Still questions at QB.
59 yards against Arkansas (including 2 rushing).
Shut out by K-State.
6 turnovers against TCU.
Did not beat OU.
The facts are clear: as far as football seasons go, this one sucked majorly. It was a failure of a season. And yet I will be spending the remainder of this column talking about how great of a job Charlie Strong has done in his first season on the job. I’m sure the first person to disagree with me would be Charlie Strong himself. The man does not make excuses. Even when they’re justified. The fact is, the program was left a disaster. The fact that we managed 8 wins the previous year is amazing and likely due to a weak Big 12: we did not beat a single team that was ranked at the time. And I wasn’t the only one who recognized our poor performance that year: for the first time in the history of the NFL draft, none of our payers were drafted. If you consider all the crappy schools that did have players drafted, you can see how impressive that is. Bloomsburg had a player drafted. Bloomsburg is a Div 2 team. If you’re a school in any major conference, and particularly one as powerful as the Texas Longhorns, and you get fewer players drafted than Bloomsburg, your program is in terrible shape, any way you slice it.
Yet, Mack Brown inherited the program from John Mackovic. Who’s John Mackovic? Good question. Charlie Strong inherited a program from a much better coach. So how come Mack Brown went 9-3 in his first season, yet Charlie Strong went 6-7? There are really two major reasons. First of all, the Big 12 is very strong this year. Baylor, TCU, and K-State were incredible, and really Kansas and Iowa State are the only teams that would be tough to lose to. It just wasn’t as strong of a conference in 1998. But the biggest reason is that Mack Brown’s biggest failure as a coach was not in the coaching aspect. He was excellent at coaching the game of football, and for a while, he was an excellent recruiter too, but he let that get to his head. He knew that he was a great recruiter, so he got lazy. He figured the recruits would just show up. He never fought for recruits because he figured his guys didn’t need convincing. Except when they did. So when our program started slipping, and particularly when A&M left to join the SEC, Mack Brown’s recruiting hold on the state of Texas suddenly was no more, and the first step to have a good football team is to have good players. So Charlie Strong was left with a group of players, many of whom were quite talented, but it was not a talent level that is in any way acceptable at the University of Texas. John Mackovic was a different animal. Unlike Mack Brown, he was not a very good football coach, but he was a pretty good recruiter. In fact, he joins Darrell K Royal as the only coach in Texas history to ever recruit a future Heisman winner, in Ricky Williams. Who, conveniently, was still around when Mack Brown showed up. If Ricky is on your team your first season, it will probably be successful.
So Charlie Strong was dealt a much tougher hand than Mack Brown in his first season. Then we played UNT. It was a seemingly unimportant game. We won, it was kind of nice, but two things happened that defined the rest of the season. Early in the game, senior center Dom Espinoza’s season ended with an injury. That left us with an offensive line in the BYU game that had a combined 5 career starts, and there wasn’t a hell of a lot of backup either. And anyone who watched our football team since the great debacle of 2010 knew that we had issues on QB, but David Ash looked okay in the UNT game and, though he may not have had a high ceiling, he was at least good enough to carry the team, and the offense was built around him, and he was good enough to go. The next day, Charlie Strong announced that he got a concussion and would not be starting the next game, and shortly thereafter, he announced that he was retiring from football. I will write more about the QB situation in a later post, but what that left us with is a QB who is essentially a Freshman (actually a sophomore, but effectively a Freshman), standing behind an O-line that was clearly not good enough, and because of the O-line, running the ball was not usually an option, and so you’re stuck with a Freshman QB whose forté should be running the ball due to his size, but was forced to throw, and with a very short window of time to do even that, and if you add a defensively-minded head coach to the mix who is playing entirely with players who someone else recruited (poorly), we were lucky to get to six wins.
Although progress on the field has yet to be visible in the form of wins, what has been visible in the form of wins, or even near wins, is the progress on the recruiting trail. Charlie Strong has a chip on his shoulder. He’s tough, but he takes nothing for granted. Just as he expects his players to work for what they have, he works with the same ethic. Unlike Mack Brown, he takes no recruits for granted until their name is signed. Some people were worried that his toughness and discipline would deter recruits, but in fact it seems to have done the exact opposite, and for the first time since A&M joined the SEC, we signed a higher-ranked recruiting class than they did. To be clear, they still beat us in the recruiting battle this year because they secured Texas recruits and got two of the top three recruits in Texas, but Charlie Strong isn’t afraid to go outside of state lines to get what he needs, which is very important: TCU and Baylor are good now, and OU, Oklahoma State, and Kansas take most of their recruits from Texas. Add those to Tech and A&M, and that’s a lot of schools to compete with, so if we can’t get what we need from Texas, importing is better than settling for less. In any case, imagine how our class will look next year after Charlie Strong has had time to establish himself.
The next post will outline my take on the upcoming quarterback battle.