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Why Texas OC Sterlin Gilbert is the right man to save Charlie Strong

After numerous offensive mistakes, the Longhorns head coach finally has his guy.

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Sterlin Gilbert

When Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert rises to the podium at a press conference, a sense of ease immediately falls over the room. The San Angelo native’s deep Texas draw conveys a quiet confidence built on football glory and consistent success.

Carrying an inexplicable aura about him, he reminds you of a Western film hero who ultimately saves the day. He certainly, however, doesn’t seem like the guy with one of the most stressful, draining jobs on the college football landscape, and perhaps that’s the most astonishing thing about Gilbert’s short time in Austin so far.

Despite the pressure from fans, media, and message boards to repair a broken offense, the former Tulsa coordinator doesn’t seem bothered in the least by any of his lofty expectations. He knows exactly what he can do.

It’s not like he’s oblivious to the circumstances. When a reporter asked if he understood what he was getting himself into at his opening press conference, Gilbert bluntly replied, “without a doubt.”

He understands the magnitude of his position, but just like those Western heroes whom he seems to embody most, the 38-year-old offensive coordinator will be asked to do something most would believe to be impossible — turn around the Texas offense.

In a heroic effort to save Charlie Strong’s job, he will be asked to take the reins of an offense that finished 75th in Football Outsider’s S&P+ offensive efficiency rankings, including an 114th-place finish in passing offense, and perform Houdini-like magic to turn them into one of the top units in the Big 12. Most importantly, this transition is going to need to see dramatic improvement in one year’s time.

For most, it would seem Gilbert metaphorically bit off a little more than he could chew. However, if anyone is going to rebuild the struggling Longhorn offense it’s Texas’ native son.

jeff traylor sterlin gilbert
Jeff Traylor (left) and Sterlin Gilbert (right) are looking to retool the Texas Longhorns offense.

Everyone in Austin is wondering if Gilbert can turn a dismal offense into a productive unit in his first year. Sure, after watching Texas against Iowa State, TCU, and so many other teams last year, it’s almost inconceivable to think an offense like the one the ‘Horns ran last year can turn it around in one offseason. However, there’s optimism, because just two years ago Texas’ conference partner in Fort Worth did the exact same thing.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the upcoming year for the Longhorns and the 2014 TCU Horned Frogs. Two seasons ago, TCU did not know what to expect heading into their season opener, as the Horned Frogs had just gone through a rough adjustment to their new home in the Big 12, finishing the season at 4-8, and were walking into 2014 with a cloudy quarterback situation.

Before that campaign, Patterson fired his offensive coordinators and went on a coaching search in order to replicate the high-flying offenses that were popular across the Big 12. Eventually he hired two spread offense-oriented coordinators with Texas ties, Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham. Under their direction, the Horned Frogs experienced a meteoric rise in their second Big 12 season.

Behind a prolific offense that jumped from 93rd to 17th in the S&P+ offensive efficiency rankings, TCU won the Peach Bowl against Ole Miss and ended the year with a 12-1 record. Former wide receiver Trevone Boykin turned into a Heisman contender, and the rest is history.

Seeing the eerily similar situations and the ultimate outcome, there’s reason to believe Texas can make a similar jump in offense.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Texas Christian
Texas could undergo an offensive explosion in 2016 much like TCU did in 2014 under coordinator Doug Meacham (black shirt).
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Like TCU did when they hired the Meacham/Cumbie duo, Texas immediately upgraded their offense when they hired Gilbert because they finally committed to a consistent offensive message, the first time that has occurred since Charlie Strong took over.

TCU and Texas both struggled not just because they lacked the athletes (quarterback and line situations were both poor however), but rather because they lacked an identity. If anything, Longhorn fans should take comfort in that that their offense walks into 2016 with a clear game plan of how it wants to establish itself.

Another big reason TCU engineered success that bodes well for Gilbert is the simplicity of the spread systems. Instead of sophisticated passing trees and blocking schemes, Texas will rely on pre-snap reads and motions that give the Longhorns the best matchup. In some instance it will create for the Longhorns and in other instances will make up for deficiencies in other areas, meaning a larger chance for success than the Shawn Watson offense that emphasized beating the man right in front of you.

Gilbert’s offense comes down to making the game so simple, your instincts on the field are automatic. It’s so simple that players aren’t even given a playbook.

Instead, they are encouraged to jump on the field and learn from their coaches in real time. Whether you’re an incoming freshman or a senior who has had to learn multiple formations over four years, a player can quickly grasp the system and jump into the offense. The learning curve is not as steep, and a quick install is made much easier.

With players gaining a comprehensive understanding of the offense, the Longhorns will run it quicker, keeping defenses off balance and allowing more chances to score. Reducing the mental aspect and speeding up the offense is an important part of the plan.

“When you start to minimize the thinking process,” Gilbert said, “it allows you to go faster.”

The process becomes so engrained in a player’s memory that it becomes second nature when they’re on the field. For players, it’s an automatic process that makes success that much easier.

"It's all built on high reps," the former Tulsa coordinator said. "When you get it right, we're gonna do it again. When you get it right again, we're gonna do it again."

After Gilbert and Phil Montgomery took over at Tulsa last season, the Golden Hurricanes’ plays per game rose to 86.3, the highest of any team in college football. At Bowling Green during the 2014 season, Gilbert’s offense ran 81.5 plays per game, finishing 12th overall in the country and increasing their plays per game by eight.

Despite Gilbert spending only one year at each school, players understood the gameplan quickly and immediate progress was the result. The combination of speed and rhythm is where Gilbert wants the offense to end up before it opens against Notre Dame.

“The ultimate goal is where it always feels fast and it feels right,” he said.

Sure, it’s a tall task to install an entirely new system in a limited time, but Gilbert has invaluable experience in that, too — he has had to install his system four times in five years (Eastern Illinois, Bowling Green, Tulsa, Texas), so he knows how to get the offense on the same page in a hurry.

More important than the accolades like FCS Coordinator of the Year or coaching a Tulsa offense to high levels of production is the fact that Gilbert has been here before. While the bright lights of Darrel K. Royal-Texas Memorial stadium may be completely new, he’s the same brilliantly-gifted coordinator who has had success after one-year installations.

From a recruiting standpoint, Gilbert’s arrival in Austin makes even more sense. In a state where a majority of the high schools are running spread oriented offenses, the flagship program finally has a college-level system ready to match. The new Texas coordinator said it best in his press conference with a simple statement.

“I’m a Texas high school football coach.”

Now, the Longhorns have an offense that can plug in Texas’ most talented skill players after they have been indoctrinated in similar systems across the state. In the long run, it will help the Longhorns now that they can sell a fun, high-octane offense that plays right into recruits’ abilities.

An excellent example came earlier this offseason with Texas landed former Baylor signee Devin Duvernay, a player who earlier had spurned the Longhorns for a chance to play in Baylor’s system. Without a new offense, Texas probably wouldn’t have secured Duvernay’s services. Equipped with a system some high school players have learned since junior high, Texas coaches should see offensive recruiting pay immediate dividends.

Some have called Strong’s hire of Gilbert “desperate and contrived,” but is it?

At a time where the offense was growing stale, he turned to a coach who brings innovation, simplicity, and a gameplan that stems from the systems used by high schools across the state of Texas.

It mirrors the attempts of teams like Oklahoma and TCU, but does it really matter? Not one Sooner complained when Bob Stoops replicated the TCU formula after going 8-5. Sure enough, he went to a College Football Playoff.

To the outsiders, Charlie Strong looks like a man at his weak point, waiting for anyone to save him. Strong, however, is smart and methodical and knows what he has hired. It took time for him to find an offensive identity, but with Gilbert leading the offense, he has found the right fit.