Charlie Strong is as no-nonsense as they come. There’s not a showy bone in his body, and he’d choose brawn over bravado any day.
But as he enters his second preseason camp as Texas’ head football coach, he senses a very different vibe about this team from the one he inherited a year ago. There’s an in-your-face, bite-back mentality that’s infiltrated this team, thanks in part to the new wave of younger players on the roster, and Strong is confident the Longhorns will play with more flair in 2015 than they ever did in his first season.
“Last year [departed cornerback] Quandre Diggs had that walk about him, but he was the only one,” Strong told ESPN.com. “It’s not that you’re showboating, but it’s more about having that presence and confidence and really believing in who he was. But Diggs was the only one. We’re going to have a lot more of those guys this year.”
And not just on defense either.
No position will be more closely monitored this preseason in Austin than quarterback. The offensive meltdown in the 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl (59 total yards) left a stench that has lingered, but it also triggered some serious soul-searching that touched all corners of Texas’ proud program.
“We need to establish an identity on offense, the kind that puts constant pressure on the defense,” Strong said.
Part of that identity will involve playing at a faster pace this season and spreading it out more, but it’s really about getting it right at quarterback. Strong isn’t averse to playing both junior Tyrone Swoopes and redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, at least until one of them takes the job and runs with it. But what’s so encouraging to Strong is the way Heard has gone about his business this offseason and made it known, in his own way, that he fully expects to be the starter.
Frankly, it’s what this team needs more of, and Strong is eager to see how it all plays out in camp.
“He’s got a ton of personality,” Strong said of the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Heard, whose explosive skills are a good match for the version of the spread offense Texas wants to run. “He thinks he’s the starter, and he carries himself that way. He’s got that arrogance about him, which is fine.
“I told our freshman class -- and we’ve got some really good players in that class, and some of them like to talk – but I told them, ‘Don’t lose that. I want you to do that. That’s what we’ve been missing.’ Even when we start playing games, we’re going to have a different walk about us. We’re not just going to walk out there and let people come in our place and talk any kind of way to us.
“No, no, no. We’re not going to lose that. We haven’t had that. When you haven’t won, it’s hard to have that.”
Strong is serious about playing the best players. If that means throwing a bunch of freshmen out there from the Longhorns’ No. 9-ranked 2015 recruiting class, then so be it.
And while Heard thinks he's the guy, he still has to go win the job.
“They’re both different enough and give you something,” Strong said. “Swoopes has the experience and can get you lined up. Now it becomes, ‘Can he make a play?’ Heard will be one of those guys who will break a run for 60 yards, make somebody miss, and boom, it’s a touchdown. But just be ready because he’s going to turn that thing over too. You’ve got to be ready to live with that.
“The players like Heard. Now it’s about winning the team. When you win the team over, that’s when he’s your guy. They saw Swoopes last year. They know what he can do. We’ll find out in camp who can win the team over.”
Something else Strong hopes to find out about this team is that the drive to take Texas back to a championship level far supersedes merely being at Texas. That was the biggest shock to Strong when he arrived last year, that too many players seemed content just to be at Texas, which is just 36-28 over the past five seasons.
“This group of seniors has never had a double-digit-win season [2009 was the last],” Strong said. “It’s almost like they came in, and with a lot of the guys, it’s been like a destination, sort of, ‘OK, I’m here now [big sigh]. I made it.’ But what it’s got to be is, ‘Now you’re here, and it’s up to you to uphold that obligation, that standard that Texas has always had,’ and it hasn’t been that way for the last few years.”
The Longhorns have been an easy target during their swoon, and Strong has bombarded his players with daily reminders.
“People think we’re down, so they kick us and throw dirt on us, and every time they do, I put it up in the locker room,” said Strong, wearing his familiar bring-it-on smile.
“‘I’m going to tell you right now. We’re going to do everything we can to get this program back.”