Charlie Strong's future with the Texas Longhorns looks both uncertain and bright. It's been well documented that most experts believe Strong needs, at the very least, seven wins; a mark he's fallen short of in both of his two years in Austin. However, according to Brian Davis of the Austin-American Statesman, "approximately 85 percent of the roster is made up of players Strong has signed the last three years". And those recruiting classes have been pretty damn good.
After Texas was able to successfully flip the Duvernay brothers, JP Urquidez, and Patrick Hudson from Baylor, the Longhorns’ already excellent class of 2016 became even stronger. With the news that Erick Fowler and Marcell Southall will academically qualify to play for Texas, there will be a whopping 28 new freshmen in burnt orange next year, with depth at nearly every position.
Texas’ commitments from the four Baylor defectors only pushed their overall class ranking four spots from eleven to seven, but the signings weren’t about climbing up the recruiting rankings. Rather, Strong added much needed pieces to the roster. The depth at offensive line that Texas now has, and the speed and play making abilities of Devin Duvernay are worth much more to Strong than jumping Auburn or USC on some algorithm that purveys the worth of high school talent.
Make no mistake about it, Charlie Strong is a fantastic recruiter, salvaging the 2014 class and reeling in two tremendous groups in his two complete recruiting seasons at UT. To get deeper than simply the number of four and three star commits Texas has received in the past two years, here's a look at how the talent is molding together to make a full rotation out of Strong's first two full recruiting classes.
Part 1: The elite youth Texas already has
While it's dangerous to assume that every incoming young gun will live up to the pressures fans have placed on him, I truly believe that if the NCAA ruled all juniors and seniors ineligible that Texas would have one of the best teams in the nation. The future of the Texas football team isn't a random mish mash of undeveloped kids, but a diverse team of top recruits mixed with under the radar targets already proving their worth. To show this, I mocked up a lineup of only true sophomores and younger:
QB: Shane Buechele (fr.) - After a dominant spring season, Shane Buechele’s hype surpassed that of any other player donning burnt orange. Though Charlie Strong has not yet named the 4-star recruit the starter, he has said that Buechele has pushed the other quarterbacks and that they "know who he is". Buechele’s success would be crucial to the future of the program, but Strong has other options. Jerrod Heard (rs. so.) may be switching to wide receiver, but he had an occasionally promising season last year at QB. Kai Locksley (so.) was an ESPN top 300 recruit out of high school, but has experienced frustration at Texas, including not getting to play at the spring game.
RB: Chris Warren (so.) - Texas' "smash brothers" got their nickname from the popular Nintendo video game, and this half of the bulldozing duo is like watching Mario gorged with stars and mushrooms. Warren muscled his way to 276 yards and four touchdowns against Texas Tech last season in his first career start. That included an insane 91-yard touchdown run.
He added nearly 20 pounds by March and appeared as menacing as ever in the spring game, breaking off a 55-yard touchdown run and shedding off defenders along the way. Texas also has depth for the future, as talented backs Kirk Johnson (so.) and Kyle Porter (fr.) could both become key contributors once the other Smash Brother, D'onta Foreman (jr.), graduates.
WR: John Burt (so.), Collin Johnson (fr.), Devin Duvernay (fr.) - John Burt was Texas’ leading receiver in his freshman year, and he’ll be joined by two impact freshmen in 2017. Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay are opposites in many ways. Johnson had been committed to the Longhorns since April of 2014 and is a 6’6 target with great catching abilities. Duvernay on the other hand didn’t commit to Texas until June 22nd and is a 5’11 target with blazing speed. Both have brothers who are fellow Texas football players, but Johnson was the story of the spring, while Duvernay is the story of the summer. Texas also has Ryan Newsome (so.), DeAndre McNeal (so.), and Lil’Jordan Humphrey (fr.), who each cover a unique skill set to aid the Texas receiving corps.
Check out this Collin Johnson catch:
TE: Peyton Aucoin (fr.) - This 6’5, 240 pound 3-star tight end has the frame to be developed into a solid blocking option. Aucoin only caught two passes in his senior season, but Texas hasn’t utilized an athletic, play-making tight end since Jermichael Finley. Strong has said that Aucoin's blocking abilities will significantly help the Longhorns run the ball, but Texas will probably need a receiving tight end in the near future.
OT: Connor Williams (so.), Jean Delance (fr.) - Connor Williams was a true freshman All-American and Jean Delance was an Under Armour All-American in high school. Sounds like a pretty good combination for the future to me. Williams will almost certainly be Texas' best offensive lineman this year, as he was the highest rated freshman offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus last season. Delance was a huge flip to Texas after he had committed to Oklahoma, and he should see the field alongside Williams in the coming years. Buck Major (rs fr.), is also nothing to scoff at, listed at 6'6, 330 pounds. And of course, one can't forget about four-star recent Baylor flip J.P. Urquidez (fr.). Ranked in the top twenty for tackles in his class, the nearly 6'6, 300 pounder picked the 'Horns after being one of Baylor's top commits.
OG: Patrick Vahe (so.), Patrick Hudson (fr.) - Like Williams, Patrick Vahe was also a true freshman All-American last year, but his performance was less unanimously heralded as Williams’. It’s hard to believe, but Pro Football Focus even rated Vahe as their lowest graded freshman guard nationally. The coaches don’t agree with that rating, as Vahe will continue to be an anchor at the guard position. Recent Baylor flip Patrick Hudson was ranked the second guard in the nation for his 2016 class. He was a crucial get for Texas, and should bloom into a key player to open up holes for the Smash Brothers. The raw strength of Tope Imade (fr.) and size of four-star signee Denzel Okafor (fr.) (7 foot wingspan) should also aid the Longhorns at guard. Okafor especially could easily grow into being a solid starter.
C: Zach Shackelford (fr.) - I would argue that second to Shane Buechele, Zach Shackelford’s success next season could make or break Texas’ year. The 3-star from Belton, Texas impressed coaches in the spring and earned the starting job at center. If he can hold down the position, Texas’ young o-line could develop to be scary good over the next couple of years. Terrell Cuney (rs so.) doesn't technically count as a Strong recruit, but he will be a backup to Shack, and was ranked as a top 10 center out of high school.
Texas is also pretty set at defense for the next couple of years:
DE: Charles Omenihu (so.) - Charles Omenihu didn't have an action packed freshman season, but he did recover a fumble for a touchdown against Texas Tech. The Houston native also forced a fumble against TCU, flashing the potential that made him an All-American bowl selection in high school. In 2016, Texas signed Andrew Fitzgerald (fr.), the 10th ranked strong-side defensive end, and three-star Malcolm roach (fr.), who said playing for Charlie Strong is "all [he] could really ask for".
DT: Jordan Elliott (fr.), Chris Daniels (fr.) - Losing Hassan Ridgeway to the NFL draft was a blow to the defensive line, but it now offers the chance for young players to emerge. Though it's uncertain just who exactly will step up, Texas has signed guys who will. Jordan Elliott was a four-star recruit once dedicated to Michigan, but reopened his commitment and went to the 'Horns. Chris Daniels was a fellow four-star recruit who picked the 'Horns on signing day. He was the player who famously said "don't let Charlie Strong on your couch". Both were ranked in the top 20 in their class for their position in 2016. It's also important to note that though Chris Nelson (rs. so.) doesn't count for this list since he's been on campus for three years, he still has three years of eligibility left. He hasn't played a major role for Texas thus far, but that could change this year.
Fox: Breckyn Hager (so.) - Hager's father, Britt, is the all-time leader in tackles for Texas, and Burnt Orange Nation gifted Breckyn the title of being 'the one flying around everywhere with bad intentions" . Like father, like son. Hager is a natural linebacker, but he could play a role as a guy who can pressure the QB. He's already begun to prove that he's the real deal by registering 18 tackles and an interception in his freshman season in 2015 despite missing three games to injury. Army All-American Erick Fowler (fr.) should also get serious playing time in 2016 at the fox position, as the 74th overall player in the class of 2016 was one of Strong's most prized recruits.
LB: Malik Jefferson (so.), Anthony Wheeler (so.) - Malik Jefferson was rated as the best linebacker out of high school for 2015, but Anthony Wheeler was the third best inside linebacker in the class and the second best recruit signed to the 'Horns that year. Furthermore, fourth ranked outside linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch (fr.) picked Texas on 2016's National Signing Day. Of course, rankings don't mean everything. But it's evident on the field that Texas is stacked for the future at linebacker -- Jefferson didn't earn Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the year for his recruiting ranking. The only problem is that he will almost certainly go pro after his junior year.
CB: Davante Davis (so.), Holton Hill (so.) - Texas actually has a trio of fantastic true sophomore corners, as Kris Boyd (so.) was also a four-star recruit who picked the 'Horns in 2015. Texas struggled defending the pass last year, as the Longhorns were 73rd in the country in passing yards per game. However, don't expect a sophomore slump from these corners -- they experienced their growing pains last year, and should be primed for a big season. Additionally, Texas added four-star Eric Cuffee (fr.) to its 2016 class. Charlie may not have been able to flip Parrish Cobb from Baylor, but he has signed four corners in the top 30 of their position in his two classes at Texas.
S: DeShon Elliott (so.), Brandon Jones (fr.) - DeShon Elliott was reported to be making "tremendous strides" by senior safety leader Dylan Haines in March. Another four-star out of high school, Elliott was ranked the 10th best safety in his class. He already recorded a forced fumble and two interceptions in his first year in burnt orange, and he only has room to grow. Meanwhile, Brandon Jones (fr.) was one of the biggest commitments in the 2016 class for Texas. Jones was the number one safety out of high school, and has the makings to be a star at the college level. Jones has the tools to succeed on both the physical and mental side of the game. Burnt Orange scouted him to have "elite agility" to add to this "poise, and the mental and emotional make up" that will service the Longhorns well. John Bonney (rs. so) is a third year player and thus isn't considered for the list, but he also has the potential to deliver big hits and ball hawk in his three remaining years of eligibility.
NB: P.J. Locke (so.) - P.J. Locke has only had one start in his career so far, but if it's any indication of his future than Texas should be just fine at nickle back. In Locke's start against Baylor, the freshman had seven tackles and forced a fumble with a bruising hit on Bears quarterback Chris Johnson that knocked him out of the game.
Though Strong doesn't have a solidified kicker yet, Michael Dickson (so.) is a quality option at punter. The Aussie was an honorable mention All-Big 12 winner, and averaged 41.3 yards per kick.
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Part 2: The elite talent Texas is getting in 2017
Clearly, Texas has many potential anchors to develop over the next few years. In fact, if Texas simply sat out of 2017 recruiting, the Longhorns probably wouldn’t have massive holes in their depth chart. If 2016’s signees can perform admirably this year, the 2017 class may not have the pressure on their shoulders of being the young stars to save their head coach’s job. Instead, 2017 will be about finding the right fits to enhance an already talented roster. Here’s the 12 scholarship seniors leaving next year, and the seven commits Texas is replacing them with so far.
QB: Tyrone Swoopes → Sam Ellinger - Swoopes was ranked the 13th best QB out of high school, while Ellinger is 6th. It’s not a massive difference, but Ellinger hopes to have a more fruitful career than Swoopes has up until this point. Swoopes will still be used in 2016, and may even be the starter to begin the season, but he has been most helpful to Texas thus far in "18-wheeler" situations -- not as a full-time QB. Texas could should be set at the QB position with Ellinger as heir to Shane Buechele and Jerrod Heard.
WR: Ty Templin, Jacorey Warrick → Damion Miller - Ty Templin was a former walk-on who was granted a scholarship for his hard work last year. Warrick is also not a crucial contributor, as he only caught six passes for 35 yards last season. Damion Miller is a four-star recruit and one of Texas' top 2017 commits. At 6’2, 170 pounds, the Warrick, Texas native has size comparable to John Burt.
TE: Caleb Bluiett → Major Tennison - Bluiett will likely be the starter this year for Texas, but he originally committed as a linebacker. Major Tennison is a 4-star recruit by Rivals, and is Texas’ most highly touted tight end commit since 2009’s signing of Barrett Matthews. Hopefully Tennison’s Texas career is more illustrious than Matthews’ was.
OL: Kent Perkins → Xavier Newman - Kent Perkins is a former Army All-American recruit, but while he’s been steady at Texas, he hasn’t flourished. Perkins has started 24 games in his career and will be a vital part of the offensive line this year, but he won’t be irreplaceable. Xavier Newman isn’t a big time recruit, but the athletic 3-star guard could perform well in Sterlin Gilbert’s up tempo offense.
DE: Bryce Cottrell, Quincy Vasser → Lagarryon Carson - Strong has bragged that he has eight freshman in 2016 that could theoretically play defensive end. For next year, the DE position should improve even more. Lagarryon Carson is rated at the 64th best overall recruit in the country for 2017, and is one of the crown jewels of next year’s class for Texas. As for who Texas is losing, Quincy Vasser isn’t a huge contributor for the Longhorns, but Bryce Cottrell has a more noticeable presence on the team. Cottrell started the last eight games of 2015 and performed well, finishing with four sacks to his name on the season.
DT: Paul Boyette → (no one) Lagarryon Carson could add weight to become a defensive tackle, if that’s what Texas’ needs ultimately end up being. This could depend on the development of current incoming freshmen like Chris Daniels and Jordan Elliott.
LB: Tim Cole → (no one) Though he may not be the most talented linebacker on the roster, Texas will miss Tim Cole’s leadership.
CB: Sheroid Evans → Kobe Boyce - Now entering 2016 as a rare 6th year senior, Sheroid Evans was rated as Rivals’ best cornerback in the nation for the 2011 class. However, two separate season ending knee injuries have derailed his career thus far. Hopefully, Evans can finish on a high note at Texas. Kobe Boyce is only a 3-star recruit, but his stock could be on the rise after being unknown for much of his junior season. He recently made the cut for the prestigious "the Opening" camp, but will not participate due to undergoing finger surgery.
S: Dylan Haines, Kevin Vaccaro → Montrell Estell - Dylan Haines is a walk-on turned starter, and he’s the kind of guy who possesses the intangibles that coaches love. Vaccaro has never had a major role at Texas, but he’s been a consistent contributor. Montrell Estell is Charlie Strong’s most recent commit, and has great instincts at safety, as well as speed and height (6’2).
Since Texas has used all 85 scholarships for this year, has 12 seniors leaving, and seven 2017 recruits already committed, the Longhorns technically only have five spots remaining for next year’s recruiting class. Obviously, there will be attrition. After this season, Texas had six transfers, and that number should be similar if not more after next year, especially with so many quarterbacks and wide receivers set to be on the roster. Still, the Longhorns will need to prioritize their needs, because they will certainly not replicate their 28 man freshmen class of 2016. Here’s the positions that Texas aiming to fill with the scholarships they have left:
Possible adds: Dylan Moses, Baron Browning
Texas was formerly known as DBU, but it appears that Charlie Strong wants to evolve into LBU as well. With Malik Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler, and Jeffrey McCulloch on board, linebacker is not a gaping hole in the depth chart. However, Charlie Strong has shown he wants to add more to the Longhorn riches by prioritizing a top linebacker in the 2017 class. Expect Texas to sign someone to replace the graduating Tim Cole.
Currently, Dylan Moses is the dream get for Strong. Moses, a consensus 5-star player whose athleticism rivals Malik Jefferson’s, would be a key contributor even in his freshman season. Not only would he be able to eventually replace Jefferson, but he would give Texas the depth needed to occasionally move Jefferson to become a pass rusher, his natural role. Moses recently announced he would be taking an official visit to Texas, but it will be hard for the ‘Horns to fend off Alabama and LSU.
Baron Browning is perhaps just as talented, and also could be a Longhorn lean. The Kennedale high school product is ranked second only to Moses in the outside linebacker category for 2017. Many of the schools he is looking at are close to home, so Texas could be in good standing if the 'Horns have a strong season.
Let's not forget that from a strictly football perspective, Baylor's firing of Art Briles simply helps Texas in recruiting. Charlie Strong now has a huge advantage in getting guys like Browning, who may have previously been strongly considering the Bears.
2. Defensive end
Possible adds: Taquon Graham, K’Lavon Chaisson
The Longhorns already have the commitment of Lagarryon Carson, but Texas will be losing three senior defensive linemen. The Texas coaches on the recruiting trail appear motivated to land at least one more defensive end for 2017.
Right now, it appears that Charlie Strong is targeting weak-side defensive ends to complement the strong side Carson. Though K'Lavon Chaisson, the fifth ranked WDE, appears to be headed to Norman to play for OU, four-star Taquon Graham is heavily favorited to pick the Longhorns. The 6'3, 250 pound Temple native is ranked as the 13th weak-side defensive end, and would solidify a great couple of recruiting years for defensive linemen.
Possible adds: Jeffrey Okudah, Derrick Tucker
Texas has already added rising athlete Montrell Estell to the class of 2017, and also has signed 3-star athlete Donovan Duvernay from Baylor. Both will likely transition to safety. Estell’s 6’2 size and defensive instincts make him a key addition for Strong, and Donovan Duvernay has flown under the radar but has much potential to develop as well. However, Texas may desire to sign an elite defensive back who has more polished coverage skills in order to replace Dylan Haines, who is the kind of guy who always finds himself in the right place at the right time.
Five-star Jeffrey Okudah is currently a pipe-dream, as the nation’s best safety for 2017 seems like a heavy Ohio State favorite. Texas also recently missed out on four-star Derrick Tucker to Texas A&M. There were rumors that Strong may have backed off because Tucker is a grade risk, but regardless, if the Aggies fail to perform on the field and Tucker does perform in the classroom, he could flip to the Longhorns.
4. Offensive line
Possible adds: Walker Little
Texas went from being scarce on o-line men to being spoiled after J.P. Urquidez and Patrick Hudson flipped to Texas. However, Charlie Strong is still looking to add more. The Longhorns will be losing a reliable asset in Kent Perkins, so look for one or two offensive linemen to emerge on the "errbody" radar.
Walker Little is a 6’8, 308 pound beast of a tackle from Bellaire, Texas. Right now he is \ predicted to commit the Longhorns, as Texas leads with 77% of the predictions from 247’s Crystal Ball. Walker is ranked overall as the 57th best player in the country for the class of 2017.
Possible adds: ?
Charlie Strong has seemed to just keep procrastinating his obvious need for a kicker. It’s very possible that a walk-on already on the roster will perform the duties this year, but no kicker looked especially promising in the spring game. Chris Naggar, a senior honorable mention all-state kicker from Arlington, has dedicated his summer to cracking the Longhorns' roster.
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To conclude, the Baylor flips not only will significantly improve Texas for 2016, but will also take off a little bit of recruiting pressure for 2017. Charlie Strong can focus on a select number of elite prospects rather than attempting to amass another huge class. After a 5-7 season, Texas may still be in rebuilding mode this year. However, if the team can coalesce and take eight or nine games, then this burnt orange dawn should transition to blue, sunny skies for the program. Strong's job will be more than safe if his recruiting momentum translates to on the field momentum. And it should. When you consistently sign good players, good things tend to happen.