Much of the praise directed towards Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong has been a result of his undeniable recruiting prowess after luring back-to-back top 10 classes and swarms of All-Americans to Austin, and rightfully so.
To put Texas back on the pedestal it once enjoyed, top-tier talent is essential, but equally as impressive has been the ability of Strong and his staff to scout underrated prospects and put them in a position to produce at the Power Five level in short order.
The Charlie Strong Specials, if you will.
The 2015 season and the recent offseason provided starting sophomore left tackle Connor Williams, a former three-star prospect narrowly ranked within the top 500 in his class, as well as former three-star safety P.J. Locke III, whom has emerged as the starting nickel back as a sophomore.
JUCO offensive tackle transfer Tristan Nickelson even looked to be among those after thriving in the offseason Battle of the Belts series, but injuries have temporarily derailed any on-field production for Texas.
Now two games deep into the 2016 slate, a pair of Longhorns newcomers and a fresh sophomore presence look the part of the latest Texas players to surpass their rankings and expectations.
True freshman Fox end Malcolm Roach and sophomore Fox end Breckyn Hager have stolen the majority of praise, as seen in Strong’s Monday morning press conference.
"You look at Roach the other night,” Strong said. “I told our defensive coaches, I said, there's two guys I want to see on defense. I want to see these guys play. I want to see Roach play and I want to see Hager play. The reason I want to see those two guys play is they just go. They're going to hit it and it's going to be a headache for someone, them or the other team."
The commendation followed what looked to be a breakout party for the two in Texas’ 41-7 win over UTEP, in which Hager recorded a career-high eight tackles and his first career sack after recording only 18 tackles as a freshman.
"He is going to keep grooming himself to become a good player," senior defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. said of Hager Monday. "He's a passionate guy, high-energy guy. I love Hager. At the end of the day we call him Wild Man, Kamikaze. No matter what, he's going to go out there and hit somebody. You like guys like that, that love the game of football. You love playing with guys like that."
Sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson noted that Hager is the kind of guy that even when he’s not supposed to hit in practice, Hager still goes out and makes contact. If you ask Hager, that’s just who he is as a player.
"I just play the game like old-fashioned, in my personal opinion, the way the game should be played…Just go as hard as you can, hit 'em as hard as you can, be relentless every play."
Roach, on the other hand, entered Austin as a three-star prospect ranked outside of the top 500 in his class and near the bottom portion of the rankings for Strong’s 2016 class, but has been most impressive freshman Longhorn aside from quarterback Shane Buechele.
If you consider Roach’s high school stats, the fact that he’s already emerging as a force shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. As a senior in Baton Rouge, Roach compiled video game stats with 143 tackles, 12 more tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles, 20 hurries and two blocked punts to wrap up a Madison Prep career that saw Roach be named an all-state selection four times.
"The Baton Rouge gentleman," as Boyette called him during this week's media availability. "He's coming out, too. We already knew when Roach first got to campus he was a very under-recruited guy. He was very humble about that. He came in, bought in. When he first got to campus, he wanted me and coach to teach him the playbook.”
“A guy like that, it's not a surprise, his performance. At the end of the day, I take my hat off to Malcolm Roach. He's going to be a phenomenal player. He's humble, has good confidence. He's a high-energy guy."
Such sentiments were evident with Jefferson, as well, who said, "Roach has been with those guys, came in, made an immediate impact. He's made sure that everybody knows his name. It's been important to him since day one, since practice, to go out there and execute.”
The exceedingly valuable newcomer who hasn’t received as much recent attention is Zach Shackelford, the Kansas State flip who has come in and provided a much-needed answer to uncertainty at the center position.
When Shack arrived on campus, Strong had a message for the lowest-rated recruit in his 2016 class.
"Everybody thinks you're not good enough, Shack."
“Coach, I’ll prove it to them,” the Belton product responded.
To this point, Shack has proven he can come in and take over snapping duties after playing the guard in high school less than eight months ago, despite the bumps that come with a learning curve at such a high level. But to Strong, as is the case with several of the underrated guys he recruits, he told Shackelford that he had “nothing to prove.”
But then again, if you ask Strong, calling a recruit underrated or overlooked isn’t the term he prefers to use as part of his notorious evaluation process; guys like Hager, Roach and Shackelford.
"I don't know if they were overlooked, Strong said. "I think a lot of times when you go through the recruiting process, it's not that you take a gamble on a guy. You look at a guy, you say, ‘You know what, this guy is going to develop and will probably develop into a really good player.’”