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"Brutal" May film study with Charlie Strong showcased lack of effort by Horns

Film don't lie.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Unpleasant film study isn't anything new for Texas Longhorns players, especially for members of the 2012 and 2013 defensive units that gave up 4.62 yards per carry in 2012 and 4.35 yards per carry in 2013.

Last fall, the consensus from players during fall camp was that there had been a distinct lack of effort and trust defensively in 2012 and that everything was fixed after reviewing the previous season's breakdowns.

"When you turn on the tape from last year, you aren't happy about what you saw," said now-departed safety Adrian Phillips, who had been one of the primary culprits in the 2012 debacle defensively.

"You just really looked at yourself and really made it up in your mind that you don't want to be that type of player again. This year when you looked at the film during camp, you saw everyone flying to the ball. You saw people running full speed. You saw the backside corner trying to check down on the receiver just in case he broke. You weren't seeing that last year in the game film. It's a lot different."

It was a lot different until it wasn't. Even in the romp against New Mexico State there were issues in executing against the variations of the zone read and then everything fell apart in the season's second game against BYU, when the Cougars romped for 550 rushing yards, the most a Texas defense has ever given up in a single game.

The debacle cost defensive coordinator Manny Diaz his job and showcased the continued lack of trust, effort, and execution by the Horns.

By the end of the season, Texas had rebounded defensively to rank No. 35 in F/+, a remarkable accomplishment by Greg Robinson, the former Horns defensive coordinator who was brought in as a football analyst several months before by Mack Brown and took over the job from Diaz.

So while the players last fall suffered through tough film studies that put their own lack of trust and effort and execution on display, those areas were once again a point of emphasis for Strong following spring practice.

"What I did was, in the month of May ... I put together a tape of any player that lined up on defense last year from 10 to 25 plays, if you didn't play that much it was 10," Strong said on Sunday.

"So I met with them individually and we watched the tape, and I just said to them, one of my concerns is just us playing hard, and I said to them if this is who you are, I need to know right now so this is no shock to me when we start camp. I just put the tape on and let the tape run, I said, 'Is that you or someone wearing your number?' That can't be you. I let the tape run."

Rather than Strong merely haranguing the players, he let the film do the talking. For at least one defender, the session was not exactly pleasant.

"That was brutal," said senior safety Mykkele Thompson. "It was really brutal. It just makes me hungry, personally, to get better and be able to show what kind of player I believe I am to everybody."

Thompson has been a target of fans for years for his inconsistent play on the back end of the defense, the level at which mistakes turn into long touchdowns. Along with a notable lack of physicality at times, Thompson has also repeatedly taken poor angles to the football and generally gotten lost in space, as he did on the long touchdown catch by Quenton Bundrage of Iowa State that went for 97 yards.

On Monday, the former high school quarterback admitted that the transition he's had to make has been a tough one.

"It was hard for me my first couple of years, going from running away from contact to running towards contact," Thompson said. "There comes a point in your career where you just have to do what you're told, really, and do what it takes for the team."

And his film study with Strong is likely part of the impetus there.

Of course, the offensive players weren't immune from the constructive criticism either.

"I did it with the defensive players first, and then I did it with the offensive players," said Strong. "What I wanted to do was I wanted those guys to see that it was not acceptable what we were looking at. They can do much better and play much harder, so it is one of my concerns how hard we play. We are going to play hard, but we have to play at a level where it is just four to six seconds of just relentless effort, that is the only thing I am looking for."

In assessing Strong as a coach, that final phrase stands out. Effort is the only thing that he's looking for from his players. Even execution takes a back seat to almighty effort.

One example of what Strong was emphasizing with individual players was the film study that he conducted with junior quarterback David Ash.

"I put his tape together, and some of the things I have on his tape, he will get outside the pocket and take off with the ball and try to run over a defensive back or linebacker," Strong said on Sunday.

"He would hit them front up, I would say you're a quarterback, get down, just slide underneath the guy, I need you to play the next play. I don't need to see how tough you are, if you can outrun him, outrun him, but run out of bounds, or slide or something, just don't take the hit. Man, he took like three or four hits and I just stopped it and asked what he was trying to prove and he didn't have an answer for me."

On Monday, Ash recounted the film session with Strong, in which the head coach seemed to present the situation in the most impactful way for his tough-minded quarterback.

"He asked me what I was trying to prove, and I think you are pretty competitive out there," Ash said.

The quarterback then offered something of a defense about his decision making in the past with the ball in his hands before conceding his coach's point.

"Sometimes you are just trying to get that mojo going. But, there are other ways rather than taking hits like that. He just made it clear that is not what I have to do or how I have to play. I'm going to start being smarter, doing a little baseball practice with sliding, and getting out of bounds. I can't be taking those hits anymore."

As important as it is for Ash to avoid the type of hits that could result in a career-ending concussion, the management of his confidence is something that the previous staff didn't always succeed in doing.

Strong, however, seems to have already made an important step in putting Ash in a position to succeed by naming him the starter without any competition in fall camp, a decision that ensures the Belton product will receive the great majority of snaps with the first-team offense.

"It feels great, to have the confidence of your head coach is awesome," Ash said on Monday. "Playing in that situation frees you up, it makes you feel confident. It makes you want to play and take that next step for him. Him supporting me like that, I really appreciated it. It makes you want to go to work for him. I want to make sure I make him right and I take care of him. So, I really appreciate that."

As the Longhorns enter what Charlie Strong calls Phase Four of the season -- fall camp -- the emphasis shifts some from breaking players down to building them up again so they can perform at a high level when the games begin.

The declaration of Ash as the starter and the impact that has already had on the team's most important player is more early evidence that Strong isn't just a hard ass -- he's someone who genuinely cares about the players and understands what buttons to push.

What has become clear already with Strong is that he's pretty candid with the media about where he thinks his team is at any given point in time, so his words at Big 12 Media Days have merit.

"I just know this: Just from their attitude right now, I think that we're going to find us a different football team, just because of their attitude and just their work ethic and how hard they've worked," Strong said.

If all goes according to plan, the work ethic and hard work by the players will result in better effort on the field.

And with any luck, that will produce better results, as well, as Strong builds up the Texas players in his own image.