While there's alarmism aplenty about Charlie Strong's regime, this blog has largely tried to serve as hooplehead Xanax. But there are still areas of the program where I'd like to see improvement.
Or, at the least, find greater clarity about why we do what it is we do.
I worry most about things like the albatross of our conference affiliation, our institutional inability to perform basic PR functions, talent acquisition and big picture development issues like position coaching or strength and conditioning. I don't spend much time fretting about whether Strong will change the offense, a coordinator, start freshmen, or if the best player is playing. Those issues eat up most of the Longhorn media bandwidth despite data points on those things that are already clear if you have access to Google or have spent nine seconds listening to Strong talk. My only conclusion is that 70% of the fanbase and media still thinks Mack Brown is in charge.
I'll give this to Brown - he trained entire generations of fans and media on how to think and frame their arguments about football. Even his critics. YEAH, I KNOW STRONG STARTS SEVEN FRESHMEN BUT WHY NOT START ALL OF THEM AND MAYBE SOME JUNIOR HIGH KIDS!? ROBERT KILLEBREW ALL OVER AGAIN!
However, 2016 recruiting is an area of legitimate concern. And I write this as someone who was confident about a late run back in 2015. Are the dynamics of that class replicable? Each year has different personalities, different bell cows and pied pipers, shifting program perceptions, new random uncles who suddenly decide they have an interest in their nephew's college choice.
The truth is, our recruiting metagame does some things I love, others I just don't get.
So I wanted to write about it. Then I read Eric Nahlin's piece at Inside Texas and I realized there's no need. I'd just be repeating a bunch of stuff he already said but with less direct knowledge.
Read it. I even got Eric to make it free ("Mr. Nahlin, take down this paywall!") because I think it's an important framing of the issue. It's fair, even-handed and it captures the positives and negatives of Strong's approach very capably.
Let's dive in on a few key points:
Boiling it down, Strong's model is heavily premised on:
1. Lengthy evaluation timelines and a slow play for most prospects.
2. The likely emergence or decline of talent in their senior seasons.
3. The premise that most recruits in the Top 100 outside of the clear Top 15 in-state (and Strong's 15 aren't necessarily Rivals' 15) are largely contextual talents who will thrive based on their environment, development and what their X is asked to do against others Os. Ranking #47 vs. #29 and declaring #29 the winner while ignoring that larger context is fanboy.
4. Strong's absolute confidence that he can flip elite prospects with a feverish close before signing day. Commitments are reservations - not guarantees. The real battle happens starting in December.
Here's the rub: I agree with a lot of it. We're just not executing it very well for the 2016 class, even factoring in points 1 and 2. Texas leads for
few no prospects in the Top 25 and a couple of marginal early commitments at key positions suggest a tough row to hoe with our preferred candidates. A successful slow play prevents commitments and muddies waters sufficiently until we're ready to swoop in on our guy. We're failing there.
Here's my cockamamie best guess...
I believe we have, first and foremost, a teaching oriented staff. That doesn't mean they can't recruit, I just know their bias given a choice between film study or texting La'Dont'evius Akbar-El or Ashton Parker Whipplesby. Coaching real players that you have on campus is more rewarding and interesting than trying to relate to a 16 year old whose Twitter page looks like a NWA album liner. I get it.
We also have some willing recruiters who aren't particularly good at it (or have a narrow appeal), some potentially good recruiters who aren't always willing and some complete recruiters like Charlie Strong, Chris Vaughn and Jeff Traylor.
We also have a fairly seasoned staff. Generally speaking, the older the coach, the more he hates recruiting. Older staffs may have a tendency to let a slow play devolve into "completely ignoring" or "cursory contact" or "a focus on two guys to the total detriment of four other good prospects." A 33 year old assistant coach is more likely to drive to Dallas for a Friday night doubleheader so four players of interest can hear that he was in the stands. The 50 year old isn't doing a six hour round trip drive for a kid he's decided Auburn is probably going to buy anyway.
I'd argue that the necessary companion to the slow play in our current environment is constant contact and interaction, not less.
Hearts and minds are being won over by constant attention and pressing for commitments from LSU, Baylor, A&M and Alabama and our late run won't always resonate with a player who has his family decked out in Geaux Tiger sweatshirts, is already calling LSU "we" and regards his future position coach as a mentor.
While it's interesting to contrast Strong's approach with Mack Brown's model, it's not always helpful. My fear with Mack was getting the wrong recruits way too early. My fear with Strong is all of the right recruits he'll miss out on late.
I also think both men had/have staff members who exploit their bosses. Mack loved that his OL class was done sixteen months before signing day. He didn't always stop to wonder if they were the right OL. The staff gave him what he wanted.
Strong loves being the closer and is supremely confident that he can make a late pull. His staff takes their cues accordingly - the big man will take care of this kid if I can just get a visit. They lose sight of their role as the primary recruiter and relationship builder. A courtesy visit to make my Mom happy is a different place to start from I'm-deeply-torn-between-Texas-and-Alabama. Our staff doesn't have enough kids in the latter camp right now. Strong should be viewed as the late decisive nudge, not a miracle worker.
And when does losing, a shoddy conference and general program perception affect the larger calculus?
I don't have any answers, but I do know this - the 2016 Texas Longhorns won't have much of a senior class. With respect to either talent or numbers. Just like 2015. 2014 was our last class of senior headliners and that's not changing until...2018. Think about that. It's Russian demographics post World War II. All of the 22 year olds are gone, komrads. The 2016 Texas Longhorns will be a team of sophomores backed up by freshmen. The seniors in high school we're recruiting now. If those future freshmen aren't good and don't fill key niches at S, in the OL, DL and at LB, it will cost the Longhorns games. A healthy program's recruiting classes are about the long game. This class - like 2015 - demands a short game and a long game.
Games a sub .500 football coach can't afford to give away.