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The Dog Days Are Over Now

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The 2014 NFL Draft was a microcosm of the Longhorns’ struggles since the start of the decade. But Louisville’s success in the draft indicates that Texas has a bright future.

Texas head coach Charlie Strong at the Orange-White scrimmage
Texas head coach Charlie Strong at the Orange-White scrimmage
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

"Don’t say, ‘Ooh, coach said next year we’ll be in the national…’ We will not be in the national championship game." -- Charlie Strong

The Longhorns’ 2010 recruiting class arrived at the 40 Acres amidst great fanfare. Hailed as the #2-ranked class in the country, the talented bunch of blue-chip prospects was expected to win conference championships, lead the Longhorns to success at the national level, and continue Texas’s winning tradition. Headlining the class was 5-star defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, a future Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Ted Hendricks award winner. Jeffcoat chose Texas over several other illustrious FBS programs, including Oklahoma, Alabama, and Arizona State.

Farther – much farther – down the rankings was Louisville. Charlie Strong, six months removed from his job as Florida’s defensive coordinator, had just welcomed the 45th-ranked recruiting class in the nation (9th-best in the 14-team ACC) to campus. Among the incoming players was defensive end Marcus Smith, an unheralded 3-star recruit from Columbus, Georgia. Smith was a complete project - he was a high school quarterback who had never played defense in his life. Strong had seen him at a Florida recruiting camp, and at Louisville he extended him a last-second offer as Signing Day approached, hoping to find in Smith a diamond in the rough. It was the only offer Smith would receive.

The rest, as they say, is history. Strong had indeed found his diamond – Marcus Smith started his first college game as a true freshman against Kentucky, and ran up a total of 24 sacks in 3 seasons at Louisville – including 14.5 sacks his final season, a performance that earned him ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Strong had utilized and developed Smith's talents perfectly - his speed as a dual-threat quarterback in high school translated perfectly into a lighting-fast pass rush and first step.

Strong’s director of player personnel, Mike Giglio, had this to say about Smith’s early days at Louisville:

"We gave him a shot at quarterback, but after two weeks in fall camp that first year, you could see he'd really probably only end up a back-up. So we asked him if he wanted to move over to defense. You always worry about changing offensive guys to defense because you worry about their physicality. But with Marcus, it just never mattered. It was like that part was automatic."

Charlie Strong and his staff at Louisville took a gamble on a 3-star recruit no one wanted. They made a strategic position change, in an attempt to maximize every single bit of talent he had. And four years later, their efforts bore fruit. While Jeffcoat was (shockingly) passed over by every single NFL team, Marcus Smith was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft – joining fellow Cardinals Calvin Pryor and Teddy Bridgewater as 1st-round selections. It was a triumph for the little guy, and an excellent testament to the importance of coaching and player development.

As Texas fans, Strong’s legacy of success represents a beacon of hope we can look forward to entering the 2015 season and beyond. When Texas A&M or Oklahoma tries to lure away incoming recruits with some version of "do you really want to go to a school that sent no one to the NFL draft last year?" those recruits can look to Strong’s track record of excellent player development and on-the-field success for an answer. Did Mack Brown have the ability to turn under-rated prospects into successful college players? Sure he did – look no further than former 3-star recruits Colt McCoy and Brian Robison. But ever since that ability failed Mack Brown in 2010, his days at Texas were numbered. Teddy Bridgewater, Calvin Pryor, and Marcus Smith now represent the new standard of success Texas can look forward to.

Will the success be immediate? Not necessarily, as intimated by Strong during that fateful "national championship game" interview. Player development takes time, and Charlie and his coaching staff will have to adapt their methods to new players, new competitors, and a new conference. But while Mack Brown’s legacy ended on a sour note in New York, Charlie Strong's legacy at Louisville was confirmed that night. With the support of the administration, Strong’s efforts towards overhauling player development and culture at Texas will push us a long way towards renewed success at the national level in the future.