Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Texas head coach Charlie Strong on the verge of a huge 3 week turnaround.

Embattled Texas Football Coach Charlie Strong has had quite an uptick in his stock the last few weeks.

His team closed the season out beating Baylor in Baylor and he has reportedly offered TCU co-coordinator and QB coach Sonny Cumbie the UT offensive coordinator job.

If he lands Cumbie, it is huge.  The talk is that Cumbie was offered $1M per season on a 3 year guaranteed deal, play calling authority, and the ability to pick his staff.  That would reportedly be a $300,000 raise and a dramatic increase in profile.

I think Cumbie would be dumb not to take it.  TCU's star QB and star WR are gone this year.  TCU's play caller is back.  I look at that and I think TCU is not going to be nearly as good on offense next year and Cumbie will not be as hot of a name.  There are no better jobs presenting themselves.  It is not even close.

Take a look at what UT has coming back.   Zane Ellis wrote an excellent primer.

The reality is UT had a really, really, really good freshman class last year.  Probably top 5-10 in the nation.  And I am not talking about recruiting ranking.  I am talking about actual ability to play at the FBS level. 

Charlie Strong is good at finding players and making them work to get better.

Take a look at what is at UT.  


RB D'onta Foreman is a big glider with breakaway speed.   He has the high end potential to emerge as a Heisman-level RB next year in his Junior season.  Freshman Chris Warren would be a 1000 rusher at most FBS schools.   He is a very solid and skilled runner, but I think a strong argument can be made that he needs a lot of work in blitz pickup.  That is probably why he got as few carries as he did until injuries happened. Freshman Kirk Johnson has a burst and a very watchable and tough to defend herky-jerky running style.   He is very elusive.  He will be an awesome changeup.  I am very high on Johnson long-term.  I think he is kind of a late bloomer type. As he gets stronger he could develop into a guy with a future as an NFL feature back.  And things could easily get better...Texas High school star Devwah Whaley was a Georgia commit and is now rightly looking at UT.

Charlie Strong has a commitment to the running game.  UT will have 1000 yard rushers.

If they work hard (not so much of a problem at UT under Charlie Strong) UT's running backs are looking like they may have Alabama -type potential down the road, where every year their starter is a first, second, or third round pick.

UT started 2 freshman for most of the year on the offensive line.  Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe were the team's two best linemen this year.  They probably will hold down the left side of the line next year.  Williams was really, really good this year and Vahe had moments.  Junior to be Tristan Nickelson flashed a bit this year and appears to be next year's right tackle with senior to be Kent Perkins likely sliding in to a more appropriate home at right guard.   4/5ths of this line is set and are very likely to be significantly better than this year's line.  That is a great position to be in when implementing a new offense.  And the fifth spot doesn't look bad either.  Junior to be Jake Raulerson, UT's third highest ranked recruit in 2013 seems likely to earn the starting center job next year.

UT has also been pulling in highly recruited WRs for years now, but I think the schemes have all but invalidated that talent and the position coaching has been weak.  WR coach turned OC Jay Norvell didn't seem to develop any WRs this year and frankly I am not really surprised.  OU's WRs constantly failed to live up to the hype when he was up there.

I think this is where a shift to a more aggressive passing scheme would do wonders.  Under Norvell UT's WRs were blockers for the most part.  That is not why they were valued recruits.

UT's receiver talent earned those grades by having notably better than average speed and quickness and being able to rip away contested balls.  Cumbie has to see that the talent is there to implement what he wants to do.

People look at guys like Armanti Foreman and John Burt and see some talent at WR.  I think there is a lot more than that.  If Cumbie takes the job, I would not be at all surprised to see senior to be Jacore Warrick or Junior to be Jake Oliver start to show the talent that got them to UT in the first place.  Lorenzo Joe should not be overlooked either.  He competes.   Add in developing senior to be TE Caleb Bluiett and you can see UT has good talent.

(Their total catch numbers may be low, but talentwise Foreman 11-16.5-2 , Burt -24-18.2-2 , Joe 4-18.2-1, and Bluiett 7-15.7-1 would be a pretty good starting 4 for most teams.  It isn't difficult to imagine all of their volume numbers going up immensely in an Air Raid offense.)

Finally at QB, you have a pair of vets who have been misused at UT and some nice talents on the bench.  Senior to be Tyrone Swoopes appeared to mature a lot this year.  In the past there was some thought that the coaching staff was pushing him to be a QB who digs a team out of long yardage rather than more of a bus driver who throws occasionally.  His confidence appeared shattered at the end of last year, but the coaching staff loved him as a person and his potential. A big physical runner, Swoopes was useful in short yardage situations and is reported to have found his feet a little. His confidence was always seen as an issue, but his play in games like the Baylor game suggest he has learned not to internalize the pressure.  He looks like a very solid backup/spot player next year.

Junior to be Jerrod Heard is a player I like a lot.  (Full disclosure:  He is a Dentonite like me, but that isn't why I like him.)  If you watch videos of him you can see a good arm.  If you watched him play this year, you could see a guy who was very elusive and who gave the team a lot of confidence most games.  I think he is the real deal.

On the negative side, some of his passes were underthrown or just off.   He bust on the scene vs. Cal and seemed to get progressively worse.  Now some of that can be attributed to opponents getting film on him, but that is usually a sign of bad coaching when your QB consistently declines each week and your staff does little to fix the issue of eroding confidence.

To my thinking the biggest mistake this staff made was leaving the ball in Heard's hands too much.  It is far better to have Foreman or Warren or any of the RBs picking up 4 yards than Heard picking up 4 or even 5.  It would have been different if he was less raw.

The more you use your QB as a rusher, the more hits they take.  The more hits they take, the more their footwork and fundamentals fall off and the less accurate they will be.  Heard should have thrown about 15- 20 passes a game and ran about 6 times a game.  They got the pass total right, but he ran about 13 times a game.   That was too much.  Too much pressure on him.  6 runs or so would have been appropriate for a raw QB pushed to start too early behind a marginal offensive line supported by good rushing talents.

Former Tech coach Mike Leach believes that accuracy is either there or it isn't.   I think with stand and throw QBs that is generally the case. I disagree with running QBs. You can find a variety of NFL QB's who run who's accuracy fluctuated all over the place depending on what their offensive coordinator asked them to do.

Steve Young is a perfect example.  At BYU in a QB friendly system his completion percentage was about 10% higher than anyone else in college at the time.  He should have been a statistical star in the pros.  He went to the USFL and his completion percentage was one of the lowest in the league among starters.  He went to Tampa Bay and his completion percentage was again in the toilet.  He gets traded to the 49ers and suddenly he is again completing a very high percentage.  Why?  Because the offense suited him.

It is popular to question Heard's arm strength and accuracy.  I think his arm is fine, but he was throwing those dumb side screens Norvell loves too much.  Too much squaring to the sidelines. Those amount to a running QB running into a throw.  Too much of that tends to throw off a runner's passing mechanics which presents itself on other plays.

Everyone has an opinion. I think Norvell's preferred offensive concepts were not well suited for Heard.  I think Heard will blossom if he is lucky enough to play in Cumbie's system as it attacks more and the quarterbacks's hips are facing the goal line more.

And this brings up why I think Cumbie is a very strong move by Strong.  Cumbie was also the QB coach at TCU.  He turned Trevone Boykin into one of the best QBs in the country.  I don't see a huge difference in what he started with in Boykin and what Heard is today.

Freshman Kai Locksley looks like a similar talent to Heard, but not as developed. Shane Bucehele is a very highly ranked incoming freshman.  Some think he will take the starting job, but how much of that thought is fueled by a perception among UT fans that Heard does not pass well enough today, therefore he will never pass well enough, so Buchele HAS to inherit the starting job, not that Buchele is the kind of talent who can win the starting job as a true freshman? I have my doubts.

The potential of landing Cumbie brings up the last potential gain Strong might have helped in the last few weeks --- recruiting.


UT just beat Baylor at Baylor and may be signing 1/2 of TCU's offensive brain trust.  Think about what that could do to recruiting...

Baylor and TCU are not generally top recruiting schools, but are currently higher ranked than UT because they have larger classes committed and have a couple more early commit blue chippers.

There are probably guys who like TCU because they like Cumbie.  Could not or two recruits find that they would rather play at UT?  There are probably Baylor recruits who didn't expect to see UT beat Baylor at home.  Could that open the door for a top recruit to move from a Baylor commit to UT?

I'll come back to this in a second.

Now in recruiting terms, you really probably shouldn't expect all that much grade -wise in recruiting this year.  As Zane Ellis mentioned in his excellent piece quoted above, this year will be a smaller recruiting class than last year.

Ellis thinks it will be about 15 players.

Now with this in mind,  recruiting classes are scored by the total cumulative points of a class (a process I consider moderately misleading to very misleading).  So a class with 15 4 star recruits will be ranked significantly lower than a class with 25 4 star recruits.  This and the fact that when you are selling potential, many of your better recruits finally sign off late in the process --- something which totally explains UT's strong finish last year --- explains why UT's incoming class appears frighteningly low ranked at the moment at 46.

Even with a much larger class, it was low at this time last year too.

Let's take a look at the cumulative rankings for this year so far as compiled by 247sport.com.

Rank Team Total 5 4 3  Avg Points
31  Houston 19 1 1 15 84.32 183.67
32  Utah 23 0 0 22 84.05 179.86
33  Oklahoma 13 0 3 9 87.07 178.43
34  Texas Tech 26 0 1 25 83.63 178.41
35  Maryland 17 0 3 12 84.14 176.52
36  West Virginia 23 0 1 19 83.18 176.44
37  Arizona 16 0 2 14 85.27 174.35
38  Oregon St 21 0 2 16 83.22 173.06
39 Washington 13 0 5 6 86.19 172.26
40  California 21 0 0 19 83.58 171.47
41 Iowa 24 0 0 24 83.46 170.96
42  Virginia 27 0 0 23 82.6 170.21
43  UAB 23 0 1 15 82.15 170.11
44  Wake Forest 20 0 0 18 83.73 169.9
45  Virginia Tech 15 0 1 14 85.42 169.32
46  Texas 12 0 3 9 87.24 169.02
47  Oklahoma St 19 0 0 19 84.06 168.78
48  Mississippi St 14 0 0 14 85.87 168.22

It should be a red flag to you that things are off that UT is ranked behind UAB. A recruiting season will NEVER finish that way.

If you sort the classes by the average grade of recruit --- IMO a much more telling stat --- Your recruiting board looks a lot more like what your would expect, with UT with an under-fire coach and coming off a weak season still being in the top 25.

Rank Team Total 5 4 3 Avg
1 Ohio State 18 2 12 4 91.72
2 LSU 17 1 11 5 91.53
3 Georgia 16 1 8 7 91.16
4 Florida State 16 1 10 5 91.14
5 Alabama 18 1 9 8 90.48
6 Clemson 12 1 6 5 90.36
7 USC 15 0 10 5 90.03
8 Auburn 17 2 4 11 89.88
9 Ole Miss 18 1 7 10 89.61
10 Penn State 18 0 10 8 89.53
11 Tennessee 16 0 7 9 88.72
12 Stanford 20 0 9 9 88.64
13 Texas A&M 18 0 6 12 88.64
14 Michigan 21 0 11 10 88.41
15 Michigan State 18 0 7 11 88.34
16 Baylor 19 1 5 13 88.33
17 Notre Dame 18 0 7 11 88.32
18 Miami 17 0 7 9 87.81
19 Oregon 17 0 7 10 87.81
20 Florida 25 0 7 18 87.48
21 Arizona State 17 0 5 11 87.43
22 Texas 12 0 3 9 87.24
23 TCU 16 0 6 10 87.18
24 UCLA 21 0 6 14 87.17
25 Arkansas 15 0 4 11 87.14
26 Oklahoma 13 0 3 9 87.07
27 Nebraska 15 0 3 12 86.71
28 Washington 13 0 5 6 86.19

If guys like Whaley and UT leaning OT Jean Delance chose UT, the recruiting class will probably surge up, ending a little low in the high teens to low 20's just due to it being a small class.

But things could get interesting.  UT appears to have a limited number of slots available.  It will be interesting to see if players like Whaley decommitting from other schools might unexpectedly fill the last of UT's slots.  There may be a real reason for UT recruits who would normally sign at the last moment to sign early this year.


Finally it will be interesting to see what happens to OL coach Joe Wickline. I recall hearing Nate Newton (or was it Dan Neil?) talk about how he felt UT had a bad scheme for offensive linemen under Mack Brown and that Wickline was doing a lot to fix what was wrong with UT's OL. He considered Wickline a quality coach.

I look at Wickline and I see the Hudson Houck of college football offensive line coaches.  Cowboys' fans may remember Houck.  Houck was a longtime highly regarded OL coach.   He came in and replaced Tony Wise--another elite OL coach.  My two cents is that Wise built better, more cohesive units maximizing even the play of less talented linemen, but that Houck was really, really good at getting a top player to play to his prime.  He developed plenty of pro bowlers, but his offensive lines were not as good....IMO.

I think in many ways UT is an excellent location for Wickline for this reason.  He can get the better talents.

As this recruiting article traces, UT has run off a LOT of offensive linemen under Strong and Wickline.   Now that may entirely come out of the fact they inherited many from Brown who didn't fit their philosophy.

UT appears to be just turning the corner with an OL recruited to fit this philosophy. 

Will Wickline be brought back if Cumbie is the OC?  It would seem sensible, but does Wickline's philosophy match Cumbie's? 

For that matter has Wickline done anything to burn bridges with his longtime friend Strong?

It sounds like Cumbie would own that choice.  It is going to be an interesting question for Cumbie.  You need look no further than this year's Dallas Cowboy's team to see what happens to an OL when you downgrade the line coach.  If Cumbie takes the job, is that a gamble he can afford?

PostScript:  So Cumbie turned down the job.  That's all fair. There was risk involved. It is understandable.  Cumbie may be eyeing the much safer OU job where he would inherit a Heisman-level QB or he may be hoping his co-coordinator gets tabbed for a better job and Cumbie inherits the TCU OC job.  There is a solid short term argument for staying.

Strong's attention has turned to Tulsa (a.k.a Baylor North) OC Sterlin Gilbert.  Gilbert is has come up through the Texas High school ranks (good for recruiting) and is an Art Bryles protégé.

While the Mike Leach branch of the Air Raid version of the spread is the more common one in the Big 12, I personally feel the Bryles offense is the better design.  The Bryles offense marries a power running scheme with a passing game that tries to stretch the field vertically on every play.  For a team with a very good running game and a host of fast raw receivers like UT, that is a good plan.

While Cumbie might have been an optimal choice to develop Heard specifically, Gilbert is another QB whisperer, playing a huge role in the development of Eastern Illinois's Jimmy Garapolo into a high NFL draft pick.

Here's a nice write up on what Gilbert brings to the table.

Should he be the choice, a surprising potential outcome might be Swoopes coming in for an injured Heard at some point and having 4-5 career games in a very surprising senior season.

There is some thought that Gilbert may want to bring Tulsa OL coach and long-time co-worker Matt Mattox with him to coach the OL at UT.

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