UT Football: How Soon Is Now?

Recapping the season ahead of Saturday’s matchup against Kansas State

Well, Charlie’s not getting fired yet. That’s the most accurate summation of a season where, if you’re a reasonable football fan, you’d have known this would be a season of Longhorn struggle – at least initially. All of the signs pointing to a questionable start were present.

It's a celebration, Texas! (Courtesy of UT Athletics)

You had a trip to South Bend to face a talented Notre Dame team, featuring a healthy Malik Zaire at quarterback. There were six freshman starters for the Longhorns, and a shaky quarterback situation at season’s start. The coaching staff was apparently kidnapped before the first snap, and replaced by a dusty Gary Busey, who probably tried sticking his Amazon Fire stick into his headset for four quarters. (More on this later.)

Young and offensively directionless talent, some earning their first minutes, in a hostile environment, usually means unmitigated disaster. A burnt orange Hindenburg it was. Some frankly spoiled Texas fans and alumni were screaming – occasionally through a coded dog whistle – that Strong wasn’t built for such a vaunted program. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Rhome, Texas wasn’t built in a day.

After a “get-right” game vs. undermanned Rice, they lose a nail-biter to California, a then-unranked, but talented squad led by future first-round NFL pick, quarterback Jared Goff. Of course, the game’s story was the true emergence of redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, who threw and ran circles around the porous Golden Bear defense.

In contrapasso, more, mostly self-created defensive and special teams issues plagued them against Oklahoma State, another ranked team. The bottom officially descended into one of Dante’s unknown circles in a demoralizing 50-7 loss to fourth-ranked TCU. In need of EpiPens and seemingly running away from receivers Josh Doctson and KaVontae Turpin, the tackle-allergic Texas DBs broke out in hives when even attempting to touch anything purple.

Surely, this puts the defensive-minded Charlie Strong in the hot seat. Surely, the rumored locker room segregation would destroy the team. You had a freshman (re)tweeting at halftime, passive-aggressively voicing displeasure.

Then comes Ok-la-HOMA, as Keith Jackson would say. But let’s get to some other important events, namely the coaching change associated with Jerrod Heard’s ascent, and the specter of Steve Patterson.

Strong put Jay Norvell in a first-line play caller, after the Fiasco at the Golden Dome, and immediately simplified an offense lacking in identity. While there are still issues – namely Heard being used as their primary runner – the move has paid dividends.

(I personally believe Strong would love to run something closer to the pro-style offense he had in Louisville, but Teddy Bridgewater’s not walking through that door. Additionally, Texas high schools are now running the spread, a matchup-exploitive system requiring less reads – less thinking – and more speed to defeat varying edge containments.)

Apparently the devil himself, according to (and to the satisfaction of) some UT Athletics staff and boosters, Patterson was unceremoniously fired in September. One could wonder if, on some level, this was always the play.

Think about it: The cold former pro-sports executive arrives, makes sweeping, irreversible changes – including the hiring of the first black coaches for both football and basketball. Patterson – who was surely not alone in the decision-making – also raised tickets prices, installed a harsh resell policy, and brought alcohol sales to a program that had been managing to lose money ($2.8 million for fiscal year 2014).

Then, suddenly, with the bat of an eyelash, he’s gone? Righty-o. And I have prime real estate to show you in Siberia.

Oklahoma likely presented the perfect opportunity for Texas to show its true colors: the color of irredeemable “we suck,” or the color of hope and redemption. In their massive 24-17 victory, the year’s biggest upset, the finally physical Longhorns rumbled for 313 yards, including 193 between tailbacks D’Onta Foreman and Johnathan Gray. Heard ran 115, while limiting the troublesome intermediate throws.

(One notable implementation – the Tyrone Swoopes play package, which puts the previously benched QB in line with his rightful future, should he make the right decisions, as a potential Pro Bowler at hybrid receiver or H-back.)

Coming to the fore with freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson, the vaunted underclassmen grabbed the leadership roles they’ve had no choice but to accept. Putting hats on Sooner runners, they held Perine and crew to 1.8 yards per carry.

A triumphant scene of Strong being tossed up in the air by his players will stand as one of 2015’s best and most touching moments. The Longhorn faithful are pleased, if only for a week.

However, the win has actually created more questions than answers. Where do they go from here? Is this the big turnaround that leads to a bowl berth? Will they find the game-to-game consistency necessary to this realization?

How they respond out of a bye week against Kansas State, a team coming off a 55-0 steamrolling by a bloodthirsty Oklahoma, will likely foretell the rest of the story. The questions continue – do the Longhorns play down to Kansas State, or do they take the wobbly confidence and continue setting straight a smoother path?

Prediction: Texas eats up possession with their explosive run game, while causing at least two turnovers by limiting the Wildcats’ ground attack. Texas wins 35-20.

Quick notes:

• Texas recently re-upped its licensing agreement with the Death Star, err, Nike. It will surpass the (currently heartbroken) Michigan Wolverines’ 15-year Nike deal with $169 million. The deal is set at 15 years for close to $200 million – equal to the remainder of Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Johnson’s deal. Not quite, but I’m sure it feels pretty close for Brooklyn.

• After previously turning down $80 million and missing all of training camp, former Longhorn center Tristan Thompson re-signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a five-year, $82 million pact. Only in professional sports can coming up with an extra $2 million seem like a net loss.

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