VIBE AMONGST TEAM AMID QUESTIONS ABOUT CHARLIE STRONG
Charlie Strong’s seat at Texas has been warm since his first season in 2014. But the speculation surrounding his future reached an all-time high after the Longhorns dropped three road games in four weeks.
And the questions have made its way inside the locker room.
It has been impossible for the Texas players to drown out the noise about their head coach. In talking to sources close to the situation, there is a vibe of concern amongst the team, particularly the guys who were recruited by Strong.
“People will feel a lot of angst if (Strong) leaves,” a source told HD. “With the majority of the kids, the relationships he developed with parents (during the recruiting process) was a big part of signing them, and that’s why he’s good at recruiting.
“Those kids and those families will have a lot of angst if he leaves. They feel connected to him and have a relationship with him.”
While nearly impossible to worry about the future, the overall opinion is nobody inside the program wants to see Strong get fired. According to sources, when the Longhorns say they are fighting for their head coach, they mean it.
“The players really like him and are for him," one source said. "You can see it when they’ve had big victories. They really have embraced him.”
AND THE VIBE OF THOSE CLOSE TO THE ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT IS …
One of the biggest issues leading to Charlie Strong’s lack of job security boils down to questionable decision making with assistant coaches.
Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary and recently demoted defensive coordinator Vance Bedford are the only two remaining members of Strong’s original staff.
At the end of the day, the issues with past assistant coaches solely falls on Strong’s shoulders, but his most recent hires appear to have done well through the first half of the season.
People are looking for steady improvement from first-year offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and the rest of the coaches on staff, sources told Horns Digest.
“Sterlin Gilbert has done a good job, but they’ve won one big game,” one source said.
“They’ve lost three and haven’t been blown out of any. They won two against one really inferior opponent and one semi-inferior opponent this past weekend.
“But really, all of the coaches have to prove themselves.”
In talking with sources close to the situation, it seems the overall vibe inside the athletic department is hopeful that Strong can pull this thing together and remain the head coach at Texas.
“If they could get through the rest of the season and lose maybe one more game and win the rest, then that would be a great ending,” a source told HD.
“It would build great momentum, and they would really come together as a program and a team.
“If they lose another three or four, and end up 6-6 or worse, then (people close to the program) would totally understand the need for a change.”
CHIP BROWN ANSWERS FIVE QUESTIONS HE GOT THIS WEEK …
#1 … Can Texas get on a roll and finish this season with 8 wins?
Can the Longhorns? Yes.
Will they? A few things still have to get “fixed” ASAP for me to believe there’s better than a 50-50 chance of Texas winning five of its last six games.
One of the best things Strong and his assistants did last week was to make sure the most productive players were getting playing time.
So you saw more Dorian Leonard and Devin Duvernay at outside receiver (and none of John Burt). You saw more John Bonney and Kris Boyd at corner (and, as frightening as it sounds, none of Holton Hill and Davante Davis).
You saw Jeffrey McCulloch and Erick Fowler at LB and D'Andre Christmas-Giles and Jordan Elliott on the D-line. Sadly, Elliott suffered a knee/MCL injury that will take him off the field. But McCulloch and Christmas performed well and will get more playing time.
The fact Hill and Davis were basically being benched six games into the season, is alarming. Their lack of development this season is maybe the single biggest reason for the defense's collapse in the back end.
If Hill and Davis can’t get on the same page with coaches this week and become productive members of this defense, I’m not sure the back end of Texas’ D will reach the level needed to battle the QBs and offenses the Horns will finish the season against.
Last season, Hill started the last eight games at corner and D Davis started the last five. Each averaged 5 tackles per game in their starts, with Hill finishing as the team’s sixth-leading tackler (49). D Davis was 10th in tackles (36).
Hill became a full-time starter the week after he picked off Mason Rudolph and returned it 41 yards for a huge pick-six late in the third quarter that gave UT a lead against Oklahoma State. Davis came up with an INT early in the game at WVU.
At 6-foot-3 (Hill) and 6-foot-2 (D Davis), they represented the kind of big, physical corners it would take to play press man coverage against the big receivers in the league and disrupt the timing of opposing offenses.
I think we all assumed - rightfully - they’d pick up this season where they left off in 2015 - as the cornerstone corners of what was expected to be a salty secondary.
And then - poof. They’ve all but disappeared.
Those at UT have said Hill’s been banged up off and on - but he’s also been in the doghouse with coaches. I was told Hill was basically suspended for the UTEP game and then hasn’t responded well to having to work to earn his job back. Hill being benched for the Iowa State game - after the players aired grievances last Thursday - was not a good sign.
D Davis got some work on special teams vs ISU, but that’s about it. The corners were Bonney and Boyd, who both had some good moments (and each had at least one clunker moment) on a night the defense, overall, showed improvement.
Winning a game with Bonney and Boyd at corner against Iowa State at home is one thing. Going on the road and making plays and overcoming adversity is another thing.
K-State’s passing game is marginal at best. Starting QB Jesse Ertz, battling an injury to his throwing shoulder, has completed just 49.6 percent of his passes.
So Texas might be able to win Saturday with Bonney and Boyd at corner. But against Baylor, Texas Tech, West Virginia and TCU, it will take all hands on deck in the secondary.
On a positive note defensively, Strong last week simplified the defensive calls and put play-call wristbands on the players and coaches to improve communication.
And most importantly, Strong continues to put players on the field defensively, who are all in and bringing “juice,” such as DE/OLB Breckyn Hager, DE/OLB Malcolm Roach, CB Boyd, DE Charles Omenihu and DT Chris Nelson.
But Strong has stuck with junior Naashon Hughes as the starter at Fox end, because he knows there’s more he can get out of Hughes, who has an NFL body. And we saw some of that against Iowa State. It was probably Hughes’ best game as a Longhorn (2.5 sacks).
Offensively, there’s been inconsistency in getting into rhythm in one half or another. But Sterlin Gilbert has taken an offense averaging 26.4 points per game last year to 38.7 this year with a true freshman QB.
Outside of Jarrett Stidham last year and Robert Griffin III, no freshmen QBs operated this offense at Baylor, because the highest success with this offense has come as the QB gets more and more reps.
Both sides of the ball have to improve - without steps back - from this point forward for Texas to have a chance to get on a roll over the final six games.
#2 … Do you think the player “grievance” meeting last week had a big impact on the team? If so, how?
I think it was important that some emerging leaders were allowed to express the players had to make turning things around about each other, their coaches and fans - not themselves - while encouraging some teammates to re-connect with their love of the game.
#3 … You’ve said Texas lacks playmaking leadership on defense - could you be more specific?
To truly have player leadership, you have to be getting it from players who make plays consistently and can then ask/encourage teammates to give more and hold them accountable.
Ideally, you have play-making leadership at every level of the defense. Just go back to 2014, when Texas had DT Malcom Brown, LB Jordan Hicks and NCB Quandre Diggs - play-making leadership at every level of the D.
I think you’re now seeing play-making leadership develop on the DL in Chris Nelson, who leads the team with 5 tackles for loss (1.5 sacks) and forced a fumble vs Iowa State.
I think you’re seeing play-making leadership develop at the DE/OLB positions in Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach.
The leadership in the secondary is complex. The most experience belongs to S Dylan Haines, who has been in and out of the starting lineup, alternating with senior Kevin Vaccaro. Haines is listed as the starter at strong safety this week, although coaches finalize the starting lineup after the full week of practice.
Some of the breakdown in leadership has occurred at the inside linebacker position for different reasons. Anthony Wheeler is playing well, but he’s not a vocal person. Malik Jefferson is a vocal person, but by his own admission has not played well this season.
It’s very possible Malik is pressing/thinking too much amid such high expectations and probably just needs to clear his mind, put in the work and go out, fly around and re-connect with his love of the game.
A leader at the linebacker or safety position usually ties the front and back of the defense together, and there hasn’t been enough play-making by a vocal starter in those positions for there to be consistent, meaningful leadership.
#4 … Do you think Vance Bedford is bought into helping turn things around in the secondary since being demoted from defensive play caller?
Everything I’ve heard since the week of the OU game, when Vance Bedford was demoted, is that he has been all-in trying to turn things around.
In fact, I’ve been told Bedford has been energized in trying to focus in on the secondary, where he has had tremendous success in his career as a position coach.
I hear Bedford has really tried to reach Holton Hill and Davante Davis this week and that both have been better in practice. We’ll see if that’s reflected on the field Saturday and moving forward.
But, yes, I think Bedford is bought into trying to improve this defense.
#5 … Bill Snyder is known for placing a premium on special teams. Where would you rate Charlie Strong’s valuing of special teams?
When a coach makes special teams a huge priority, it usually shows in terms of plays made in the return game and/or coverage units as well as the execution of kicks and punts.
But because of the changes Strong had to make last year on his offensive coaching staff after Game 1, special teams duties were moved from Jeff Traylor (once he replaced Joe Wickline as run-game coordinator) and divided up among the staff, including graduate assistants.
Strong can’t afford one more special teams snafu this season after the three extra points were blocked vs Oklahoma State - following a blocked extra point returned for two points by Notre Dame helped send that game into overtime.
The tide turned so harshly against Strong after the OSU loss because of those embarrassing blocked extra points. It made Strong’s team look ill-prepared and poorly coached that the O-line on the field goal unit (missing Kent Perkins at RG - the problem spot - that day) couldn’t be adjusted to fix the problem.
Despite having teams that usually count speed as a strength, Strong’s teams have rarely made a difference in the return game:
LOUISVILLE ……………..Kick Returns ……………Punt Returns
2010 (7-6) .………………25.5 ypr (10th) …………12.6 ypr (18th)
2011 (7-6) ……………… 23.6 ypr (27th) …………5.0 ypr (102nd)
2012 (11-2) .……………..17.3 ypr (118th) …………4.3 ypr (107th)
2013 (12-1) ………………22.7 ypr (41st) …………. 7.6 ypr (68th)
TEXAS …………………….Kick Returns …………… Punt Returns
2014 (6-7) ……………….19.6 ypr (98th) ………….. 8.1 ypr (60th)
2015 (5-7) ……………….19.8 ypr (96th) ………… 12.1 ypr (27th)
2016 (3-3) ……………… 19.1 ypr (96th) …………… 9.4 ypr (47th)
In 2014, Texas ranked dead last - 125th in FBS - in kick return defense, giving up an average of 30.7 yards per return
In 2015, Texas ranked 120th in kick return defense, giving up an average of 26.3 yards per return.
18-WHEELER RUNNING STRONG?
Tyrone Swoopes started his senior season by bulldozing through Top 10 ranked Notre Dame in front of a sold-out crowd.
But the “18-wheeler package” has not seen much success in recent weeks.
A possible reason for this could be that Swoopes has been a little banged up since Oklahoma State, according to sources.
HD learned Swoopes was held out of practice the week leading up to the Oklahoma game and hasn’t really been himself since.
There is reason to believe Swoopes’ numbers are related to what one source called a “nagging injury”, but it isn’t anything that is too severe.