As Texas Longhorns fans look out their living room window into the grey, cold gloominess of a bowl-less offseason that has now arrived, we can only sit and reflect as to how Texas got here. For almost two decades, the Longhorns have always gone bowling during the holiday season. But for just the second time since the season before Mack Brown was hired nearly 20 years ago in 1997, the Longhorns find themselves at home with a losing 5-7 record.
As we look out that same window, questions float around our heads. What went wrong? How did the Texas Longhorns find themselves out of bowl contention in 2015? And naturally, we can't help but wonder if 2016 will be any better.
As disappointing as 5-7 is, the sting has been numbed a bit with a win over Baylor to end the season. And that's a win head coach Charlie Strong and Texas will absolutely take regardless of who was taking snaps for Baylor. But even with the win, many of Texas' current weaknesses and struggles were put on display again this past Saturday and it reminded us all of how much work Texas still has to put in to get to where everyone wants the Longhorns to be in 2016.
One of the more depressing realities we've all likely come to at some point during this season is that Texas is not ending this season with a losing record because of one issue or problem. Instead, Texas has a handful of issues that still need to be corrected before the team is truly headed in the right direction. These issues, which I'll list below, are not excuses but simply realities and reasons why Texas will be at home for the holidays. And they're areas that have to improve for 2016 to be a better season:
1) Improve Offensive Identity/Scheme
2) Improve passing production from the quarterback position
3) Improve/find consistency in the trenches (both OL & DL)
4) Continue to develop/add talent to the roster
At Texas, Charlie Strong's biggest mistake so far was his decision to keep Shawn Watson as the offensive coordinator and play-caller entering the 2015 season. I don't necessarily want to say that decision put Texas back a year. But after the Week 1 embarrassment against Notre Dame, we all basically knew what we had already known after the 2014 season, which included an embarrassing bowl loss to Arkansas; and that was that what Shawn Watson wanted to do on offense wasn't the right answer or direction for Texas and the players it had on roster.
By now, we can all see what happened: Strong kept Watson in his role. Watson was reluctant to change from the West Coast scheme he's most comfortable with. And because he was reluctant to change his scheme, it meant he was also reluctant to move away from junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes as the starter because Swoopes fit his scheme better than redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard.
And with Strong keeping Watson in place, the same scheme essentially in place, and the same quarterback in place behind an offensive line that was worse at the time, Strong basically let the offense stay the same. And against Notre Dame, we saw the same hapless offense that we saw against Arkansas. It was an offense that didn't show much change or improvements at all, leaving Strong and Texas in a desperate situation where his team had to throw out much of their offseason work to learn a new offense on the fly each week as Jay Norvell (with the help of Jeff Traylor) did his best to mold and hold the offense together like he was holding a glob of wet clay in his hands trying to keep it from splattering onto the floor into a mess.
There were times when it definitely splattered on the floor and made a mess.
Now, Strong is in a make-or-break situation with the Texas offense. This time, he won't be given an entire season to work with. If things start off on the wrong foot again like they did in 2015, Coach Strong could very well be forced out at Texas before he gets to the halfway mark of the season.
As Texas looks ahead towards 2016, finding an identity Texas can actually invest into during a full offseason is most important and obviously one of coach Strong's main goals. While the Longhorns can build off their run game from 2015, the need to improve the passing game is largely why Texas is in the midst of bringing a new offensive coordinator to the staff.
A Texas offense that shows improvement in 2016 will be one that also shows more production passing the football. We can't say that enough. There's no question that this 2015 Texas offense found itself to be very one-dimensional too frequently. All season long, running the football seemed like the only option Texas could rely upon.
And sure, there are still plenty of teams that win games predominantly running the football, but those teams also have good defenses and a good offensive line. And when they do pass, those teams usually have a quarterback capable of making at least a handful of throws consistently. Unfortunately, Texas didn't have any of that to go along with the ground game this season. And the offense didn't take the steps forward it was expected to.
In 2016, Texas will have to be able to pass the ball better. And I'm not saying the Longhorns have to pass more than they run. But executing more passing plays has to happen in 2016. And it's a reason why a JUCO or grad-transfer should also be brought in at quarterback as well. Texas and Strong don't have another chance after this offseason to get it right. And adding a JUCO or grad-transfer option with a capable arm to go along with the current options at the position can only help at this point.
Offensive coordinator and quarterback will be popular topics this offseason. But improving the play along the offensive line and defensive line have to also be a focus.
Luckily for Texas, freshman left tackle Connor Williams, freshman offensive guard Patrick Vahe, and junior swing man Kent Perkins are expected to return as starters on the offensive line. And with those three expected back, Texas will need to fill just two starting spots by the beginning of the 2016 season.
Along with improving the offensive line, the defensive line also has to show more consistency. Before the 2015 season began, the unit along the defensive line was thought to be one of the Longhorns' strengths heading into the season. Though there were plays, series, and games where certain linemen turned it on and showed flashes, the unit as a whole struggled to play well enough to be relied upon or to strike constant fear into the eyes of opposing offenses. And by the time the season was over, the defense as a whole gave up an average of 219.2 rushing yards per game. That's the third lowest in Longhorn football history. And correcting that terrible stat starts up front along the line.
Staffing changes are being made on the offensive side of the ball at the moment. However, don't rule out a change at defensive line coach. That sounds imminent as well. Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford can't afford another poor performance by their defense again in 2016. Especially considering Strong is characterized by and known for his ability to coach up defenses.
When you sit and look back at this season, think about the players that come to mind when you are remembering the ones that consistently stood out in games and made plays. Now, of those players, name the ones that are true freshmen or second-year players. I can think of at least nine players that not only contributed but were also largely the best option at their position and/or started throughout the season.
QB - Jerrod Heard - second year - redshirt freshman
RB - D'Onta Foreman - second year - sophomore
WR - John Burt - first year - true freshman
LT - Connor Williams - first year - true freshman
OG - Patrick Vahe - first year - true freshman
MLB - Malik Jefferson - first year - true freshman
CB - Holton Hill - first year - true freshman
CB - Davante Davis - first year - true freshman
P - Michael Dickson
Along with these nine players, there were numerous other young players and true freshmen that played in multiple games throughout the season. True freshman running back Chris Warren is another example.
Having to play young players is one thing. But having to play young players as they adjust to Division 1 football alongside upperclassmen that are either inconsistent or lack the production upperclassmen usually bring to the field almost certainly equates to a team that will be average at best. Especially when that team is working to figure out its own identity on offense and defense each week as the season goes on.
With 2015 under their belt, the first and second year guys will now be looked upon to make bigger strides, be more consistent and reliable on the field, and take on more leadership roles for a team that is still searching for its personality and confidence.
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As we look back at 2015 and look forward towards 2016, we see a lot that the Longhorns need to correct. But if they can improve their ability to pass, solidify their offensive and defensive lines, and continue to develop their roster, the Longhorns will be able to finally begin taking the positive steps Texas fans have been wanting to see for years now. If not, Texas will be looking for another head football coach in 2016.