As the 2015 season inches closer, it’s time to start thinking about the Irish’s opponents. To that point, we begin our summer series taking a closer look at Notre Dame’s upcoming schedule.
When the Irish and Texas announced their plans to open the 2015 season playing each other, things looked quite different. Mack Brown was coaching the Longhorns. DeLoss Dodds was the Texas athletic director. Brian Kelly was set to embark on his first season leading Notre Dame.
Brown and Dodds are gone, with Charlie Strong entering his second season and former Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson now running the Longhorns’ sports empire. And while the 2019-20 games have been lost from the scheduled four-game series (Patterson, no stranger to scheduling battles with Jack Swarbrick, was unwilling to work with Notre Dame after they forged their ACC alliance) the Irish and Longhorns will kick off the next two seasons in fine fashion.
To get us ready for this series, Wescott Eberts from Burnt Orange Nation was kind enough to answer some questions. It’s been a chaotic 18 months for Texas fans after Brown’s reign over the Longhorns came to a frustrating finish.
So as Charlie Strong continues a reboot that’s got plenty of scorched earth, let’s dig into a blue-blooded season opener that’s coming on September 5.
It’s been 18 months since Texas hired Charlie Strong. And to put it lightly, plenty has happened as Strong has reshaped the program. From someone who follows things pretty closely, can you put into perspective the heavy lifting that Strong has done since taking over?
There’s certainly been plenty of heavy lifting with numerous dismissals and departures via transfer, including some highly-rated prospects who were either contributors in the past or expected to become key contributors in the the future. From that standpoint, the future of Texas football looks much different than it did in January of 2014 when Texas announced Strong’s hire.
So there’s been a full-scale culture change underway in Austin that also had to deal with season-ending injuries in 2014 to three key starters in quarterback David Ash, center Dominic Espinosa, and defensive tackle Desmond Jackson.
If I’m looking at this Texas football team, I see a team with a big question mark at quarterback and a young roster (29 freshmen?!) that’s going to be asked to do a lot. How much progress was made during spring practice, and what do you think is the primary focus of summer before a stern test in the season opener?
Strong said that the team was better coming out of spring practice than it was against Arkansas in the Texas Bowl, but given the nature of that devastating and disappointing beatdown, that’s not saying much.
Finding a quarterback is certainly a key storyline heading into the fall, with summer 7-on-7 workouts often a major proving ground for those battles, but this is also an offense getting used to a new system that the offensive brain trust installed this spring with the intention of better highlighting the skill sets of every player offensively.
Strong made some headlines when he spoke at a booster event and said that Everett Golson’s No. 1 preference was to play at Texas in 2015, a move not necessarily realistic considering the opening date on the schedule (at least from Notre Dame’s perspective). But it leads me to this question: Is the offense really just a quarterback away? What would Golson have been walking into? What type of skill talent surrounds the quarterback?
The offensive line play last year prompted Strong to say that even Teddy Bridgewater would have looked bad playing behind them, so the unit needs to demonstrate some significant improvement in order to get a major jump in production from the starting quarterback. Senior running back Johnathan Gray could have a huge breakout season, but there’s no particularly proven talent behind him.
Texas lost the top two leading receivers and three tight ends, so a number of young players will have to emerge for the offense to maximize its potential. There’s some talent, it just hasn’t produced yet.
Who starts against Notre Dame at quarterback? Tyrone Swoops? Jerrod Heard? Is that quarterback the same one who’s starting in November? How do you think Strong will handle the most important position in the program and how much faith does he have that the guy he needs to lead this team is currently on the roster?
Starting a redshirt freshman in South Bend isn’t Strong’s preference, so sophomore Tyrone Swoopes will likely come out with the first team unless Jerrod Heard takes a major step forward by the end of fall camp and clearly outplays Swoopes. It’s impossible to say at this point which one will start by November, but the odds are high that Texas will start both at some point this season -- there will likely be a quarterback controversy in Austin this fall. As for Strong’s confidence in those two, it’s difficult to say. I think he would prefer to have more competition.
It wouldn’t be much of a Q&A if we didn’t talk about the Longhorns defense. How has Strong’s DNA impacted the unit? With six starters gone, among them All-American Malcom Brown, how will the Longhorns do against a Notre Dame offense that has pretty elite personnel?
Strong’s arrival resulted in some notable leaps by multiple Texas defenders and he also brought his 30-Stack defense with him to Austin, which resulted in some changes like defensive tackles playing outside in the three-man line and the addition of the Fox end position, which is a versatile hybrid defensive end/linebacker role.
After losing two players at every level of the defense, including six of the top seven tacklers, the unit will likely experience some growing pains and Notre Dame is a strong candidate to ensure those struggles start early.
Give me your best case/worst case scenario for 2015. A few eyebrows were raised when the early line had Notre Dame a 10.5 point favorite. We’re still 90 days away from the game, so this is kind of a ridiculous question. But what’s your early feeling heading into a pretty exciting season opener?
The worst-case scenario features the Longhorns losing multiple key starters to injuries again -- guys like junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, senior cornerback Duke Thomas, and senior running back Johnathan Gray -- then having young players struggle defensively and the offense fail to take off behind continued shaky quarterback play.
The best-case scenario featues one of the quarterbacks stepping forward to provide consistent play, young players across the roster emerging quickly, and Texas competing for the Big 12 title. In all likelihood, Texas will take a step forward in some key areas like becoming more consistent and more explosive offensively, but experience some struggles with the young defenders and have to battle hard to win six or seven games.