In 2013, Mack Brown did something he’d never done in 15 years as head coach at Texas. He beat both Oklahoma and Kansas State in the same season. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late for Brown, who’s days at Texas had been numbered since the Longhorns went 5-7 in 2010. Newly appointed Athletic Director Steve Patterson sent Brown walking in favor of former Louisville head coach Charlie Strong.
The Strong hire is designed to reinvigorate a Texas program that has been perceived as soft and undisciplined for the past four seasons. The remodel will likely start on defense, where the Longhorns will move to a system that — while similar to what they ran under Manny Diaz — will be simplified for easier installation. It will feature a healthy amount of zone blitzing mixed with single-high safety coverages and disguises to confuse the Big 12’s high powered offenses.
As Ian Boyd details in this fantastic breakdown from InsideTexas.com, Charlie Strong is no stranger to slowing down Big 12 style pass-heavy attacks. Strong was the defensive coordinator of the Florida Gators when they suffocated Sam Bradford and the Sooners in the 2009 BCS Championship game. The Gators ran a version of the 3-3-5 in that game, but while the formations may be different at Texas this season, many of the strategies will remain the same.
If the Longhorns are to have any success on defense this season, it will start up front with their defensive line. Senior end Cedric Reed and junior tackle Malcom Brown will anchor the group as two of Texas’ best overall players. Senior tackle Desmond Jackson and junior end Shiro Davis make up the other side. Davis has the explosive power to thrive in Strong’s defense as the weakside replacement for Jackson Jeffcoat. With Brown already established as an effective defensive tackle, these two could wreak havoc in the pass rush. In his breakdown of the Texas spring game, Boyd notes that the defense is going to be very hard to block in pass protection, even without blitzing. If this group gels correctly with the new scheme and get enough help from the youthful two-deep, they could challenge Baylor for the best defensive front in the conference.
Behind the line, the biggest question for the ‘Horns defense will be the health and depth of the linebacker corps. Senior Jordan Hicks and junior Peter Jinkins will hold down the outside with senior Steve Edmond in the middle. Hicks missed the last two seasons with injury but should be focused and ready to make an impact this season if he can stay healthy. Edmond made an impact in the spring and – along with junior Dalton Santos – should hold down the center of the Texas 4-3.
The defensive backfield is a mix of confidence and questions, with Quandre Diggs and Duke Thomas at corner and a mixture of Mykkele Thompson, Josh Turner and Dylan Haines at safety. In the spring breakdown, Ian Boyd was very bullish on Diggs and how he will be used in the new defense, comparing his utilization to that of Troy Polamalu or Tyrann Mathieu. Diggs’ athletic ability makes this comparison viable and it’s easy to see why Boyd expects big things.
The safety spot is a little less solid, which is worrisome considering the level of importance Strong’s system places on the play of a safety. Thompson had a fine spring and could be the answer if the success carries over to the fall. Haines should move into the deep spot in nickel coverage, with Thompson moving to corner.
The move to a hurry-up offense in 2013 didn’t go over as well as the Texas faithful hoped, with the Longhorns barely cracking the top 50 in offensive S&P and finishing 79th in the country in yards per play. This season, the offense will be all about ball control. Former Oklahoma State offensive line coach Joe Wickline comes in as offensive coordinator and will look to attack defenses with a strong inside zone running game. Coupled with a west coast-style short passing game, Texas will look to maintain possession and play for field position.
The success of the offense will lean heavily on what Wickline is able to do up front with the offensive line. Desmond Harrison’s athleticism should bode well for him in Wickline’s scheme as he and Sedrick Flowers look to hold down the left side of the line. Dominic Espinosa will likely be solid at center. Juniors Taylor Doyle and Kennedy Estelle fill the right side on the spring depth chart but redshirt freshman Rami Hammad could challenge for the guard spot before fall.
The running back position might be the strongest on the offense, and maybe the conference, which fits right into Wickline’s plans. The two L’s Malcolm Brown has the versatility to do big things in this type of offense (think late-nineties Denver Broncos). If Johnathan Gray can return from his torn Achilles, these two should make up a fantastic one-two punch.
On the outside, the Longhorns have the right combination of speed and athleticism in Jaxon Shipley, Marcus Johnson and Kendall Sanders. The west coast schemes employed by new Texas QB coach Shawn Watson while he was offensive coordinator at Louisville relied heavily on short hitch, out and in routes by the Y and H receivers opened up by vertical routes from the X and Z. If Daje Johnson is eligible in the fall, expect him to move around the formations as an inside receiver. His explosiveness could make him a Tavon Austin-like threat to run as well as catch.
The quarterback position could well be the biggest question mark on this team and mean the difference between success and failure in year one of the Strong Era. With the Max Wittek transfer falling through, everything might ride on the condition of David Ash’s fractured foot. Tyrone Swoopes showed flashes in the spring game but was far from inducing confidence in the Texas faithful. If Ash can’t stay healthy, true freshman Jerrod Heard might be seeing snaps before season’s end.
KSUEMAW! is a new addition to the picks this week and is also the only member of the staff to see Texas in the loss column for the ‘Cats. The rest of us are confident that the question-to-answer ratio won’t fall in the Longhorns favor and the Charlie Strong Era won’t begin the way the Mack Brown Era ended.