Very little about how Texas head coach Charlie Strong goes about his business resembles that of his predecessor, Mack Brown. One notable exception is an apparent fondness for hokey slogans. His mantra for this season — “put the ‘T’ back in Texas” — alludes to infusing his squad with a range of T words in areas where Brown’s previous catchphrases must have fallen short: toughness, trust, teamwork, etc.
After his first game on the 40 Acres, another T might best describe Strong’s Texas tenure to this point: trying.
We’re not talking about effort. The general level of discipline and energy on display in the Longhorns’ 38-7 shellacking of North Texas had to please Burnt Orange faithful who had witnessed the program grow stale as Brown’s reign drew to a close.
However, the news that starting quarterback David Ash appears to have suffered another concussion and center Dominic Espinosa is lost for the season tempered any good vibes emanating from the season-opening win. This is more like trying as in “taxing” or “tricky.”
Ash’s injury is grabbing the headlines. Given his history of concussions, one of which knocked him out for the majority of the 2013 season, it raises the distinct possibility that the junior signal caller will have to hang it up.
However, the loss of Espinosa arguably looms larger for Texas. No one would mistake him for Mike Webster, but Espinosa had grown into the Longhorns’ most dependable member of an inconsistent line.
The focus now shifts to what Strong and his staff can do to keep the team afloat. (And, equally important, keep Texas’ cabal of well-heeled boosters from throwing shade at Not Jon Gruden.)
First things first, offensive line savant Joe Wickline will need to sort out what’s going on at center. After Espinosa went down against the Mean Green, responsibility for anchoring the big uglies was left to redshirt freshman Jake Raulerson, and the early returns weren’t pretty. Wickline has shown that he’s willing to shift linemen around in search of the right fits, so it’s entirely possible that someone other than Raulerson will take over the position. Either way, who gets the job could rest primarily on finding the player most capable of diagnosing assignments and making checks on the D.
If the offensive line can get it together, that still leaves the matter of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson determining which square peg he wants to jam in the Longhorns’ round hole in the backfield.
Despite the hype that comes with playing the glamour position at a program like Texas, Ash has never really been much more than a serviceable quarterback. Yet, whatever his limitations, he did appear to fit pretty well within the framework of within Watson and Strong’s offense of choice–a pro-style scheme that builds off of downhill running to create play-action opportunities. Against UNT, Ash looked comfortable working off of play-action on bootlegs and rollouts, in particular.
With Ash out of the picture for the time being, Strong and Watson are putting the ball in sophomore Tyrone Swoopes’ hands. Watson has demonstrated a willingness to adapt his schemes to his personnel throughout his career. That’s a definite plus for the ‘Horns now because it’s unclear what Swoopes does particularly well.
Based on a very limited body of work consisting of spot duty last season and some run during Texas’ spring game, Swoopes has a plus arm that is wildly erratic. He can definitely move, but his ability to make the proper decisions in the zone read is suspect. Not exactly a winning combo, and it puts the ‘Horns in limbo from a style point of view.
Maybe most importantly, losing Ash at this juncture puts Strong in a bind between doing what it takes to win now and molding the team he wants for the long term. Strong faces a balancing act between maintaining the development of his O as a whole and dealing with the limitations of his quarterback. If 2014 is meant to serve as the equivalent of a redshirt year for the program, Strong has more leeway to stay the course and build towards the offensive identity that he wants. If not, the ‘Horns will have to muddle through playing to Swoopes’ strengths. There’s even the possibility of handing the keys over to freshman Jerrod Heard, although that doesn’t appear to be an option at the moment.
Ultimately, whatever call Strong makes could go a long way towards avoiding one T at Texas that has defined the coaching ranks at the school for the last few years: turnover.