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Texas Longhorns preview

Charlie Strong is expecting Texas to make strides this season. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Strong says his 6–7 debut season was an embarrassment that’ll never happen again at Texas. But entering Year 2, there’s still plenty of building to do before the Longhorns are Big 12 title contenders again. The next step—to win eight or nine games—hinges on finally finding steady quarterback play.

Offense

How the Longhorns beat you: The vision for 2015 will run through RB Johnathan Gray, the former No. 2 overall recruit who rushed for 100 yards just once in 2014 while recovering from a torn Achilles. The Longhorns are shifting toward an up-tempo spread attack after averaging 68 plays per game (second fewest in the Big 12) in Strong’s first year. Who will lead the charge? The pressure is on incumbent QB Tyrone Swoopes and rising redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard. “It’s going to be fun just going into the summer with those two guys still battling it out,” Strong says.

How you beat the Longhorns: Good defenses stacked the box last season and shredded Texas’ O-line, a patchwork mess that went through six different lineups. “We squeezed every ounce out of [the line],” Strong says. Newcomers Connor Williams, Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickelson will be relied upon to fix those woes (the offense gave up 29 sacks, 82nd in the FBS). Another opportunity for the opposition? The inexperienced QB candidates. Texas scored 10 points or fewer in five of seven losses last season. And without John Harris and Jaxon Shipley, who accounted for 63 percent of Texas’ receiving yardage, running plays will only be tougher. Only one returning wideout (Marcus Johnson) caught more than 10 passes.

Defense

How the Longhorns beat you: Texas ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 in pass defense (184.2 pass ypg, while allowing TDs on 3.1 percent of opponents’ pass attempts) and sacks (40) in Strong’s first year. The team did this by attacking relentlessly with the blitz while maintaining integrity in coverage (5.7 yards per attempt, fifth best in the FBS). That starts up front with DT Hassan Ridgeway, taking over for Malcom Brown as the force up the middle who springs linebackers free. Watch out for LB Malik Jefferson, one of the nation’s top freshmen. Strong will rely on Jefferson’s aggressive play and speed to make the early enrollee the face of this defense’s future.

How you beat the Longhorns: In big games a year ago, Texas’ defense paid for the sins of its inept offense and special teams. The seven offenses it lost to had to drive an average of only 58.1 yards for their TDs. The Longhorns logged 5 takeaways and endured a minus-12 turnover margin in losses. That’s how a top-10 yards-per-play defense managed to finish with a losing record. Strong and DC Vance Bedford must replace six senior leaders from that group without much drop-off. “This is probably going to be one of those years where we’re going to have to go coach, and we’ll just see how good of coaches we really are,” Strong says.