You don’t change the paradigm of a program on National Signing Day alone.
Winning games between the lines, claiming titles, changing a team’s culture — that’s the stuff which remakes the program, or in Texas’s case, restores it.
However, bringing in big-time talent is almost always the first step toward achieving the above goals. Texas and Charlie Strong took that leap on Wednesday, landing a haul that embodies Strong’s coaching and re-positions UT as Texas in its massive home state.
In 48 hours, the Longhorns went from the 30s in every recruiting ranking to a composite No. 11 finish. They pulled in two top-50 prospects (Jeffrey McCulloch and Brandon Jones) by noon and flipped four-star linebacker Erick Fowler from his LSU commitment. A trio of four-star defensive tackles in Jordan Elliott, Marcel Southall and Chris Daniels also chose to head to Austin.
That haul helped Texas shoot up over 20 spots in the recruiting polls on NSD, validating Strong’s back-loaded recruiting efforts. Among the teams the Horns leapfrogged: Baylor, TCU, Texas A&M and Houston. This was a statement within the state. The Longhorns aren’t back to being the behemoth in Texas, but they’re not taking a back seat with this class. Their main rival, Oklahoma, nabbed a grand total of three Texas natives in its 20th-ranked class.
This hits on another point about UT’s class. It ranks first in the Big 12, where Charlie Strong has a .500 record in his first two seasons. The Longhorns managed to make a big power play on a local and regional scale here.
There’s reasonable hope that Texas could be among the Big 12’s most talented teams by 2017, and that’s a real accomplishment considering what Strong inherited and how many players he ran off prior to his 2014 debut season. It also, warranted or not, probably buys Strong another season even if 2016 doesn’t become an eight-win campaign. He’ll likely get the chance to reap the rewards of this haul and stabilize a relatively dormant powerhouse in the process.
That’s good news for him, because the talent that made its way to UT on Wednesday plays to Strong’s coaching strengths. His best seasons at Louisville came with Teddy Bridgewater under center, sure, but they also featured defenses that were brutal to handle in the trenches. UL finished 23-3 in his final two seasons there, and had the No. 1 total defense in 2013 and the No. 25 unit in 2012. Those units were led by defensive lineman Marcus Smith and linebacker Preston Brown.
So it’s encouraging that seven of the eight four-star commits during the last 48 hours broke down like this: four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and a safety. That’s an immediate band-aid for a rushing defense that finished 113th in the country last season, allowing 219.2 yards per game on the ground. You have to think Strong was embarrassed, and that he specifically targeted the interior talent needed to remedy that.
Of course, the marquee area UT has lagged in is quarterback play. The Longhorns kept four-star commit Shane Buechele in the fold after securing his pledge a year ago, no small feat after the miserable season Texas endured in 2015.
Strong can have all the defense he wants, but he’s won big thanks to Bridgewater and Tim Tebow at QB in his last two jobs (one of them as a defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, not a head coach). He might not need that elite of a quarterback to succeed in Austin, but he’s not surviving with Tyrone Swoopes. Jerrod Heard showed promise, but no one will mistake him as the sure-fire answer under center.
Texas may have to win with defense for the short term, and Strong won’t complain about it. Texas will be equipped to do just that after a National Signing Day that positioned UT as a legitimately talented team for 2016 and beyond.