Charlie Strong stressing competition in Texas spring ball

AUSTIN, Texas -- When Charlie Strong pulled Tyrone Swoopes aside this winter and gave him a new assignment, he didn't need to explain why.

"You're gonna go run with the skill guys."

Swoopes was accustomed to racing linebackers in the "big skill" group during Texas' 5:30 a.m. offseason conditioning drills. So Strong told his junior quarterback to switch sides. Go challenge the receivers and defensive backs.

"When I placed him in that group, he didn't back away at all," Strong said. "You see a big guy like that winning most of the races, and he's beating our skill guys. He didn't back away at all."

And how did Jerrod Heard, Swoopes' top competition at quarterback, react?

"When Jerrod saw me move him, he automatically moved on his own," Strong said. "I turned around and looked and he says, ‘I'm going with the skill guys.'"

That's life these days at Texas, where competition will be the supreme goal for a young team striving to rebuild and find new leaders. The Longhorns will begin spring practice on Wednesday knowing nobody's starting job is guaranteed after a 6-7 season.

That competition starts at quarterback with Swoopes and Heard. Strong would like to have a good feel for that job by the end of the spring, but he'd rather have a fierce battle that brings out the best in both passers.

"Going into spring practice, we're going to give them equal reps and give them a chance to go compete against each other," he said.

His message for them going into the battle is no different than what he told players during a team meeting Sunday: Don't be afraid to separate yourself.

While Strong preaches pride and chemistry and a need for Texas players to come together this spring, it's important to not misunderstand the goal. He didn't think his Longhorns played together as a team in 2014. He recognized cliques within the locker room, and that has to change. But those cliques can hold a team back in another way.

"What's happened is guys don't want to go make a move," he said. "There's nothing wrong with it. Sometimes, you can't always bring your friends with you. You have your teammates, but you can't always bring them with you.

"There can be a separation, and when you have that separation you know, ‘OK this guy here really wants to improve. He wants to be an outstanding player.'"

Strong points to receiver John Harris, the senior a year ago who emerged from the previous Texas staff's doghouse and worked like never to become a 1,000-yard receiver.

There are countless others -- linebackers Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond, safety Dylan Haines, center Taylor Doyle, defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway -- who exceeded expectations and played their best football a year ago under Strong's watch. So who's next?

As Strong puts it: "Anybody can hang back and stay in the pile, but who's going to be the guy to step away from that pile?"

Texas will address those questions throughout its lineup this spring. Texas needs new receivers and linebackers, a reshuffled offensive line, depth at running back and in the secondary and a reliable punter. There needs to be new voices in the locker room, too, after losing so many vital seniors. So it's not hard to see why Strong is dropping hints about the need for Darwinism to win out.

"You go be the best player you can be," he says. "If [a teammate] doesn't want to come with you, just leave him behind and we'll get someone to come with you."

It's not about hurting feelings. It's about finding players who deserve to play and shine at Texas. Quarterback is the No. 1 issue, but this spring, everyone else in burnt orange has been warned.