s my mindset.
“My senior year, I was facing guys who had offers who were 6-4 and 6-5, and I made plays. When I get on the field, obviously, I have athletic ability. But I think it’s my mindset that sets me apart.”
A MENTAL TOUGHNESS HARDENED BY REAL LIFE
Christmas-Giles is described by those near to him as upbeat and inquisitive – usually with a smile on his face.
But at 18, he’s already been through some incredibly difficult times. His father was murdered in a random act of violence when he was 3 years old.
D’Andre only played two seasons of high school football because he was ruled academically ineligible as a freshman at Salmen HS in Slidell, La., and had to sit out his junior season after transferring to St. Augustine HS in New Orleans.
While going to school in New Orleans, D’Andre has been surrounded by gun violence, including a shooting near St. Augustine’s practice fields less than a month ago.
What has kept him going with a positive outlook?
“What gets me through things – knowing I’ve had a tough past – is just seeing my future,” he said.
It was just himself, his older brother, George, and his mother, LaTonya Christmas, moving from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where D’Andre was born (and where his father was killed) to Fort Worth and then to New Orleans.
“Me, my brother and my mom struggled a lot,” D’Andre said. “Then, my mom got re-married. I got a stepdad and two sisters, and we started doing better.”
It’s easy to see where D’Andre gets his positive outlook.
“Everyone says something about our last name,” his mother, LaTonya said, laughing. “Thank goodness my parents didn’t name me Mary Christmas, right?”
MAKING TWO YEARS OF HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COUNT
After D’Andre made varsity as a freshman at Salmen High School in Slidell, La., a suburb of New Orleans, he was ruled academically ineligible midway through the season.
“My freshman year in high school I made varsity, and I felt like I dominated,” D’Andre said. “But I was kicked off the team because of my grades in the middle of the season.”
D’Andre started on offense and defense as a sophomore at Salmen with his brother, George, who was a senior defensive back and running back.
Then D’Andre transferred to St. Augustine – known as “St. Aug” - a prestigious, all-boys, all-black private high school in the heart of New Orleans with a long list of prominent alumni.
Those alums include LSU RB Leonard Fournette, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, former NBA star and coach Avery Johnson, Texas hoopster Javan Felix, actor Carl Weathers, ESPN anchor Stan Verrett, Panthers’ OT Trai Turner and Cardinals’ CB Tyrann Mathieu.
Due to an eligibility issue after transferring to St. Aug, D’Andre had to sit out his junior season. He could practice but not play. He was able to attract some attention from colleges based on his spring football and practice performances as a junior.
Among those coaches was Texas defensive line coach Brick Haley, who had recruited St. Aug while the D-line coach at LSU.
So D’Andre had his senior season to prove himself as a recruit to the major programs looking at him – and he did – making one disruptive play after another.
He helped St. Aug to a playoff appearance in 2015 and closed the season with four tackles, a sack, a 50-yard fumble return (nearly for a TD) and a kick return against Holy Cross.
D’Andre committed to Tennessee – his first major college offer.
But Wilbon said D’Andre began following Wilbon on Twitter after Wilbon committed to Texas. Wilbon said D’Andre then started asking Wilbon questions via direct message on Twitter about his decision to commit to Texas and about the Longhorns in general.
“I knew from our conversations that he was starting to feel Texas and would probably end up going there,” Wilbon said. “I could just tell.”
Before long, D’Andre was having longer and longer conversations with Haley. He de-committed from Tennessee and re-opened his recruitment. He took visits to Texas, LSU, TCU and Texas A&M.
His decision came down to Texas, TCU and LSU. But it probably came down to Texas and TCU. D’Andre liked the defensive pedigree of Gary Patterson and had a soft spot for TCU, in part, because he lived in Fort Worth for a couple years during his childhood.
But the bottom line is “DCG” - as he’s commonly referred to by fans - wanted a change of scenery – away from New Orleans.
St. Aug is in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, where gun violence occurs all the time. The shooting death that occurred near the St. Aug campus less than a month ago still nags at D’Andre.
And he retweeted St. Aug alum Tyrann Mathieu when Mathieu spoke out against the violence in New Orleans and when Mathieu offered a plan to address the problem after Saints’ DE Will Smith was shot and killed in what initially was called a random act of road rage.
Mathieu said there are those in New Orleans who actively seek out those from the city who are having success when they return home. And they look to take them down – if not out.
Mathieu said he doesn’t spend more than two or three days at a time in New Orleans for that very reason.
When you factor in the crime in New Orleans and D’Andre losing his father to a random act of violence, he knew his college choice would be out of state.
“I feel like I had to leave Louisiana, because it could be more of a bad thing if I went to school here,” D’Andre said. “I don’t want to be in the same problem I am right now. So that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Texas.”
D’Andre had never been to Austin and had never spent extensive time around Charlie Strong until his official visit to Texas, when he was hosted by Malik Jefferson.
“Malik’s a really humble-but-outgoing guy,” D’Andre said. “He showed me everything I needed to know, and I just fell in love with Austin. And Coach Strong, the first time we really talked, we didn’t even talk about football.
“We talked about life and the importance of academics. Those things are more important and come before football.”
D’Andre said he doesn’t expect to have any trouble qualifying academically at Texas.
“We won’t know if I’m qualified until the final transcript is in, but I should be good with the ACT score I needed,” he said.
THE INQUISITIVE 'GENTLE GIANT'
LaTonya Christmas calls her son a “gentle giant” who was forced to grow up fast after his father was murdered.
“I think it made him stronger. I think it made him strong for his age,” LaTonya said.
“But he’s a very sweet, kind-hearted kid, always has been. I used to call him the ‘gentle giant’ because he’s always been so caring. He’s always been very inquisitive, so he’s always asked a lot of questions. He likes to know what’s ahead, so he’s always looking for the answer.”
Strong made mention of D’Andre’s inquisitive nature when talking about this year’s recruiting class on National Signing Day.
“It was eight questions every night with him,” Strong joked about “Christmas.”
The one thing no one questions, however, is the upside and potential impact Christmas-Giles could have as a defensive tackle at Texas – perhaps immediately.
“I’ve always been able to flip a switch when I walk onto the football field,” D’Andre said. “It’s like I just take any anger or frustration out when I’m playing.”
His mother said she thinks football has been a release for her son.
“D’Andre is a very humble kid, somewhat introverted, holds a lot in,” she said. “So, I think football has been an outlet for him, which is good. It was a positive outlet for him.”
'A LOT OF CHRISTMAS JOY'
LaTonya said she knew Texas was the right fit for D’Andre after accompanying him on his official visit to Austin and meeting the coaches and current players.
“I just felt more comfortable with the Texas coaches, because they seemed genuine,” LaTonya said. “I felt they were coaches who truly wanted the best for all the players on the team.
“Although football is very important, they also want the athletes to take care of their education and to get a degree.”
D’Andre said he appreciates the way Haley recruited him.
“I was really drawn to Coach Haley, because he doesn’t tell you what you want to hear, he tells you what you need to hear,” D’Andre said.
“He used to coach at LSU and had a bunch of great defensive linemen.
“When I was on my official visit to LSU, the defensive linemen there told me Brick Haley was a real good guy. So when I got to Austin, saw the facilities, the school, the awesome city, I knew I needed to be at Texas. I love Austin.”
Mom could see it in her son’s eyes the morning after D’Andre was able to go out with Malik Jefferson and other current players on his visit.
“That morning, I asked him if he liked it?” she said. “He said, ‘I love it.’ After that I knew.
“His recruitment was a little stressful, because he was a late recruit. It all came together his senior year. So, it was a little stressful. We got through it.
“He made the best decision. I agree with it. I think Austin - the University of Texas - I think it’s going to be great. Not only for him, but for Texas also.”
D’Andre has stayed in touch with several current Texas players, including Jefferson, DeShon Elliott, Poona Ford and most of the D-line as well as incoming DT Jordan Elliott.
D’Andre has a separate group text message with his “Cajun Connection” – a total of four players from Louisiana – headed to Texas: himself, Wilbon, TE Peyton Aucoin and DE Malcolm Roach.
When I asked D’Andre what Texas fans can expect when he gets on campus (May 29), he said with a smile, “A lot of Christmas joy.”
THE WAITING GAME CONTINUES
The wait continues for an announcement by 5-star big man Jarrett Allen of Austin St. Stephen’s.
It appears to be a decision between Texas and Kansas, but one source close to the situation said Allen has mentioned the idea of playing overseas, possibly in China.
Point guard Emmanuel Mudiay went to China straight out of high school to play professionally in China for one year (after enrollment issues at SMU) before becoming a lottery pick - selected No. 7 overall last year by the Denver Nuggets.
Other sources close to the situation said they thought Allen, whose name is appearing as a first-round projection in 2017 NBA mock drafts, going overseas to play professionally next year was highly unlikely.
Multiple sources said they didn’t think Allen would have a final decision about his basketball future for at least another week. One source close to Allen still thinks Texas, which had seemed to be in the lead until the final month before the spring signing period, will ultimately be the landing spot. But even that source was surprised by no decision two weeks into the spring signing period.
The NCAA spring signing period began April 13 and runs through May 18.
There is still a possibility Texas could bring in a couple transfers (including the Power 5 small forward in the mold of P.J. Tucker), but absolutely nothing is a sure thing at this point.
ISAIAH TAYLOR SIGNS WITH OCTAGON
I'm told Isaiah has signed with Octagon for his representation as he heads into the NBA Draft.
Octagon represents Steph Curry, Michael Phelps and Jimmy Johnson, among others.
WHAT YOU DIDN’T SEE IN THE SPRING GAME
Two of the biggest takeaways from this spring that you didn’t see in the spring game are:
#1 … The plans for Anthony Wheeler and/or Tim Cole to handle some – if not all - the middle linebacker duties in 2016.
That will allow Malik Jefferson to be freed up to play more outside, shoot gaps and move around – making it harder for offenses to account for Malik on each play.
Last year, Peter Jinkens ended up handling middle linebacker responsibilities in several games, freeing up Malik to move around, including the Oklahoma game, when Malik had two sacks and earned national freshman of the week honors.
#2 … The heavy reliance on counter-blocking that will be used in Sterlin Gilbert’s G-Force power spread.
Last year, Texas effectively used a two-back set with speed sweep motion with Jerrod Heard at QB. It was the base offense in victories over Oklahoma (313 yds rushing) and Kansas State (274 yds rushing) last season.
It was also the set used when D’Onta Foreman followed a lead block by Chris Warren III for a 65-yard TD run against West Virginia.
This season, with Shane Buechele at QB, Sterlin Gilbert will rely more on sets that include: one back, three wides plus a TE or one back with four wides.
Depending on the set, the counter/lead blocking will come from the TE or a pulling OL for the running back tandem of Foreman and Warren (Foreman’s father, Derrick, is championing “The Smash Brothers” as a nickname for the duo – with the subhead of “You’ve Been FOREWARRENED”).
The two-back set that was so successful last season is most lethal with a QB who is a threat to run. Gilbert and UT’s offensive coaches are in no hurry to put Buechele in a bunch of running situations.
Plus, the two-back set takes away some of the offense’s ability to spread the field. So, even though you didn’t see it in the spring game, get ready for a ton of counter and lead blocking by the TE or a pulling OL out of three- and four-wide sets.
SECONDS COUNT IN G-FORCE OFFENSE
A little follow up to the item I included in my “Second Look” at the Texas spring game about how Shane Buechele snapped the ball an average of 10.9 seconds in between plays compared to Tyrone Swoopes’ average of 13.8 seconds.
In Sterlin Gilbert’s offense – that is an ENORMOUS difference – and an important example of how Buechele’s command of the offense is ahead of Swoopes.
The tempo of this offense is everything. The ability to keep firing off plays, move the ball and disorient a tiring defense IS EVERYTHING.
In other words, the quarterback who can operate this offense at the most extreme tempo while also making quick, correct reads that move/protect the ball down the field is going to be the quarterback who leads this offense.
Right now, the pace is being set by Buechele.
TEXAS’ NFL DRAFT: HASSAN RIDGEWAY
Talked to several NFL scouts Wednesday about their final draft projections for DT Hassan Ridgeway, a redshirt junior, who gave up his final year of eligibility.
And those scouts are still all over the place – ranging from late first to third round.
One NFL scout offered to bet a case of the winner’s favorite liquor that Ridgeway won’t be picked before the third round.
“He’s rock solid physically – looks great,” the scout said. “But the inconsistency of his play just makes me not trust what I’m getting. He’s on our board, but we won’t touch him before the third round.”
A scout who really likes Ridgeway, because he believes the right team and coaching staff will be able to get a more consistent effort out of Ridgeway, said he could sneak into the end of the first round.
“Rightly or wrongly, I think some teams are going to compare Ridgeway to Shaun Rogers,” the scout said. “And there are a lot of teams that kicked themselves for passing on Rogers, who had a rep as a guy who’d take plays off.
“You get these guys with a lot of ability with the right team, the right coaches – and the plays being taken off start to disappear. I think that’s what we saw in 2014 when Ridgeway was next to a high-level player in Malcom Brown.”
All the scouts I spoke with said they didn’t think another Longhorn would be drafted.
They weren’t even absolutely sure about free-agent contracts but said Duke Thomas, Daje Johnson, Tank Jackson, Marcus Johnson, Alex De La Torre and Shiro Davis had a chance to get invited to fall camp as undrafted free agents.
(To a man the scouts said all of those players just mentioned didn’t have the production on the field to warrant an invite. Their invites, the scouts said, would be based more on their measurables and experience at a high-profile program that played against other high-level programs).
BIG 12 NETWORK ON THE WAY?!?!
Big 12 presidents are going to talk seriously about three things when they next meet in Dallas the first week in June:
1) The addition of a football conference championship game (the Big 12 now has a waiver to add such a game with only 10 members after prior guidelines stipulated only leagues of 12 or more members could have a title game). Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, has said recently "the 13th data point" (i.e. a league title game) is a significant factor considered by the CFP committee.
2) The feasibility of a Big 12 Network, which - yes - would require the dissolution of the Longhorn Network (more on that in a second).
And I'd probably list the three items in that order in terms of chances for approval.
Without coming right out and saying it, even B12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby appears to be endorsing a conference title game and conference network as the best ways to try to keep pace with the scaling Big Ten and SEC television revenue.
Bowlsby said recently if the Big 12 did nothing to change - in 12 years it would find itself behind the SEC and Big Ten in TV revenue by roughly $20 million per school.
There are no revenue estimates for what a Big 12 Network could generate, because the discussion hasn't even really started, and no data like that has been collected by the league. A conference title football game would likely generate roughly $30 million in TV revenue or $3 million per school.
The key to pulling off a Big 12 Network would be the TV partners - ESPN and Fox - working to make it happen.
Texas has a third-tier TV deal with ESPN for the Longhorn Network through 2030, and Oklahoma has years remaining on a third-tier TV deal with Fox.
The million-dollar question is if ESPN and Fox would have to work together to make a third-tier Big 12 Network happen?
I'm told if ESPN and Fox would agree to work together in the formation of a Big 12 Network, it could be up and running in late 2017 or early 2018.
Industry executives agree that a Big 12 Network has a better chance at increased distribution and a larger per subscriber share than individual deals such as Texas' LHN or OU's deal with Fox.
Sources at several Big 12 schools I spoke with said there appears to be support across the board for a Big 12 Network. More importantly for Texas and Oklahoma, who have the most lucrative third-tier TV deals, there appears to be support across the league for making Texas and Oklahoma "whole" on their current agreements.
In other words, Texas and Oklahoma would be assured of receiving every dollar from their current agreements - and possibly a few extra bucks - as all the Big 12 schools agreed to turn over their third-tier TV rights to the conference for a league network.
Because Texas' deal with LHN is graduated, most of the $300 million contracted over 20 years is in the back end of the deal. Even though the deal averages $15 million per year, sources said Texas received roughly $9 million for the 2014-15 school year.
So with ESPN that heavily invested in LHN, there's a good chance ESPN would want any Big 12 Network to be based out of the LHN headquarters here in Austin (if the Big 12 followed the Big Ten model of a central TV headquarters). How would that go over with Fox or the rest of the league?
ESPN's SEC Network has basically set up a TV studio at every school, which is also possibility for the Big 12.
At this point, it sounds like most of the Big 12 is prepared to do whatever is necessary to make Texas and OU whole and get on with a league network.
OU president David Boren has said he wants a league network AND expansion by two members to make the Big 12 a true, 12-member league.
But if Texas agrees to fold LHN into a Big 12 Network and possibly even agrees to vote for a league title game as a revenue generator, UT president Greg Fenves might be able to say the compromise is not to expand (since there is no consensus in the league about which two schools to add).
Another interesting development to note: Kansas State president Kirk Schulz is the current chair of the Big 12 Board of Directors (made up of Big 12 presidents and chancellors). But Schulz is leaving in mid-May to become the president at Washington State. Schulz's successor - as determined by a longstanding rotation - is ... wait for it ... OU's Boren.
Things to keep an eye on - for sure - the first week in June.