When the Texas Longhorns start preparing for spring practice, there will probably be a number of new faces in the offensive meeting room, as numerous coaches have expiring contracts and a new play caller is likely.
Of course, when asked about the upcoming coaching changes after the Texas Tech game, head coach Charlie Strong said the only thing he could say.
"I'll just wait until the end of the season and we'll look at that," Strong said. "I haven't even thought about the staff or anything, I just look at what I have, just player-wise."
Maybe so, but throughout the season, Strong has been critical of his own coaching job and the coaching job of his staff, although he hasn't gone so far as to single out any specific assistants he thinks should be doing a better job. No surprise on that latter part, either.
However, in looking at the staff and the specific situations surrounding each assistant coach, it's clear that other than tight ends coach Jeff Traylor, none of the other four offensive assistants are locks to return or even likely to do so. Since Strong already fired tight ends coach Bruce Chambers and wide receivers coach Les Koenning after last season, that level of turnover this offseason would mean that none of Strong's original hires will still be on the staff several weeks from now.
That's not good, but it seems likely, and so the ability of Strong to make the right hires during this offseason will be crucial for his future in Austin. Probably even determinative of that future.
Play caller/wide receivers coach Jay Norvell
Much like Greg Robinson in 2013, Norvell was hired in the offseason to provide offensive input on the spread, up-tempo attack Shawn Watson was supposedly installing. Instead of merely providing input, Norvell became the insurance policy in case Watson failed. Watson failed, quickly and in spectacular fashion, and Norvell took over play-calling duties after the opening blowout loss against Notre Dame.
While Norvell has made some effective decisions, like installing the 18 Wheeler package for junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, his game plans haven't always been cohesive and his play-calling hasn't always been effective. Tasked with tweaking and molding the offense with no offseason was a tall task and Norvell performed admirably in a difficult situation with a relatively raw redshirt freshman quarterback and two freshmen starting along the offensive line.
As a recruiter, Norvell hasn't been able to make any noticeable strides in California, but he did serve as a primary recruiter for Lewsville offensive guard Denzel Okafor and the secondary recruiter for Temple wide receiver Davion Curtis and Tyler John Tyler wide receiver Damion Miller. Texas needs some more rainmakers in recruiting and Norvell hasn't been that, but he's been adequate.
Verdict: Norvell has another year left on his contract, so whether he returns largely depends on whether he's willing to accept a demotion back to wide receivers coach or potentially a co-offensive coordinator title with whomever Strong hires to call plays next year. Retaining those play-calling duties seems like an extreme longshot at best, as Norvell has been solid, he just hasn't made a compelling case to maintain his current role.
Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline
Is it even right to call Wickline the offensive coordinator any more? Strong never exactly clarified those titles and the school's website hasn't either since Watson's demotion in September. In any case, there has been plenty of speculation that Wickline will move on when his contract expires.
Texas still hasn't made any public progress in settling the lawsuit against Wickline that could result in further depositions before going to trial, if it makes it that far, and though there has been improvement along the offensive line this year, Wickline hasn't been a good or even particularly active recruiter.
Were he actually the offensive coordinator and responsible for calling plays, that might not matter mauch, but with other underachieving recruiters on the staff and a major need once again along the offensive line, the Horns don't currently have the ability to carry Wickline in that regard.
Verdict: Wickline's job coaching the offnesive line hasn't exactly been a disaster in and of itself, but the whole situation with him holding the offensive coordinator title that sparked the lawsuit and questions about who was really calling plays at Texas was silly and bound for failure from the start.
Suffice it to say that things haven't really worked out that well for either side and it's probably in the best interest of both parties to simply move on. The Longhorns need to find an able coach at the position who is a more willing and effective recruiter and, just as importantly, make sure that Wickline doesn't have to pay a significant portion of the salary he received at Texas back to Oklahoma State.
Assistant head coach for the offense/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson
The hire of Watson was almost universally panned nearly two years ago. In his first season, the offense was a complete and total mess after all the dismissals and injuries as Watson's preferred pro-style attack cratered without an experienced quarterback to run the relatively complex system. Strong's new hires were supposed to help with the transition to the spread, but the concepts largely looked the same in South Bend with the exception of going three and out at a much faster speed.
And his rather odd attachment to Swoopes not only delayed the development of redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, but also didn't seem to benefit Swooeps to any significant degree -- he's largely the same quarterback that he was last season despite all that investment.
As a recruiter, Watson has been effective in landing top targets like Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger and keeping Jerrod Heard in the fold in the immediate aftermath of his hiring, it just hasn't really mattered in the overall narrative arc of his time in Austin.
Verdict: Watson set aside his ego to continue working as the quarterbacks coach after his demotion -- something Mike Sanford didn't do in a similar situation at Louisville when Watson took over as the offensive coordinator -- but there's virtually zero chance that he will return, as his hire has been rather disastrous for Strong. Sometimes what seems like a safe hire isn't safe at all.
Fortunately for Texas, both Buechele and Ehlinger seem locked in to the extent that they aren't major decommitment risks if/when Watson's departure becomes official.
Running backs coach Tommie Robinson
The Texas running backs have mostly shown good ball security and an understanding of their assignments in blitz pick ups (albeit with some notable lapses by D'Onta Foreman and Chris Warren), so all of that refelcts reasonably well on Robinson as a coach. The thing is, running backs are the easiest position group to coach, by far, so running backs coaches are often expected to carry a big load on the recruiting trail.
Through nearly two years, Robinson hasn't exactly done that -- his big coup was landing Ryan Newsome last year, but he had a prior relationship with the Newsome family and Strong handled much of that recruitment down the stretch. Otherwise, Robinson hasn't exactly distinguished himself.
Verdict: Strong has to find an elite recruiter at this position, so Robinson is probably gone and his replacement could come from the Texas high school ranks.
Tight ends coach/special teams coach Jeff Traylor
Determining how much of the current offense has come from the former Gilmer head coach and how much has come from Norvell and Watson is impossible from the outside looking in. However, all indications are that he's been a beneficial hire in the meeting room and he could continue to influence the direction of the offense. Were the program in better shape overall, he might even have a shot at becoming a co-offensive coordinator.
But the program isn't in good shape, so Traylor will likely have to bide his time while continuing to do excellent work on the recruiting trial in East Texas. In fact, Traylor is currently challenging linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary and defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn for the title of best recruiter on the staff after his instrumental work in landing a number of 2017 prospects, including Miller, star defensive end Lagaryonn Carson, and tight end Major Tennison.
Verdict: Of the seven offensive hires by Strong so far, adding Traylor seems like the best and arguably by a relatively large margin. All the talk behind the scenes has been positive about his contributions and his ability as a recruiter is showing early. The future looks bright for Traylor in college football.
Such an incredible amount of turnover after this season would put tremendous pressure on the remaining staff to hold things together in recruiting until Strong can find replacements, a process that would ideally conclude with hires by the end of bowl season to make the most of the stretch run to National Signing Day.
Last year, Strong got Norvell in place relatively quickly, but didn't hire Traylor until after National Signing Day. He won't have the same luxury this year, as the process will have to move much more quickly, with much higher stakes.
So not only do these upcoming decisions for Strong have the potential to determine whether he gets a fourth season in 2017, but they will also help determine whether the Longhorns land a good enough class to help secure that fourth season.
Time to get it right.